Einstein on the Beach

Listening to a Phillip Glass piece is more  like studying a stained glass window than listening to music in the conventional sense  – a passing glance would only tell part of the story, while the full picture is revealed by standing in deep meditation of its nuances.  Originally purchased tickets for last night’s Zellerbach performance of Einstein on the Beach back in June, but didn’t realize until a few days ago that I had signed us up for a 4.5-hour performance (“not including opening tones”). Even though I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for Glass, and had always been curious to see Robert Wilson’s legendary 1975 “Opera in four parts,” started to worry I had signed us up for  4+ hours of “difficult listening hour.” It’s not that Glass’ music is “difficult” per se’, but that he works in such large arcs, often pushing the limits of what audiences are willing to sit through. That doesn’t mean his work isn’t gorgeous – it is – but that we have to reorient our expectations of how long a composition should last, how willing we are to slow the hell down and become absorbed in a slow progression of subtly shifting notes and chords.

The “opera” (Glass says he only considers it an opera when it’s performed in an opera house … otherwise, “it is what it is”) is a meditation on science and society, gender roles, habits, patterns of living, all slowly unfolding as semi-opaque vignettes. The scene pictured above, for example, took twenty minutes to unpack. It is not just frozen because it’s a photograph – it’s frozen by composition. Starting as an impeccably painted factory building with a sole figure in the top window, characters (stereotypes) slowly enter and freeze into position. So little happens, it was almost painful to watch (though gorgeous to hear). But the funny thing about these “knee plays” is that every time you feel like your patience has been stretched to its limit, you realize that you’re  totally fascinated. Small details become important.

In another scene, a 30-foot-long bar of pure white light lays horizontally on the stage in the dark. As the music builds, one end of it slowly lifts up, moving so slowly it’s barely perceptible. A line is becoming an angle – that’s all – and over the course of 10 minutes, the bar finally reaches its vertical zenith. “Good,” you think, “Let’s move on.” Then the now-vertical bar starts to rise, and you realize it’s going to take another 10 minutes for it to ascend up behind the curtains. Part of you is asking “Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be kidding me.” while another part of you is totally absorbed in the movement of the simple light, thinking “So this is what the passage of time feels like.” You just have to let go of your rock and roll expectations and allow yourself to be swept into the pace of Glass – there is no other way.

Wilson’s stage production is austere, lightly symbolic, and sometimes funny, while the patience and endurance of the performers is stunning. It was the job of one dancer to “read” through much of the evening. Wearing  gray slacks, suspenders, and a white Oxford, she held a stiff book full of blank pages. Her head shook rapidly from side to side, vibrating  like a bobble-head doll, as if stuck in a permanent speed-reading trance. But reading what? That’s not important. It’s like she was the abstract, Platonic form of a reader, reading the abstract, Platonic form of a book. Nothing more, nothing less. How she maintained that head-wobbling for so long is beyond me – our necks ached in sympathy.

The performance peaks  in a crescendo of light and movement dedicated to the atomic age (the Einstein connection). A scaffolding rig recreates the Hollywood Squares of performance art, with dancers gesticulating mathematically at dancing light displays, some squares  shared with musicians. Lucite boxes containing floating, writhing humans traverse slowly from side to side. The victim of a nuclear blast dances with flashlights in the foreground. Two people crawl out of plastic domes, then slowly “duck and cover” to shield themselves from an atomic blast. An immense, gauzy scrim is lowered in front of it all – a massive enlargement of a 1950s explainer diagram on the mechanics of atomic detonation.

All the while, a violinist in an Einstein costume sites in a lonely chair in front of the stage, above the orchestra pit, playing his heart out just for you.

4.5 hours later we wandered outside into a warm October Berkeley evening, wondering where the time had gone.

Listening experience flow chart by Amy Kubes:  Life Cycle of a Phillip Glass Piece 


About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at last.fm

5 thoughts on “Einstein on the Beach

  1. Is this the one where they song nonsense syllables for so long that yor mind starts to hallucinte hearing words?

    Great coverage. I love Ms. Kubes’ chart!

  2. xian – Yes, that’s the one. Lots of mellifluous nonsense syllables. But Glass got nothing on Tristan Tzara. Tuff-M, i Zimbra!

  3. ah, the violinist was a woman! At the morning lecture, Wilson and Glass suggested that the audience must complete the work, because of so much ambiguity (and no beach!). They also said specifically that lots of bloggers would go home and immediately post mini-reviews, but that fully understanding the experience would happen only after a week or two of absorption.

  4. Hugh, sounds like the lecture was really worth hearing. Funny that they predicted the mini-reviews on blogs. And yes, they were right that I’ll still be absorbing for a while to come.

    You’re right that the violinist was a woman – I waffled on whether to refer to the gender of the actor/player or of Einstein in that sentence…

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