NEW YORK — Considering that “Einstein on the Beach” is routinely described as both a masterpiece and one of the most significant operas of the second half of the 20th century, it’s startling to realize just how rarely it gets performed — even allowing for the difficulties and expense of staging the piece.
A co-creation of the innovative composer Philip Glass and visionary director Robert Wilson, the opera premiered in Europe in summer 1976, before exploding into American consciousness with two instantly legendary sold-out performances in November in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, rented by the creators. There was a 1984 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a broader tour in 1992.
But now Glass and Wilson, both in their 70s, are returning to the work for what is likely to be their last crack at it together, reconstructing the original production of “Einstein” for a world tour of seven cities starting this weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich. These performances, the first in 20 years and the first in America outside of New York and environs, are billed as previews, a chance to work out final kinks. Glass isn’t exactly sure how audiences will respond, but he has an inkling.
“When people hear ‘Einstein’ who have never heard it, they say to me, ‘Oh my god!’ because there’s nothing that sounds like that,” he says. “But here’s the interesting thing: For me, ‘Einstein’ was the end of a period, not the beginning.”
On the cusp of 75, Glass is the only living classical composer with anything approaching a household name in America. A seminal minimalist, he pioneered a radically distilled language of rippling arpeggios and scales, pulsating rhythm, repetition and glacial harmony. Non-narrative in form and 4 1/2 hours long, “Einstein on the Beach” marries Glass’ ethereal score with Wilson’s surreal imagery to create a poetic meditation on Einstein.
For Glass it completed a decade of experiments with process, repetition and additive forms (12, 123, 1234, 432, etc.). The music is hypnotic, easy to understand, meticulously organized and deeply groove- oriented. Like Glass’ early work, it is more about process than marching toward a goal. Shifts in texture, rhythm or harmony carry the force of revelation, what critic Alex Ross once called the “Ah! Effect.”
Glass earned his audience. When he was ignored by the establishment, he founded his own amplified ensemble in 1968, barnstorming relentlessly and attracting an ever-growing mass of fans, many weaned on rock. (Glass still plays dozens of concerts a year as a keyboardist with the ensemble.) He has written a staggering amount of music, including 25 operas, nine symphonies and nearly 50 film scores, including “The Hours” and “Kundun.”
Glass’ post-“Einstein” music pushes toward a more decorative, idiosyncratic neo-romanticism without losing its minimalist flavor. If his less-inspired music sounds facile and empty, his best work soars — especially in opera, film and dance where, like the marriage of food and wine, visuals complete the music, producing a synthesis richer than the sum of its parts.
In “Einstein,” Glass and Wilson strip down the fundamentals of movement, image, text and music to essentials and then elevate their essence to operatic grandeur. The libretto relies on found texts, do-re-mi solfege and counting numbers. Wilson’s trippy imagery evokes a train, trial and spaceship. Dancers weave furiously or move at a snail’s pace.
Glass’ ensemble — two keyboards, three winds, a solo soprano, chorus and solo violinist dressed as Albert Einstein — creates a luminous, amplified gleam. There are no intermissions. Patrons can wander in and out. The opera leaves questions of meaning to viewers. Wilson advised watching “Einstein” the way you look at paintings in a museum — appreciate color, line, light.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of “Einstein” on American music, art and culture. The opera catapulted Glass to fame, launching his march from cult status to mainstream currency. It also represented a coming-out party for minimalism, the most widely influential movement in classical music in the last third of the 20th century, with tentacles reaching into art rock, jazz, film music and even techno.
But the true magic of “Einstein” is that it crystallized a remarkable era in downtown New York’s cultural life in which the borders between avant-garde music, visual art, theater, dance and performance art dissolved into nothingness. Glass and Wilson broke out of prescribed boxes. So did composer Robert Ashley, director Andrei Serban, sculptor Robert Morris, performance artist Laurie Anderson and choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs, who is part of the current creative team for “Einstein.”
“The art that was happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a result of all the arts coming together,” Wilson says. “It was a time when visual artists were making performances and sculptures, when paintings were seen in 360 degrees. (Robert) Rauschenberg put a goat on the floor and you could walk around it and look at it. Bob Morris was making performances with Yvonne Rainer, and he was making sculpture as furniture. There was a group of us who lived in lower Manhattan and who supported each other — a culture of lofts — and we were each others’ audience.”
On this weekday in late December, Glass sits in the corner office of his publishing company. The windows look onto lower Broadway, a few blocks north of the SoHo galleries where his ensemble played many of their early concerts, earning maybe $50 a man.
