Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nostalgia for EINSTEIN

I was not there for either of the American premiere performances of Einstein on the Beach, the "opera in four acts" resulting from the collaboration of Robert Wilson (who designed and directed all the staging) and Philip Glass (responsible for all the music and lyrics, such as they were), in November of 1976. At that time I suspect that I was not adequately prepared for the experience, although I had already built up an "experience base" for both Wilson and Glass. Indeed, as I have previously written, I was at the Anderson Theater to review The King of Spain, Wilson's first major work and a "coming out" of his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, for Dance Magazine in 1969. Out of a fit of masochism, I tried to dig out what I had written for what I think was my first "straight review" (as opposed to feature article) for Dance. However, the digital archive for that magazine does not (yet?) extend back that far; and I do not seem to have saved my own copy of that issue. Unless I am mistaken, I did my best to document what I had experienced at that performance without trying either to interpret or to evaluate. The fact is that I was too stunned to do either, but not so stunned to turn down an invitation to see Deafman Glance when it was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1971.

Between those two experiences I had my first exposure to Philip Glass. It was as part of a series of "new music" concerts given at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970. The other two concerts featured Steve Reich and the Sonic Arts Union. I knew about the series because I was performing with the Sonic Arts Union in "Conspiracy 8," which I had co-composed with Gordon Mumma (and, thanks to Gordon, is now my only "appearance" on a compact disc). I am not sure that there was a program listing specific compositions at the Glass concert; but my guess is that what I heard were a few (three?) of the works that were eventually compiled into the Music in 12 Parts series.

Looking back on these two events, I am not afraid to admit that both of them (and we can add Deafman Glance as a third) were major tests of my patience. All sort of intriguing things happened during King of Spain; but my cognitive capacity was still too saddled with traditional thinking to deal with a full evening without any well-defined sense of beginning, middle, and end. Similarly, the Glass compositions had wonderful sonorities; and I could not help but be struck by the simplicity of the ways in which he worked with his "repetitive structures." Nevertheless, it was hard to resist the urge to keep asking myself how many repetitions would play out before the composition ended!

By the time the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to stage of revival of Einstein in 1984, however, I was much better prepared for the experience, if not downright eager for it. In that interim period I had already seen the American premiere of Satyagraha at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was gradually coming to the point of thinking of these performances as more than a test of my patience. Ironically, for the Einstein revival Wilson (I cannot remember if it was with Glass) put out a statement to the effect that we in the audience should not treat the work as a "grand opera" experience. Rather, we should accept it as something more like a gallery exhibit, feeling free to walk around and examine it from different points of view or even to venture out into the lobby for a break and then return. In other words it appeared as if Wilson wanted to make this work as accessible to us as possible.

However, through pure accident, my wife-to-be and I found ourselves in the front row right on the edge of the orchestra pit; and about the only movements I made involved shifting my weight! Yes, on stage the focus was on images with a bare minimum of motion (as I had experienced in other Wilson works); but, if I needed more visual stimuli, all I had to do was shift my attention to the musicians. The Philip Glass Ensemble knew full well that those repetitive structures could lead to physical fatigue, and I was fascinated with the ways in which some of the keyboard passages could be handed off from one performer to another in a perfectly seamless manner. I had not previously thought about this challenge to execution. Indeed, about the only thought I had given to execution had been at Satyagraha, when I saw conductor Christopher Keene holding up fingers to keep count of the number of repetitions!

Now it is 2008, and I realize that both Satyagraha and Einstein remain as the most memorable experiences I had at the Brooklyn Academy and probably the most memorable experiences I have had of opera. Those memories have probably been reinforced by the extent to which "the establishment" is now lining up behind both of these works. The English National Opera mounted a new production of Satyagraha this past season, and that production was subsequently shared with the Metropolitan Opera. This was a far cry from the Byrd Hoffman Foundation raising the funds to pay for using the space of the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center for the American premiere of Einstein; but now the word is out that Einstein may well return to Lincoln Center under more "established" auspices, if the New York City Opera goes through with its plans to mount a production after the renovation of the New York State Theater. All this attention, including Daniel Mendelsohn's highly perceptive review of the Metropolitan Opera Satyagraha for The New York Review, has led me to add both Einstein and Satyagraha to my CD collection, finally making up for the vinyl recordings I used to treasure.

Both of these recordings have followed an interesting path of progress in my world-view. I am not embarrassed to say that both of them were initially purchased as "statements of commitment." I wanted those albums on my shelf to number myself among those who supported these new approaches to opera. (Some of that attitude remains, since, to this day, I have more recordings of Glass than I do of Vincenzo Bellini!) The commitment to purchase was then followed by the more "intellectual" commitment to "understand," to become familiar enough with both works to "hear through" the repetitions and to find my way to an orientation in terms of beginning, middle, and end. As far as Satyagraha is concerned, Mendelsohn has done all the heavy lifting in that regard; and now I can say that I still listen to these recordings regularly because the listening experience is fun! Just as the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven remains fun through all those centuries of different approaches to performance, I find that Glass is doing an equally promising job by holding up over the decades; and, as I have pointed out (too many times?), listening to Glass can actually have a profoundly positive impact on how we listen to Beethoven.

Would I make a special trip to New York for a City Opera revival of Einstein? Probably not. Those "statements of commitment" are still strong enough that I would probably chafe at watching all of those traditionalists now decide to start gushing over this work. I know that is a cynical answer, but I suspect that this is one of those cases where my own memories of the past are likely to trump any experience of the present. Besides, I think one of the most interesting things about Appomattox is the extent to which Glass himself has moved on from what he was doing when those of us who counted ourselves as "committed" were reveling in his "new language." Similarly, all of the listening experiences I have accumulated have allowed me to "move on" in directions I could not have anticipated. Thus, the "Glass of then" is an important part of my memory; but, in terms of my current activities, I am far more interested in the "Glass of now!"

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