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Trying to describe Einstein on the Beach is a little like attempting to explain away the impossible. It was premiered at the Festival d'Avignon in 1975. The opera is credited to both Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, though Wilson was himself responsible for the design of the opera.
Philip Glass, for the uninitiated, is one of the most successful classical composers of what is commonly termed minimalist music. Meaning that he embraces rhythm rather than composing via jarring stridulations or dissonant clashing noise without structure.
Einstein on the Beach is the first in Glass portrait trilogy of operas and was designed to be a continuing opera in which the audience could walk in and out. At a length of over four and half hours this is not surprising. Nevertheless, this version is shorter, closer to three and a half hours. There is in fact an earlier version of the opera, a direct translation of the original vinyl recording but this is different because, as Glass put it, originally, such was the scope and requirements of the opera, the Philip Glass Ensemble were required to also hire singers who could dance and dancers who could sing and thus the result was something of a mess, but no one noticed as simply no one had ever seen anything like it before. So it was his Ensemble re-recorded the opera, to include a little extra polish, as well as to add a little more length.
The opera is based in part on mathematical principles, hardly surprising considering the subject matter. Equally, Einstein being a great music lover, he is an obvious choice for the subject of an opera; also, being an iconoclastic opera, the choice is equally apt.
The plot of the opera is such that there is none. It is based around a number of Knees, which existed so that Wilson could move around the rather cumbersome and seemingly visually remarkable set. As with most of Glass work, the music is heavily repetitive, with gradually repeating patterns and he uses singing less to tell a story but as an instrument in its own right.
When I first played Einstein on the Beach to a friend their response was: lay down in a dark room. I can understand the idea. Somehow its a piece of music that you need to actively listen to, that must surround you, and fill you with its rhythms and ever cycling patterns. The first Knee, for instance, is slow and dark and the words are simple: "One two three four/one two three four five six/one two three four five six seven eight". The counting is that of the time signature of the music. Perhaps this seems pretentious but is it? Again, we have to think who Einstein was: of course he was mathematician and thus in that context it makes perfect sense. Also, as Glass is using vocals for effect rather than meaning the chant of the time signature is also effective just as it is in the Trains (just as there are Knees there are Trains and Trials) where the vocals are almost indistinguishable from the organ in their spiralling repetitions.
In many ways the opera is a contradiction. It travels from abstract minimalism to scenes where the lyrics are precise in their meaning, though sometimes why they are so precise is uncertain. Often there are references to say The Beatles, which is curious because on one level it makes sense: they are almost contemporary to the opera but also it doesnt, as Einstein died long before they formed. Nevertheless there is nothing less than continuity: in several of the Trial scenes there are, albeit nigh surreal, references to cultural characters such as Mr Bojangles (who was certainly contemporaneous with Einstein). Mr Bojangles thus appears towards the beginning and towards the end of the opera but as to why, is hard to say: such as the All Men are Equal Trial. Then again, consider it another way, the vocal content of the Trials can be seen as changes in time and attitude. Mr Bojangles is that form of entertainment which sits uncomfortably to a modern audience, with the white dancer black-faced and pretending their origins are in Harlem. All Men are Equal deals not with male equality but with gender equality and early feminism. The second set of Trials includes the wonderful Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket. Thus we can see times are changing: technology is evolving as are peoples attitudes and the places we go to and see. This does make a great deal of sense, especially when you consider that apart from the final Knee, which is itself a love scene, these are really the only scenes where there are lyrics that are clear. There are the occasional distinguishable words or meaning but here is the core of any meaning.
