EINSTEIN CHANGED EVERYTHING
/Bernard Holland, excerpted from Something I Heard, Lisa Hagan Books, 2016
“EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH” changed my life. Everything I thought musical theater was abruptly wasn’t. St. Paul had his road to Damascus; mine was the Brooklyn-bound No. 4 train to Atlantic Avenue.
Philip Glass and Robert Wilson first brought “Einstein” to the surface in 1976 after exploratory trials in Europe with two performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. It reappeared in 1984 and 1992 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The first revival was my introduction. The second revival left me just as disoriented as the first.”Einstein,” or a lot of it, returns in a concert version at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble. There have been two audio recordings that I know of, the one on Nonesuch, from 1993, perhaps better than the one on Sony Classical, from 1985.
He should, before its remarkable group of players, singers, stage directors
and set designers shuffle too far into old age.
For accounting purposes, “Einstein on the Beach” can be described asa series of stage pictures, dances and narrations lasting about five hours and set to music by a dozen or more chorus singers, a violinist (the Einstein of the title), more singers and a few woodwinds and electronic keyboards.”
Einstein” begins with a train and ends with a bus. In between are a courtroom, a jail, a glowing monolith moving in signature Wilsonian slow motion, a trip to the supermarket, lovers exchanging gooey vows on a park bench and much, much more. Einstein in a snowy fright wig and suspenders sits downstage and saws furiously on his violin through much of the evening. The chorus intermittently appears and disappears from sight.
People smarter than I have expended a lot of brain power trying to figure out what “Einstein on the Beach” means. I don’t think it means anything. It is majestically two-dimensional. Its references to the atomic age, criminal justice, true love, air-conditioning and Patty Hearst are merely art materials, like red paint or blue. Those who want to link it to our inner beings or to outer space are welcome to try.
To best say what “Einstein on the Beach” is, consider first what it isn’t. Forget Aristotle, tragedy, unified time and place, beginning, middle and end, and all other cultural baggage. Something happens onstage; then Mr. Glass and Mr. Wilson change the subject. They do it without warning: no coda, no slowing down, no stretto, no summing up.
The music stops as if you were pushing a button on your radio. It starts again the same way. Charles Ives gave us a preview of no-ending endings about 1920, with “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” The orchestral version floats along in a kind of misty indeterminacy and then, with a downward half-step in the violas, simply disappears.
Expect no overture from “Einstein,” nothing to put listeners in their seats and prepare them for what is going to happen. This is not Verdi; there will be no first-act finale to send audiences humming to the lobby bar. Indeed, there is no intermission. If you are bored or in need of the necessary, Mr. Glass and Mr. Wilson invite you to create your own private intermission. Take your time getting back to your seat. You probably won’t have missed a thing.
That is because “Einstein” likes to repeat itself. My fondest recollection of both revivals remains the delicious Lucinda Childs and her tape-loop- like recitation of a trip to “a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket.” With Ms. Childs’s every sing-song repetition, the allure of “bathing caps with Fourth of July plumes on them” is more hypnotic.
“Einstein on the Beach” is also different for musicians and tends to terrorize the unsuspecting and conservatory-trained who are asked to play it. One can be the best counter of rests and the master of tricky entrances in the orchestra, but those skills will have been mastered in European music based on change and development.
In Mr. Glass, so little happens so many times, with so many small additions and subtractions in line and rhythm, that sameness — or the illusion of sameness — becomes a series of traps.
What’s needed is a new performance technique, indeed a rewired brain. Classically trained musicians tell of complete mental exhaustion after dealing with this music. Not even the best symphony orchestras do it well. There is the tale of the principal double-bass player in an eminent Midwestern orchestra so confused by the demands of a Glass piece that one of the composer’s operatives had to stand behind him at performances and give verbal cues.
A friend of mine came upon Mr. Glass after a rehearsal during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., years ago. “How are they doing with your piece?” he asked.
Mr. Glass answered, “Are you kidding?” and walked away.
Like his colleague Steve Reich, Mr. Glass has relied on a core of New York professionals: instrumentalists and singers with one foot in the Juilliard School and the other in rock music. Michael Riesman has always led the Philip Glass Ensemble and continues to do so. Rock thrives on sameness, intractable repetitions and the patience to deal with both. A certain empty-headedness comes into play, but an exalted empty-headedness, actually a form of high intelligence.
One theory of education says that learning is not accumulating information but discarding what your mind doesn’t need. Musical people like me are too cluttered. I sweat when the music goes from 6/8 to 3/4 time and can only wonder at the ability of these players to do
Mr. Glass found his style of composing as a student in Europe, when asked to transcribe a performance by the Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar in a film. “In Western music,” Mr. Glass has written, “we divide time — as if you were to take a length of time and slice it the way you slice a loaf of bread. In Indian music (and all the non-Western music with which I’m familiar), you take small units, or ‘beats,’ and string them together to make up larger time values.”
Mr. Glass’s going-nowhere-fast school of music synchronizes with the glacial going-somewhere-slowly visual art of Robert Wilson. In “Einstein,” the pace of physical movement acts in inverse proportion to the onlooker’s feeling of space: the slower the bigger.
We are all products of our hometowns, and one can imagine Mr. Wilson, who is from Waco, Tex., looking out over the vastness of the cattle range and seeing a lot of the same thing moving little, if at all. Maybe the reason Texans seem so much more vivid than the rest of us is that they need personalities strong enough to wrestle to the ground those hard gray-blue skies and seemingly endless stretches of land, devoid of contour and drained of color.
“Einstein on the Beach” is the ideal entertainment for people smart enough not to think too much. Relevance, allusion, historical significance, metaphor, symbol and myth may make the inquiring mind go round, but too much meaning can also clog the arteries.
Let “Einstein on the Beach” be your Lipitor. Look at it (if you have the chance) and listen to it. “Einstein” may well be speaking volumes to your subconscious without your knowing. Ask your subconscious if you must, but it will probably tell you to mind your own business.
Tap here for an excerpt of the Einstein on the Beach
To order Bernard Holland’s SOMETHING I HEARD for essays on the good, the bad and the ugly in the 20th century’s classical music scene from Shostakovich’s epic struggle with the Soviets to Yo-Yo Ma’s difficulty in traveling with a very pricey cello.
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