For the past week, the hottest ticket in New York City has been for the revival of Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House. So hot in fact that, sadly, scalpers have taken advantage of the situation and conned unwitting fans into buying counterfeit tickets for the sold-out run. (I’m aware of at least two people that this happened to.) Much has been made in the press about how Einstein is one of these mythical works that everyone says is great even though few people have ever seen it. The original four-and-a-half-hour intermission-less production, debuted at France’s Avignon Festival in 1976, toured six European cities, and culminated in two rented nights at the Metropolitan Opera House on consecutive Sundays in November of that year. BAM produced a revival in 1984 and another in 1992 (which subsequently toured Europe). Over the last 20 years, no one has mounted it. Yet despite Robert Wilson’s slowly unfolding stage tableaux becoming the stuff of legend as a result of the rarity of live performances, Philip Glass’s music for this 1970s gesamtkunstwerk reached a much larger audience. A four-LP set, originally released in 1979 by Tomato Records, was subsequently re-issued by CBS Masterworks—soon to be Sony—on LP, cassette, and CD. And in 1993, Nonesuch Records issued a second complete recording of the entire opera—a rare occurrence for a contemporary work.
I’ve been something of an Einstein on the Beach junkie for over three decades. (I use the word “junkie” somewhat tongue in cheek. While I have been obsessed with the music for Einstein for most of my life, it is probably not possible to have an actual addiction caused by listening to music—something I will return to later on herein.) I missed the performances at the Met; I was twelve years old when it arrived in New York City and had no idea who Philip Glass was yet. But when I was a junior in high school, one of my music teachers suggested I watch a PBS documentary about Glass, which featured his music from Einstein and the score for Mark Di Suvero, Sculptor (a.k.a. North Star), and I was hooked. I saved up money to buy that Tomato 4-LP set, which had only recently come out at that point, and after hearing it tried to find out everything I could about this weird opera without a plot featuring glacially slow scenes accompanied by interminably repetitive music. In fact, the essays in the LP booklet, which mentioned Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, persuaded teenage me—who up to that point had been fixated on Broadway musicals and had just started being interested in opera and contemporary classical music—to finally listen to rock. But what I really wanted to listen to was Einstein, and I did, again and again and again.
Hearing it, though, is only part of the experience. The same, of course, can be said for any opera and my exposure to staged opera performance when I first discovered Einstein was extremely limited. I’d seen lots of Broadway musicals—balcony seats were $12 at the time—but I had never been to the Met or even to City Opera. Live opera seemed out of my price range as well as not really meant for me somehow, although I religiously listened to the Saturday afternoon “Live from the Met” radio broadcasts, watched all the telecasts, attended free staged productions of famous Italian operas by Vincent La Selva’s New York Grand Opera in Central Park, and had been on a class trip to attend a performance of an opera by Michael Haydn (of all people) at BAM (of all places). This was not exactly the most firm grounding in opera performance practice, so I’m not sure that I would have even understood just how radical Einstein was back when I first became aware of it. When I did finally get to see a complete Philip Glass opera, it was the American premiere of Satyagraha in November 1981. But I did see the 1984 and 1992 productions of Einstein at BAM, and by that time I was pretty deeply immersed in opera, particularly contemporary opera. Having that context helped me to appreciate how radical the work really is.
However, when I saw it again last Friday night at BAM, it felt less radical and more like an experience of standard repertoire to me. After all, this was my third time around with it live and I really can’t remember now how many times I have heard the complete recording. So rather than being completely mesmerized, as I was in 1984 and even in 1992, I found myself—though still completely smitten—paying very close attention to minutiae in ways that I never had before. I had never before noticed the moon in the “Night Train” scene waxing from crescent to gibbous to full and waning back again. In 1984, I remember being startled by the “Trial/Prison” scene and its relentless repetitions of the “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket” speech. (Someone else in the audience back then screamed, “I can’t take it anymore” and stormed out.) This time around, however, I focused more on the amazing delivery of that speech by Kate Moran, as did everyone else. At the end of her litany, she was cheered. I missed a subsequently endlessly repeating line, “Bank robbery is punishable by twenty years in federal prison,” which was cut from the production this time around but which—since that 1984 production—seems to have been burned into my medulla oblongata. For me, Einstein on the Beach has become what works like La traviata and La bohème are to regular opera fans; I know it so well I was able to focus on the performance rather than the work itself.
One of the biggest differences between performances of standard works and premieres is the opportunity for performers and audiences to probe deeper into interpretative issues rather than trying to suss out a completely new experience. Of course, for those of us who live to hear new things all the time, the attraction of encountering something for the very first time is very high and it is usually what draws me to live events. Still, it’s very nice to have a profounder understanding of something, and it’s very gratifying when that something is a relatively new work.
I also learned something else from the experience of focusing so intently specifically on the actual performance of Einstein on the Beach, rather than the work itself, this time around. And that is that being subjected to the staging and the music is ultimately not a narcotic experience, despite the fact that it is possible to encounter the work for the first time and find it completely hypnotic. One of the criticisms of minimalism when it first started to gain a wide following was that it is somehow mind numbing and potentially dangerous, the way that addictive substances are. Similar charges have been levied against rock and jazz before, which now seem more than a tad naïve. But as recently as a week ago, the deputy director of the Police Sciences Academy in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, has called for the government of the UAE to ban audio files called binaural beats, claiming that listening to such things is the equivalent of taking illegal drugs and results in similar mind-altering and potentially destructive behavior. Adding fuel to that particular fire, a site called I-Doser has actually been selling audio files with names like “cocaine” and “opium” for at least five years. Although after listening to a few examples of binaural beats, which basically consist of tones in the left and right ears being slightly out of tune from one another, I did not experience any kind of high; all I could think of was the music of Alvin Lucier, which I love.
As a composer and someone perpetually fixated on the listening process during almost all my waking hours, it’s extremely tempting to think that music could be capable of altering someone else’s mind—whether in a good way or a bad way, though hopefully in a good way. But like the programmatic music of the 19th century, the synesthesia experiments of Scriabin and Luigi Russolo at the beginning of the 20th century, or the New Age mantras of more recent vintage, it is the suggestive associations people attach to music and not the music itself that gives it powers beyond its abstract sonic design. Yet these associations sometimes run very deep, especially for the audiences of some traditional musics from various parts of the world. Acculturated modes of listening can add layers of meaning to music that might not be possible for the music to transmit on its own (say, to someone hearing the music by chance who has not been told about these associations). And once these layers of meaning are internalized, they are difficult to ignore. Which is perhaps also why some people gravitate toward familiar standard repertoire (whether it’s La traviata, a Beethoven symphony, or pop music “oldies” on the radio), rather than hearing brand new music. Perhaps it is also why I gravitate toward Einstein on the Beach.