The sound of Einstein on the Beach cascades from the minimal to the extremely dense and it is in many ways the apotheosis of everything Glass has ever done. The opening is really very basic though encompasses many of his basic ideas: repetitions of themes and the merging of sound and voice. Then again, say, Dance 4 uses the same principles yet is almost the opposite end of the spectrum. The vocals are so fast and staccato, that imagining how the singers have time to breathe is impossible, they intone without surcease and hurried yet rhythmical violin and keyboards unpin their incredible effort. Apart from the violin they bear the same principle yet the former is slower and more elegant whilst the latter is impossibly fast in tempo. The sound of both is equally dense yet entirely different. Both are enthralling. But I think this is the lynchpin of all of Glass work. His work is such that it is either enthralling or boring depending on your tastes or point of view. I have a love of cycling, hypnotic music and his ever modulating rhythmical spiralling sound, where patterns expand and reform leave me wondrous and seem to have almost vertiginous depths. I find that in his music that I fall headlong into an almost spiritual experience as it so completely floods over me, cascading rhythms and escalating cyclical motions. It is both his weakness and his strength. Many prefer the work of Steve Reich, for instance, claiming it has greater depth but Glass, to my mind, is the stronger because he has kept true to an aesthetic such that you can consider a piece of his music as a whole or his oeuvre as a whole because Glass is concerned with repetition and cycles and patterns and the elucidation of these and you can argue he does so just as strongly across one single work, such as Einstein on the Beach, or across his entire body of work
But this is not to suggest that Glass is a one track composer, and that the entirety of his body of work or indeed Einstein on the Beach is simply an exercise in mental acuity. He is also capable of moments of extreme beauty (in both Einstein and as rule): the (I think a cappella) choral chant in the middle of the Knee 3 is magnificent and moving, somehow hope hopelessly redolent of Ancient Music and yet gloriously modern. It embodies another of his contradictions. Also, mirrored in this is his use of organ that again is truly modern and truly anachronistic. When quiet, such as midway through Knee 4, Glass begins a theme that he will then return to in the final Knee, which contains an achingly beautiful solo violin and distant, chanting vocals. Like his more layered elements in Einstein on the Beach, Knee 4 is glorious hypnotic though this Knee has an almost surreal beauty. When we reach Knee 5 and the end of the opera, the singer describes two lovers on a park bench touching under the moonlight and both tracks have the same dreamlike beauty and romanticism. Though again there is darkness: Knee 5 begins with dark organ such as is heard on his soundtrack for Koyaanisquatsi, and again it is as remarkable and darkly moving in Einstein on the Beach as it is on Koyaanisquatsi.
It is impossible to go through Einstein on the Beach moment by moment, not because of its length but because it is entirely an experience. From the first moment I have been smitten entirely by Einstein on the Beach. It is both gloriously dense and magnificently simple. Both mathematically correct and structured and dreamily romantic. You need to turn down the lights, place the CD into the tray and allow the music to wash over you (and hopefully you have a 3 CD change to annihilate the need to get up and change the disk). Something about Einstein on the Beach is entirely unique and uniquely able to get under your skin. His mixture of the archaic and the modern and his ability to create hypnotic cycles of sound will either cause raptures or complete non-plussed-ness. My first copy of Einstein on the Beach skipped slightly on the third disk, I warned a friend who listened to it and his response was: however would you know? But if you have ears to listen then you will know.
Einstein on the Beach is the kind of musical experience that you have to open yourself up to. You have to allow it to consume you and you to subsume your will to it. I for one would never part with my copy of it. Its helped shape my view of music, to open my eyes. I had enjoyed Glass work before Einstein on the Beach but listening to it made me realise just how wide the scope music has.
Unique, certainly. Beautiful, certainly. It may not be for everyone, but it contains everything that can be wonderful about modern classical music. It never attempts to be too abstruse or atonal, nor does it lose its soul in constructualism; it believes in emotional effect as much as it does how it came into being.
As you may have guessed I do love this CD, as I do Glass work, and it is one of his greatest, capturing much of the essence of his work, from his most sophisticated to his most elegantly refined and simplistic. As such it is worthy of the Einstein himself, and that is saying a lot.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
4 Mr Bojangles
5 All Men Are Equal
8 Night Train
10 Prematurely Air Conditioned Supermarket
12 I Feel The Earth Move