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Extended Analysis

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach

By Published: March 3, 2012
Philip Glass

Einstein on the Beach


2012 (1993)

Music has a tremendous ability to affect human emotions in a very inexplicable manner. It offers a way of communication rooted in emotions rather than in meaning. On the other hand, throughout the ages, music has never lacked controversy and has always been able to create a stir with heated debates, to polarize audiences or simply to provoke a reaction. Be it trumpeter Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
or singer Madonna, composer Beethoven or guitarist Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
1940 - 1993
guitar, electric
, singer David Bowie or saxophonist John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
sax, alto
, it has always been capable of provoking angered reactions. Probably one of the most heated debates in the past century was centered on a group of composers that were tagged as "Minimalists." From the very beginning through to the late '60sand/early '70s the music and its composers were chiefly ignored, attacked or denigrated by the current establishment.

If there were any doubts about the seriousness of minimalism and its composers, they were cast away with the 1976 production of Einstein on the Beach, the landmark minimalist opera co- created by composer Philip Glass
Philip Glass
Philip Glass
and visionary director Robert Wilson. For Glass, who had experienced moderate success with Music in Twelve Parts (Nonesuch, 1974), this opera was a radical departure both for him and the minimalist movement. Not only did it see Glass perfecting his distinctive idiom but it also launched this art form into the mainstream by depicting familiar, living characters on the opera stage for the first time. In celebration of Glass' 75th birthday, Nonesuch is re-releasing this epic work, coinciding with a tour that will see the first performances of this rarely performed opera for the first time in 20 years.

Prior to this opera, Glass had no major record deal, finding himself, therefore, in the world of music theater. In New York he met Wilson, a visionary who fused time, space and light and by using suggestions and strong imagery he filled theater stages with a meaning that was more appropriate to images and noise that were part of the late 20th century life. After the debut at France's Avignon Festival in 1976, the production toured Europe; the same year, the opera was successfully premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where it was met euphorically by the audiences. It instantly polarized the critics and music establishment, thus creating divisions between the uptown establishment of atonal composers and the downtown avant-garde.

The main action of Einstein on the Beach revolves around simple images of a bed, a train and a spaceship. The work possesses no narrative that one would find in traditional operas but rather the opera is the portrait of Einstein the man. The authors were aware that the audience knew the story of Einstein and they presented a group of images and symbols to which the people would project their own meaning. By its creators' own admission the audience completed the work. The role of Albert Einstein, who really played the violin in real life, was taken by a violinist dressed as the scientist.

The music blends mathematical clarity and precision, as a reference to Einstein's achievements, with intriguing and varying music. It showcases a circular process that evolves into a repeating cycle, with a wide range of tempos and dynamics that continuously delay resolution. It ran for five hours, with no intermission, structured into four interconnected acts divided by a series of short scenes or "knee plays." As such it really resembles an unbroken chain of musical wonders as the pulse quickens towards a beat of transcendence. While some parts are played at breakneck speed and dynamics, some of the passages have a haunting beauty. Composer Laurie Anderson has stated that it was the most successful collaboration of the avant-garde, and that the incredible speed of the music and the slowness of the images had created simultaneously unbearable and wonderful tension.

The influence that minimalism as a music movement had before or after the success of this opera is incalculable. The greatest contribution was providing an impetus to generations of contemporary composers and artists, regardless of the genre they worked in. As mentioned before, the opera was a great success. For Glass it was an end of a period rather than a new beginning, as he felt that was the end of his phase with minimalism. Naturally, for all of the composers that were part of this movement, as the style matured it created new goals to reach. That meant they had to surpass the economy of means and directness of expression that made their work so distinctive.

While the opera was a great artistic success and broke new ground that resulted in attracting new audiences, it was also a commercial failure. Philip Glass had to drive a taxi in order to earn money. While today Glass is almost a household name with an enormous and important body of work that consists of soundtracks, operas and symphonies he really had to work for to earn his reputation and status. Today, this opera is seen as one of the watershed moments of the 20th century. Einstein on the Beach is really not for everyone, but then, groundbreaking albums rarely are.

Tracks: CD1: Knee 1; Train 1; Trial 1: Entrance; Trial 1: "Mr . Bojangles"; Trial 1: "All Men Are Created Equal"; Knee 2. CD2: Dance 1; Night Train; Knee 3; Trial2/Prison: "Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket"; Trial2/Prison: Ensemble; Trial2/Prison: "I Feel the Earth Move." CD3: Dance 2; Knee 4; Building; Bed: Cadenza; Bed: Prelude; Bed: Aria; Spaceship; Knee 5.

Personnel: Jon Gibson: soprano saxophone; Philip Glass: organ; Iris Hiskey: voice; Richard Landrey: flute, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Richard Peck: flute, alto saxophone; Michael Riesman: organ, synthesizer bass, additional keyboards; Paul Zukovsky: violin; Marc Jakobi: voice; Mary Rice: voice; David Anchel: voice; Sean Barker: voice; Dora Ohrenstein: voice; Philip Gavin Smith: voice.

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