Einstein On The Beach Goes West

On October 15, 2012 by Will Hermes

Einstein On The Beach will be performed on the West Coast for the first time ever next week, at UC Berkeley, for three nights, Fri-Sun Oct. 26-28.

I saw the current version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month. It was even more gorgeous than I remembered from the 1984 revival: the singing richer, the dancing more intense, the lighting and staging more vivid. It seemed faster-paced, too—although for a 4-hr-plus show with no intermission, that’s a relative statement. I believe there were more extended dark-stage, scene-change moments, perhaps to allow people to slip out into the lobby for a breather. Many did—more so than I recall from the performance I saw 28 years ago. I suspect this audience was less stoned than that one. Then again, the guy next to me was often giggling uncontrollably.

All I can say is that when it ended, I was both elated and sad. The performance and the suspension of time were so delicious, I could have done with another hour or two.

The Berkeley performances are sold out. But if you’re in the area, I’d recommend calling the box office, or standing outside Zellerbach pre-show with your finger raised, like the kids used to do at Dead concerts.

Here’s an excerpt about the creation of the work from Love Goes To Buildings On Fire. I’ll post a longer section next week, about the 1976 US premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC.

Art and culture are invented. We make them up. Otherwise, they don’t exist. – Philip Glass

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson were rehearsing Einstein On The Beach five or six days a week, from 10 AM into the night, in Wilson’s studio at 147 Spring Street. After about a year of work, Glass had finished the music in November. The primary parts had been cast – including, very fortunately, Judson Group dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs – and they held an open audition for the remaining singer/dancers that month. Over 100 people showed up: some of them pros, some amateurs, some kooks. Glass and Wilson chose a dozen singers for the chorus, and also found their Einstein: Samuel M. Johnson, a semi-retired theater actor in his seventies who lived in Brooklyn and spent part of every day teaching himself piano.

In rehearsals, Johnson contributed two of the central texts in Einstein. One was the Bus Driver’s story that ends the work:

Two lovers sat on a park bench, with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight. There was silence between them. So profound was their love for each other, they needed no words to express it. And so they sat in silence, on a park bench, with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight…

The two lovers, Childs and longtime Wilson collaborator Sheryl Sutton, indeed sit on a bench, with a bus moving in exquisitely slow motion towards them. The music rises, thickens, and after four-plus hours, finally ends.

## #

No established U.S. theater or opera company would produce Einstein—Wilson and Glass were unknowns to opera audiences—so they planned to produce it themselves. A visit from French Minister of Culture Michel Guy, a former arts producer familiar with both men’s work, led him to commission the premiere of Einstein at the Avignon Festival in August, and then for a two-week run at the Autumn Festival in Paris. A commission from the Venice Biennale followed. So the men basically had to create a touring opera production from scratch, which they did over the course of eight months in the Spring Street loft. Logistics were left to the administration staff of Wilson’s experimental performance company, The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, which sometimes resembled a religious cult as much as an arts organization. But the staff rose to the occasion.

Einstein was full of riveting images: a train, a rectangular spaceship, an illuminated light-bed which rises up through the air. What did it all mean? Who knew? “Fundamental to our approach,” wrote Glass, “was the assumption that the audience itself completed the work. The statement is no mere metaphor; we meant it quite literally.”

Glass had first played this sort of highbrow aesthetic shell-game when scoring Samuel Beckett’s Play in 1965. Play was his first experiment with reductive/repetitive composing strategies, set against a narrative whose emotional center seemed to shift with every performance. Coincidentally, Glass’ wife, the director JoAnne Akalaitis, was directing Beckett’s Cascando for the Mabou Mines company at the Public Theater that Spring. Glass wrote the score: a cello piece that would be played by Arthur Russell, a new friend of the couple’s. Beckett-style obliquity was in the city air.

Aside from the spoken word pieces written mainly by Johnson and Christopher Knowles—a teenage poet/performer with a neurological disorder who Wilson met through his work with disabled students—the sung text of Einstein consisted solely of recited numbers and solfegé syllables (do, re, mi). Introduced initially to aid the singers in memorizing the music, with lyrical text to come later, they became the sung text. At first they sound hilarious. But there’s an incredible power in the repetition of these building blocks of rhythm and melody, as they set up the work’s participatory tabula rasa. The text and staging resist interpretation, like much of Wilson’s work. But primarily the nearly five-hour performance is about temporal distortion, like Einstein’s notions of spacetime, and listening to the tidal surge of Glass’ organ arpeggios and the choral invocations is to feel alternately suspended outside time and swept up in its rush.

As it turned out, Einstein’s most indelible music involved the incantations of “one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,” which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGBs, counted off every song with “one-two-three-four!” Glass was hip to rock music. He’d seen the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East and decided to embrace loudness in his music. Einstein would be loud; soundman Kurt Munkasci would see to that.

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