Glass: Einstein on the Beach

in this recording, by lots of people, for a long time

(The above video is just before the first scene from Act I, and is called Knee Play 1. I’ll discuss the knee plays and the form of the piece below, but it’s the first thing you hear. Below is one of my favorite scenes from the work, really the only one I’ll talk about in any detail as an example of this immensely interesting opera’s charms)

If you see one of those baggy pants… (part 2 here)

Please stick with me for this entire article, pleaseAnd if you ever, anytime in your life ever find yourself bored, this is the first thing you should turn to. It is here waiting to be discovered and marveled at.

An Opera?

The first actual opera to be featured on the blog not as a result of a live performance and review is, perhaps unsurprisingly, by this point, very unlike an opera in almost any sense of the word. But it is amazing.

I’ll lead with its undeniable eccentricities. In performance, it’s something like 5 hours long, and the composer readily admits that it has no plot and that he’s entirely fine with, and perhaps even expects to see, the audience leaving and coming back as they wish throughout the performance, although I feel as an audience member this would get annoying.

The libretto, or text of the opera, was mostly written by Christopher Knowles, an American poet and artist, who Wikipedia says “has received a diagnosis of possible brain damage. He is often referred to as autistic,” who was at the time of the work’s composition (not completion) only 13 years old.

A five-hour, plotless, minimalist opera, in which numbers and rhythms and apparently meaningless text are sung or chanted or narrated for five hours, with its pop culture references, and where a single violinist appears here and there playing the titular Einstein, without a beach to speak of… what really is going on with this work?

The Music

I can’t talk about it like I know everything there is to know about it, but last year, in August, I wrote about some of Philip Glass’s work for the first time: his two earliest string quartets, the first violin concerto, and the far more recent violin sonata. Those are works that sound like what people expect from Philip Glass if they recognize his name. He became popular from his film scores and the style of his symphonic writing, readily apparent in the small but utterly melancholy second string quartet. But they are not the works that brought him his initial fame and/or infamy.

He studied with Nadia Boulanger, the woman who basically taught everyone in music in the 20th century, and he speaks of Boulanger’s pedagogical approach with respect and appreciation, I think. But he says, as I recall, in an interview that she didn’t have any words upon hearing Einstein (it was premiered in 1976, a few years before she died) (or that he assumed she wouldn’t have anything to say about it if she’d heard it). This opera ended up being part of a trilogy of works called the Portrait Trilogy, featuring humans whose lives, ideas, beliefs peacefully changed the world: the first was Einstein, in the field of science; the opera Satyagraha about Gandhi in 1979, in politics; the third was Akhnaten, about the pharaoh Akhenaten, in 1983, in religion.

In any case, it was Music in Twelve Parts and Einstein on the Beach that first cemented Glass as a (very famous) minimalist composer. Indeed, the work does not make use of anything resembling a standard orchestra that would occupy a pit. I quote this entire paragraph from Wikipedia, references included:

The opera requires a cast of two female, one male, and one male child in speaking roles (for the Wilson production); a 16-person SATB chamber chorus with an outstanding soprano soloist and a smaller tenor solo part; three reed players: flute (doubling piccolo and bass clarinet), soprano saxophone (doubling flute), tenor saxophone (doubling alto saxophone); solo violin, and two synthesizers/electronic organs.[5] The orchestration was originally tailored to the five members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, plus the solo violin.

And that’s it. No big section of strings with brass and percussion, none of the rest of that.

The work is cast in four acts, beginning with a prologue and the first of five knee plays. These are very literally ‘joints’ between the acts, coming at the very beginning and end of the work, and between each of the acts. They’re often shorter in duration and connect or use related material from the rest of the work.

Another interesting note on the text, about the rhythms or solfege (do, re, mi, etc.) syllables being read by the chorus is that they were originally placeholders for a later libretto during rehearsals while they were still pinning down some of the text. It was either Robert Wilson, stage director for the work, who worked closely with Glass on its composition, or Glass himself, who ultimately made the decision to keep these place-holder syllables because they seemed to fit with the overall feel, so they stuck. How cool.

