Philip Glass: 25 Years after ‘Einstein On The Beach’

1. Art vs. Entertainment

FRANK J. OTERI: November 21, 2001 is the 25th anniversary of the U.S. premiere of Einstein On The Beach at the Metropolitan Opera. Twenty-five years is a long time and I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk to you about how you feel the world has changed musically since Einstein, how you have changed, and how new music as we perceive it has changed.

PHILIP GLASS: Well, for one thing, I’ve had the opportunity to perform it and to produce it again. First in ’84, that was eight years later and then in ’92, eight years later to that, and normally we would have done it this year. In fact, we will probably be making a new production in 2003. So, though it would’ve been nice to hit the 25th anniversary, we didn’t do it. But we have very serious plans. Bob and I are talking about doing it. We have producers that want to do it. So I had the opportunity to see it eight years and then sixteen years after the opening. Eight years later it wasn’t such a big difference. Sixteen years later, things really began to change. It became clear that there was an audience who had never seen it. Some people brought the kids who were maybe too young before. There were dads and moms in their mid-forties who were bringing eighteen year-old kids. That kind of thing was going on. And what we really discovered from the audience is that in fact, and I hadn’t really thought about this, was that it was even more surprising in ’92 than it was in ’76.

FRANK J. OTERI: Why is that?

PHILIP GLASS: Because the world’s become more conservative. Because the art business has turned into the entertainment business. Because the power of movie and TV to degrade our aesthetics has been so complete that many young people had no idea that there was even such a thing as the avant-garde, they haven’t lived in it, they haven’t seen it. A lot of people think theater is a version of what they see on TV. You have to remember that the aesthetic of Einstein really came out of experimental theater. I would say, it was based on things like the Living Theatre. Bob Wilson’s theater was part of a generation slightly younger, but a very important part of people like Peter Brook and Grotowski and Meredith Monk. There were all these people, and where do you find these people now? It’s not that there isn’t experimental work, but the ability to produce work…Let me put it this way, there was a very strong community of support of continuity for experimental work, I’m not sure the community exists in the same way at all.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, certainly at the time that Einstein On The Beach was first conceived and performed was before MTV even existed…

PHILIP GLASS: That’s what I mean. Can you imagine conceiving of a piece that’s five and a half hours long? In those days that wasn’t so surprising. We’re talking now about an audience that does not have an expectation of seeing a work which requires sitting still for that long.

FRANK J. OTERI: Except in a weird kind of way, I bring up MTV because what you did was a precursor to what they turned into for a mass market medium.

PHILIP GLASS: Well, that’s right. I think another important point is what we think the art world is. A lot of what we think of as the art world is actually the entertainment world. You used the word market. That’s entertainment. That’s what the entertainment business does. And the entertainment world has even co-opted the word artist. We talk about film stars as being artists. If Mel Gibson is an artist, then who’s Merce Cunningham? Basically, we’ve lost a consciousness that there’s such a thing. I’m not complaining about entertainment. In fact, the thing about opera that’s so interesting, and that’s true of Einstein as well, was that opera was always the place where art and entertainment coexisted, where they came together. That was true for Einstein, but it was also true historically. That’s what Verdi was about; that’s what Mozart was. What do you think The Magic Flute was? It was a huge, popular piece of theater work in its day. So it’s not the entertainment part that’s the problem; the problem is that the art part isn’t there anymore.

FRANK J. OTERI: To take it into the so-called “concert music” ghetto for a second, outside of the popular culture mainstream, when Einstein premiered, it was a very different time for new music. And new music’s relationship to the larger classical music community certainly meant something very different then than I think it does now, largely because of works like Einstein and your other work.

PHILIP GLASS: Well, that’s true. In the mid- and late sixties, if someone said they wrote modern music, you knew exactly what it was. You didn’t even have to hear it. If someone says they write modern music today, you don’t know what it is until you hear it. Diversity has become entrenched. You can have areas that are controlled by certain subcultures of modern music. The universities control a certain amount in terms of teaching, in terms of fellowships, in terms of awards. Every little subculture of the music world has found its own way to find a place and have kind of a power structure within that. But I think no one is so bold as to claim that they’re the voice of the future of music; they would’ve been and were in fact all the time in the sixties. No one does that today, as far as I know. I mean it was so patently false and untrue. The idea of the future of music being controlled by descendants of Central European experimental new music of the early 1900s is laughable. It was laughable then, but no one even says it now. So basically you have this huge kind of coexisting diversity, which is going on right now. However, my feeling is that Einstein, even within that context, is on the radical side.

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