Glass wears a flannel shirt and denim. He has a shock of salt and pepper hair, blunt features and eyes that peer out of small, round glasses. Youthful, funny and intense in a New Yorky kind of way, he’s still easily recognizable as the guy in a now-iconic black-and-white hyperrealist portrait from 1969 by the artist Chuck Close.
When Glass gets on a roll, the words rollick along with the chugging momentum of his music. He warms quickly to the subject of the empathy of the art world for avant-garde music, noting a long history of synchronicity. Glass says the sculptor and painter Sol LeWitt routinely supported musicians of his generation with cash, even buying seven or eight of Glass’ early scores for $1,000 each to carry him through lean times.
“The rate of change is fairly rapid in the art world,” says Glass, who once was a studio assistant to sculptor Richard Serra. “Every few years there’d be a new movement — pop art, op art, conceptual art, earthworks and on and on. The idea of change is built into the art world. That’s not true in the music world.
“The music world has barely recovered from ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ of Arnold Schoenberg,” he continues, referring to an atonal piece from 1912 that helped define the austere modernism that dominated classical music for decades after World War II. “Even today, people program Bartok as if it was new work. We’re talking about work written 70 years ago, and the big revolution in music that happened when my grandfather was a young man. It’s insane! It’s unconscionably slow, glacial change in the music world. It’s built into the conservatories, built into the concert hall, built into the management systems.”
But isn’t it a lot better today than it used to be?
Well, we live in a much more open, pluralistic age …
“WE do,” says Glass, interrupting to land the punch line. “But THEY don’t.”
The original Met performances of “Einstein” were met with a collective euphoria by almost everyone except the old guard of contemporary music, who, if they were aware at all of figures like Glass or kindred spirit Steve Reich, regarded them as hopeless primitives. In 1976, the uptown establishment of atonal composers and downtown avant-garde inhabited two very different orbits, says critic and composer Greg Sandow, who attended one of the Met performances of “Einstein.”
“An art movement that had been far outside the mainstream, except maybe for its visual art component, came together in an event that became a cultural touchstone for much of art-minded New York,” says Sandow. “You could call it a contemporary music event, because it put downtown music on the map in a major way. But that’s a reading strongly shaped by hindsight, I think.”
A minimalist zeitgeist emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s. The reductive forms and repetition found in the art by LeWitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and others finds aural equivalents in music by Glass, Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Even the hard, metallic brightness of Glass’ amplified ensemble suggests industrial materials favored by Judd and others.
“We were thinking the same things,” said Glass. “If I looked at a Jasper Johns painting of a flag, I’d say, ‘Oh, I see: The flag is both the painting and the subject of the painting.’ Then I would look at a piece of mine, ‘Music in Similar Motion,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, I see: Form and content are identical.’ I didn’t look at Johns’ painting and go home and write ‘Music in Similar Motion.’”
If artists in the ‘60s were rebelling against the Dionysian heat of abstract expressionism, Glass and his ilk were rebelling against the modernist complexity of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Elliott Carter.
“One thing you have to remember is how talented those people were,” says Glass. “Stockhausen was a formidable composer. Elliott Carter — that’s really good music. But you get out of school and you say, ‘Do I have to do that?’ None of my friends wanted to be second generation Stockhausens. We preferred to be first generation Steve Reichs, John Adamses and Louis Andriessens.”
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Born: Jan. 31, 1937, Baltimore
Education: Univ. of Chicago, Juilliard School, post-graduate work with pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris (1963-65)
Turning point: Helped sitarist Ravi Shankar notate a film score in Paris in 1965 and the experience taught him music could be restructured through rhythm. He discarded his previous music written in a conventional Americana style and began exploring ideas that would lead to his brand of minimalism.
Recommended CDs : “Glass Box: A Nonesuch Retrospective” (reasonably priced 10 discs); “Retrospective,” a survey of early works with Philip Glass Ensemble (Orange Mountain); film score “Koyaanisqatsi” (Nonesuch); Violin Concerto No. 1 (Naxos); “Ruhr Piano Festival” (Orange Mountain); String Quartets (Nonesuch or Naxos).
Recent coups: Revival of Ghandi-inspired opera “Satyagraha” at Metropolitan Opera in November. Premiere of Ninth Symphony in Linz, Austria, earlier this month.
It’s a living: Despite smash success of 1976 performances of “Einstein on the Beach” at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass and co-creator Robert Wilson were left with a $90,000 debt after spending $900,000 to create the work. Glass returned to his day gig of driving a cab. One day a sharply dressed woman got in and noticed the name on the registration: “Young man,” she said. “Do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?”