Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass

Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2013 collection for Louis Vuitton was unveiled at Paris Fashion Week earlier this month. Models descended escalators in pairs onto a yellow and white floor, tiled in the company’s trademark Damier check. The clothing camouflaged with this staging, and projected the same values: retro/nostalgia, luxury, excess, kitsch, cleanness of line, “minimalism”. Background and foreground, scenery and actor, became part of the same network. Playing over the speakers for the duration of the show was ‘Knee Play 5’, the final movement of Einstein on the Beach (1975-76) by Philip Glass. The runway show could well have been a radical new staging of the opera in this, the year of the composer’s 75th birthday.

Glass composed the music for Einstein to a series of storyboards by director Robert Wilson, and set texts by Samuel M Johnson, Lucinda Childs and Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet just seventeen at the time. It is non-narrative in tone, instead outlining a metaphorical “portrait” of Albert Einstein. The work is five hours long with no interval. Instead, the audience is permitted to enter and exit as they please. Glass himself claims never to have seen the whole work in one sitting.

It was premièred in July, 1976, at Avignon, before touring Europe. Back in New York, Glass hired the Metropolitan Opera House in downtime with private money and, despite playing to two sell-out audiences, ended up heavily in debt, doing odd jobs to reimburse his backers. Glass worked a plumbing job at the SoHo home of art critic Robert Hughes in the immediate aftermath of Einstein’s US debut: “My God, you’re Philip Glass…What are you doing here?” “I’m installing your dishwasher.” “But you’re an artist.” “I’m an artist, but sometimes I am a plumber as well.”

Wags would have it that Glass remains a plumber – plumbing the depths of bad taste – but I disagree. Einstein in particular is a masterpiece, despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious rootedness to time and place (see South Park for a satire of Glass’ New York urbanity and the hip, non-narrative forms of his “portrait operas”).

Einstein can be read as part of a process of “becoming” in a career distinguished by continuity and flux in equal measures, rather than discrete periods or phases. The centrality of the violin (Albert Einstein was himself an amateur violinist) also recalls Strung Out (1967-68), a radically minimalist work of Glass’ youth. The focus on rhythm, repetition, and amplified sound (all hallmarks of minimalist music) does not prevent a lyrical, melodic quality shining through. Comprised of  electric keyboards, woodwind (including saxophones), and wordless voices, the Philip Glass Ensemble plays music ranging from ominous, slow-motion drones, to fierce, propulsive arpeggios, but the group always moves as one: more direct and less contrapuntally layered than the music of Glass’ contemporary Steve Reich. Einstein on the Beach, like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians which emerged from the same cultural milieu, is a defining work of “minimalism”, but its ambitious scope and emotional range perhaps indicate the laziness of the term.

Below are clips (both audio and visual) from Einstein on the Beach, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Einstein becomes something else when separated from its visuals, but that “something” remains important in the context of Glass’s oeuvre, interesting in its own right.

Act 1

Knee Play 1: This emerges, rather than “starts”, two figures on stage reciting fragments of text. An organ soon joins. After just a minute (in this recording), a famous game of Numberwang begins in earnest.

Train 1: Rapid-fire number-chanting and a fierce synth/sax ostinato in additive meters. The tempo has picked up, but the rate of change remains impossibly slow. A cut-out steam train entering from the side of the stage visually represents this. My favourite Glass moment is at 6:30, when the harmony is violently tossed away from and back towards its centre.

Trial 1: In three parts. ‘Entrance’, ‘Mr Bojangles’, ‘All Men are Equal’. ‘Entrance’ is austere, sang as a court scene is set. In ‘Mr Bojangles’, an abstract Christopher Knowles text naming pop culture figures is recited over a violin figure (played on stage by “Einstein”), and a two-note male chorus motif. ‘All Men are Equal’ is a surreal feminist tale about a women’s meeting in Kalamazoo.

Knee Play 2: Violin feature for “Einstein”. Joined by two women speaking over each other. Striking phrases include “these are the days, my friends”, “we get some wind for the sail boat” and “it could be very fresh and clean”.

Act 2

Dance 1: Motorik organ, wordless vocals, ballet dancing.

Night Train: A lovers’ duet, with solfège and numbers for lyrics. The lovers aboard a train are at times part of the ensemble, at others soaring atop it.

Knee Play 3: A capella number-chanting. Starts furiously and grows more stately.

Act 3

Trial 2 (Prison): Another courtroom scene, again in three parts: ‘Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket’, ‘Ensemble’ (no clip above), ‘I Feel the Earth Move’.

After 1:55 of ‘Entrance’-reprising scene setting, a female voice enters with the most famous speech of the opera:

I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market / and there were all these aisles / and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy / that had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them. / They were red and yellow and blue. / I wasn’t tempted to buy one / but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.

Repeats incessantly, before a ferocious riff suddenly takes over (12:06) and carries on into the Ensemble section. ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ is hushed text over a plaintive saxophone melody and organ drone.

Dance 2: Oscillates between two meters. Violin, keyboard, wordless vocals, ballet dancers.

Knee Play 4: Ascending ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so’ from the male chorus, with ‘Einstein’ at the violin. Changes from furious to melancholic at 1:28. The violin introduces one of the most striking motifs of the entire work at 1:51; the melody is ornamented and performed rubato in total contrast to almost everything that surrounds it.

Act 4

(from 8:20) Building: A freely improvised sax solo, not present on any recording, but there more often than not in performance, dominates the scene. This, more than anything else, ensures Einstein remains divisive, even transgressive, despite much of its content and style otherwise being accepted and assimilated into the mainstream.

Bed: Aria for soprano voice and organ.

Spaceship: My favourite Glass motif explored for an entire movement. The piece explodes into life at 1:11 and the bass takes on a life of its own at 2:14. The unison cadenza at 4:31 is ridiculous and sounds like nothing else by Glass. The ensemble reenters at 8:32 and the bassline goes into hyperdrive at 10:43, interstellar space at 11:57.

Knee Play 5: The numbers from Knee 1 reprised, a violin feature at 3:57, and a slightly inane Samuel M Johnson text about two lovers on a park bench. This functions, as the narrator says, as 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.” Very possibly a joke after five hours of abstract (but highly affective) opera.

The two best recordings of Einstein are on Nonesuch (2012) and Sony (2012). Both are performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, under Michael Riesman. No audio-visual recording is available, nor ever will be unless Glass/Wilson drop their opposition.

Knowledge of the music of Glass’s contemporaries (Steve Reich), his predecessors (Terry Riley, La Monte Young), and his successors (the Bang on a Can collective, and Nico Muhly) can only add to an appreciation of Glass’s own work.

Artwork: ‘Les Deux Plateaux’/‘Les colonnes de Buren’, Daniel Buren

by Thom Hosken