So… what is it about something so honestly ridiculous sounding that is so compelling? Well, for one, it was a controversial, groundbreaking thing when it first premiered, and the composer himself says the work was so long that the first time the public heard the work from beginning to end was also the first time he and the performers did; they’d never rehearsed it in full before premiere night. Wow.

But aside from being controversial and new and seeming to have nothing that should merit it being called an opera, what’s the interest? Well, despite not having a plot, which might seem like a somewhat radical or sensationalist way to describe the work, it represents Einstein by ideas in his life, concepts, images, ideas, etc. At this point I’ll have to admit that I haven’t yet been fortunate enough to see a live performance of this work, or even a recorded one, except in snippets, so I am very much missing the visual element of the presentation, but let’s talk about what’s so captivating about this work, shall we?

The Feels

I’m a pretty anxious person, but you might not know it if you don’t know me very well. I’m not anxious in the sense that I’m uneasy and paranoid and jumpy and nervous, per se, but I’m not very patient, always have a lot on my mind, and kind of finicky about making sure things are done in the right way, order, whatever, a kind of OCPD anxious. Anyway, if you can relate to that at all, you’ll be able to identify with the sense of relief or relaxation of getting on a plane or a train. In a taxi or on a bus, there is still a sense of awareness required to make sure the driver goes the right way, or that you don’t miss your stop, if on a bus. But on a train or a flight, there is virtually nothing you can or should do to influence the ride; there’s nowhere to goso just relax and enjoy. And I’d say the exact same thing of this work.

That inner feeling of letting go, of the mental version of that kind of looseness and relaxation you feel after getting a good massage is exactly what I feel it’s like to listen to this work. I should have said earlier that the recording is only about three and a half hours. Others are (or rather, the only other one is) even shorter, but we’re still talking a ton of music.

I’ve talked before about how opera is, for me, a bit impenetrable in the way I listen to music. I’m often doing something else, something just stimulating enough to keep me listening intently but not so engaging that I can’t focus: ironing clothes, sketching, washing dishes, jigsaw puzzles, Angry Birds… I can’t follow along in German and English on a libretto somewhere while I’m listening. But here… there’s none of that pressure, and it’s in English.

There’s also a sense of comfort, of enormousness and awesome scope, of sitting down and beginning the prologue of what is to be three and a half hours of music. It truly is a journey. But what kind of journey?

Well, because long stretches of this work are repetitive and can seem monotonous, there’s an initial kind of soothing, almost hypnotic repetition to it, but that’s only the coldest, most distant layer of enjoyment. A secondary result of this is that when something, like an interval, or a rhythm, or the direction of a figure, does change, it seems nothing short of monumental! There are passages that some lovers of Glass’s film music may enjoy, where there are alternating bars of 2 or 3 rhythms, mixed meter, but usually from synthesizers here, not strings, and this underlying, undulating pulse shifts under the outer layer of melody, the skin of the work, so that actually, if you’re paying attention, like by counting or tapping, things are always shifting and changing, like a brilliant, vivid kaleidoscope of pitches and rhythms. But that’s exactly what music is! Duration. Pitch. Intervals. Rhythm. And in what might seem like a monotonous, droning, even lunatic work is exploring these basic musical functions in outstanding, shimmering breathtaking depth.

Let’s take for example the Mr. Bojangles scene included above. In the recording that I’m referencing, this scene is about 16 minutes. There’s a chorus that sings two notes ah-ah throughout most of the piece, and a melody played by a synthesizer or organ. The synth begins a melody in unison with Einstein, the solo violin. Quickly thereafter, the chorus begins their two-note chant, like the heartbeat of the work. Our narrator clears her voice and begins the recitation of Knowles’ compelling, odd, but fascinating poetry, and with the exception of a few more narrator-free passages and some violin work, that’s it. But what’s really happening here?

