Monday, March 24, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 4 of 8): Einstein on the Beach

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 3 - The Move Back to New York

Philip Glass first met Robert Wilson in 1973 at an after-party following a performance of Wilson's The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin...
My first reaction to Bob's work—in the case of Stalin, an unending meditation in movement and images...—was immediate.  I loved it.  I understood then, as I feel I have ever since, his sense of theatrical time, space and movement.  These were the essentials of Bob's work as I saw them then.  His extraordinary use of light developed as a major ingredient over the next twelve years.
Although Glass doesn't remember the details of this encounter, it resulted in a series of meetings in 1974 between him and Wilson.  Every Thursday for lunch, they would get together in New York City and discuss collaborating.  As the meetings progressed, they knew they wanted to base their work around a historical figure.  Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler, and Mahatma Gandhi were among the ideas that came up, but once Wilson suggested Albert Einstein, everything "immediately clicked":
As a child, Einstein had been one of my [Glass'] heroes.  Growing up just after World War II, as I had, it was impossible not to know who he was.  The emphatic, if catastrophic, beginning of the nuclear age had made atomic energy the most widely discussed issue of the day, and the gentle, almost saintlike originator of the theory of relativity had achieved the 1940s version of superstar status. 
Throughout this process, the poet Christopher Knowles was gradually introduced.  Christopher, at the age of fourteen, would be the foundation of much of the texts within Einstein.  Wilson had worked with Knowles previously, and had been struck by his originality.  Knowles had a neurological impairment that resulted in him seeing the world in "different, out-of-the-ordinary ways."

Lastly, Lucinda Childs would be introduced as the lead choreographer.  With Einstein not having a storyline, and instead revolving around the dancers on the stage, her job was an important one.  The opera featured lengthy dance settings that, much like Glass' music, slowly evolved over time.

As stated earlier, Einstein on the Beach has no storyline.  Instead, there are key scenes that are surrounded by "Knee Plays," or interludes.  These scenes have striking imagery, while also involving a small number of actual items on the stage.  For instance, the first "Train Scene" involves a train that slowly makes its way across the stage, a bar of light that slowly descends from the ceiling, and a mostly stationary metal plank where a boy occasionally turns a lit-up cube.

If this all sounds very ambiguous, then you aren't alone.  As Glass has stated, this was the whole point of the production:
In a sense, we didn't need to tell an Einstein story because everyone who eventually saw our Einstein brought their own story with them... The point about Einstein was clearly not what it "meant" but that it was meaningful as generally experienced by the people who saw it.
However, they had little chance of getting the monumental 4+ hour production performed in a theatre within the United States.  Robert Wilson approached the Metropolitan Opera and the National Endowment for the Arts, and both said that Einstein wasn't meant for a "conventional theatre."

Instead, they were approached by Michel Guy, the Minister of Culture for France at the time, to have the premiere at the Avignon Festival.  Afterward, there would be a two-week run at the Autumn Festival in Paris.  On top of this, the French government would pay for these productions.

Einstein became a major success throughout Europe, touring not only in Paris, but also Hamburg, Venice, and other major cities.  "Word had gone out that something unusual had taken place."  Eventually, the success of the opera led to the Metropolitan Opera agreeing to have the work staged back in America.  Robert Wilson fondly remembers being approached by Jane Hermann, who was in charge of special events at the Met:
She said, "well, maybe as a special event we could bring it to the Met."  But they wanted me, Robert Wilson/Byrd Hoffman Foundation [Wilson's organization] to produce it on their day off.  They would allow me to rent the house on a Sunday, with triple time wages!?  I was bankrupt, I had no money.  I said, "let's go for it."
In the end, the risk was worth it.  The Met was sold out for its performance on November 21st, 1976, and "by popular demand," another sold out performance was scheduled for the following Sunday.

What the audience saw and heard was unlike anything that had been performed at the Met before.  The music started while the audience members filed into the theatre.  The sound of the organ rang deep in the hall, as the notes "A - G - C" slowly repeated themselves.  Over time, the music sped up, and once the chorus positioned themselves in the orchestra pit, they started singing number patterns while Lucinda Childs and Sheryl S. Sutton recited:
It could be a balloon.  It could be Franky.  It could be very fresh and clean.
All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends. 
This continued on and on, often involving fast-paced and rhythmically intricate patterns while chords floated by.  One spectator recalled the "grip" the music had on the audience:
There were no intermissions.  The work continued relentlessly in its grip on all of us in that packed house.  Suddenly, at a point some four hours into the opera there occurred a completely unexpected harmonic and rhythmic modulation, coupled with a huge jump in the decibel level.  People in the audience began to scream with delight and I remember well that my body was covered in goose bumps.
As the production reached its conclusion, sealing the fate of all those who were involved, Samuel M. Johnson spoke the final lines of the opera:
The day with its cares and perplexities is ended, and the night is now upon us.  The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm.  We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.
And what sort of story shall we hear?  Ah, it will be a familiar story, a story that is so very, very old, and yet it is so new.  It is the old, old story of love.
Two lovers sat on a park bench, with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight...
Part 5 - Completing the Portrait Trilogy

1 comment:

  1. This work would make a very good book. Love every word of this very detailed work, which gives me great insight into Glass. Thank you and keep it coming.