It was only in the early 1990s that I came to know the music of Philip Glass. I had heard his Violin Concerto on the radio and was immediately attracted to it, so at the first opportunity I went out and bought Music in 12 Parts after finding it noted with high praise in a CD guide that I had in the house. After a few minutes, however, I realized that what I was hearing, which had the effect on me of a broken record, was what I would be hearing for the next three hours and found myself thinking, “My God! what have I gotten myself into?”
This, I imagine, has been the experience of a great many of Glass’s admirers, not to mention his detractors. Nonetheless I forged ahead, and lo and behold! – the music began to draw me in, for it is mesmerizing and takes you out of yourself until you are riding along with it as on a train or a plane or a giant wave. Ultimately, then, the music is not assimilable like a literary text but must be entered into to be felt. Glass himself spoke of the composition as the culmination of the first phase of his musical career, what he begrudgingly agrees to be called the minimalist phase, in which he had created a new language, a kind of lexicon of motifs, harmonies and rhythms from which he could always draw. “I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I’d written through it and come out the other end.”
The masterpiece of the next period was Einstein on the Beach, which has been described often enough as being virtually indescribable. First staged in France in July 1976 (and a few months later at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House), it was revolutionary, breaking the mold of the traditional opera. There is no story and there are no real characters but singers, dancers and actors who recite random numbers, solfege syllables and mostly nonsensical texts, like this one:
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
which 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
Nonetheless there are images, motifs, symbols, and Einstein himself, that allow you to get your bearings. Einstein is the central figure. Glass has him playing the violin, though all the performers are dressed like him and are themselves Einstein too, in many dimensions, but more importantly, what is unfolding all around him, and them, is an Einsteinian universe, culminating in nuclear holocaust. This ties in with the social or political aspect of the opera. An Einsteinian universe, however, is also deterministic, when all is said and done, and there is an inevitability too in the repetitive structures of Glass’s music, though at the same time, set against it, there seems to me to be a human dimension in the opera that seeks to liberate itself from the rigid laws of this universe, paradoxically, by embracing them, by finding oneself in the eternal movement of things like the waves in the sea or the dancers in Lucinda Childs’ wonderful choreography, or, ultimately, in love, which is the note on which the opera ends.
Glass collaborated with Robert Wilson, who designed and directed the opera, and with Lucinda Childs, who did the choreography and would later work with Glass on Dance as well in the same free-flowing, repetitive style that is perfectly attuned to his music. Thirty-eight years later, they were still with him, all three of them accompanying the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Lucinda Childs Dance Company in its two-year revival tour, with Childs even reading some of the texts. I saw the January 7 performance live on France’s Mezzo TV from the Théâtre du Châtelet. (The tour is slated to end at the Berliner Festspiele in early March 2014.) It ran for something like four and a quarter hours. I’m sure the French audience knew what it was about to see but nonetheless the applause tended to be a little lukewarm compared with the almost hysterical enthusiasm with which the French, like the Russians, and unlike the Americans, greet anything that is perceived as Culture.
Glass and Wilson had decided to collaborate on a theatrical work based on a historical figure. Wilson wanted to use Charlie Chaplin, or even Hitler; Glass wanted Gandhi. In the end, they settled on Einstein, who had been one of Glass’s childhood heroes. Wilson produced a series of drawings – “a kind of visual libretto,” according to Glass – and then Glass set them to music and Wilson constructed the sets.
The opera has four acts and nine scenes, beginning with the motif of a 19th century train – model trains being loved by Einstein as a child and trains being used by him to illustrate his theory of relativity – and ending with the motif of a 20th century spaceship, with five “knee plays” bridging the four acts and serving as the prologue and epilogue, the knee being “a joint that links two similar elements,” as Wilson put it. The actors move almost robotically. The music is pure Glass, though in the midst of the repetitive structures, there is one surprise, and that is a thoroughly incongruous tenor saxophone solo that is pure John Coltrane, soaring into the heavens – Glass’s tribute to a major influence on his music.
Essentially, in the absence of a plot and characters, the opera consists of the music, the thematic stage sets, the stylized movement of the performers, and the rifflike or repetitive or whimsical texts. Yet it is a masterpiece, an almost philosophical vision of the universe and the human drama taking place inside it. I think, again, that ultimately it is about freedom. It might be said then that to be free is to embrace the harmony of the universe.
About the author:
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He has published stories in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, etc. as well as poetry in Free Verse, Oak Bend Reviewand Hacksaw. His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.