The Details

I don’t have a copy of the score, so I don’t know what the time signature is, but it appears the first few bars are in beats of 7 (synth/violin play a seven-note ostinato). Each ah is three beats, followed by a one-beat rest before the next ahah pair, for a total of seven beats. But if you can ignore the narrator for a bit and count out the rhythms of the chorus, it’s not long before they go from 3-3-1 to 3-3-2, in fact at about 0:23 or so, the rest at the end lengthening by a single beat. You’ll soon notice the first ah is five beats long, and throughout the work, all these elements are slowly expanding and contracting. If you have a hard time counting the beats and noticing each lengthening or contracting, then do this. Have a listen to about 30 seconds or so of the beginning of the work, linked here for convenience, and then jump ahead a while, to somewhere further on, like here, not even two minutes in, and then back to the beginning. The contrast is distinct. This kind of interlocking, ever-changing intricacy is fascinating and kind of spellbinding, and I feel as if I’m being swept away, intoxicated not by any beautiful individual melody, but by every twitch and flick and beat and pulse of the music as a whole, like a living, breathing entity.

That’s to say nothing of the text overlaid onto the work, which is also very interesting. I’ve gotten used to the narrators in this work, who I feel present the text in extremely interesting, clear, but passionate, dramatic narrations. Another act where rhythm plays an important role under a repeated text is in the first scene of Act III, Trial, Prison, “Prematurely Air Conditioned Supermarket”. An excerpt of it is below:

The “I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket…” text is repeated, as I recall, 43 times over the reading of numbers and rhythms by the chorus. Remember what I said about 1500 words ago about having nowhere to go and just relaxing and enjoying? Learn to relax, and not be so preoccupied with the piece going somewhere or needing to mean something. What you’ll find, after maybe a few passes at this work (which is admittedly a large undertaking… even two listens is pushing 7 hours) is that suddenly there is not only the small-scale delight and interest of shifting rhythms and intervals and durations, but some kind of overarching, enormous, encompassing unity to this sprawling monstrosity of a work, and after a few of those listens, if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself listening to Knee 5, after more than three hours of brilliant music, listening to a beautiful piece of poetry being recited, knowing you’ve reached the end, and inexplicably holding back tears. It’s moving and addicting.

Coda

I’ll admit this is a wildly unique work, and not one that everyone will have the patience for, to be familiar enough with its ebbs and flows and its heartbeats and shifts and chants to come to love it, but if you’re even the slightest bit curious about it, take a listen to the first four knee plays. Leave the fifth for when you’re ready to enjoy the entire work together; no spoilers! Take knee plays 1-4, or pick out Mr. Bojangles, or Prematurely Air Conditioned Supermarket, or I Feel the Earth Move, one of those pop culture references I mentioned earlier, and work your way through the piece. In Act IV, there are even scenes labeled ‘cadenza’ and ‘prelude’ and ‘aria’ but also ‘spaceship,’ all but the latter suggesting a much more traditional form of music.

All in all, whether it’s an opera, a ballet, a stage play, or just music in your headphones as you’re doing whatever you’re doing, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is an almost frustratingly-compelling beautiful journey of a work, like getting to know and love a person who you initially thought was honestly quite weird. Those quirks and idiosyncrasies are still there, but you know them, you appreciate the context and their value, and it says something of Glass’s genius (or vision or ahead-of-his-time-ness) that a piece like this can be composed and revered as it is, even by the smallest of audiences. It is a gem, and an experience to be had. Please go listen. Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “Glass: Einstein on the Beach

  1. This post really made me laugh! It sounds a bit like pleading a cause lost from the outset. I doubt I will have the patience to listen tob5-hour-long so-called opera as I struggle already with Wagner, but you sparked my curiosity and I will read up on it.

    1. Believe me, I was skeptical at first too, and maybe you just kind of get hypnotized into loving it, but even after the first few (relatively distracted) listens, it begins to reveal its treasures in a special way. And! The recoding (or this one at least) is only a little over three hours. I’d be curious to know what you think.

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