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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Einstein on the Blog: A Short Glossary

By Robert Jackson Wood

©Lesley Leslie-Spinks

Whenever a paradigm-shifting work of art like Einstein on the Beach appears, a deluge of new language attempting to make sense of it is often not far behind. This can be unfortunate, particularly when the new words seem better suited as names of rare insect-borne tropical diseases than as helpful descriptors of music or theater.

But the new vocabulary is also often necessary. New works are like riddles that demand solutions from us. And even if those solutions are always inadequate, nothing disarms the sphinx of the new better than finding lucid ways of talking about it. In that spirit, enjoy this glossary of terms, arbitrarily selected and including a few familiar ones redefined, that might be helpful in parsing the glorious enigma that is Einstein on the Beach. 

Minimalism: Intro
It’s been said that there’s nothing “minimal” about an opera that is four and a half hours long. But even the biggest building can be made with just a few big squares and a welcome mat. Minimalism is about just that: the reduction of an artistic vocabulary to its most basic elements, which is an economy that can be experienced in Einstein from one end to the other. Small musical modules repeat with abandon, stage design is reduced to all but the purest geometries and archetypal images, and movement is stripped to its essence.

Minimalism: Philip Glass

Glass has never liked the term “minimalism,” preferring instead the more anodyne phrase “music with repetitive structures.” But the difference is important: if “minimalism” tends, like other isms, to imply a kind of overarching belief system or philosophy, “music with repetitive structures” refers only to the musical process itself. It's a fitting title, then, for a music that emerged as a reaction against the pretenses and impenetrable complexity of music in the 1950s (e.g. integral serialism), which was often taken by its composers to be the sole path to artistic truth. Musical minimalism dispensed with both the complexity and the rhetoric, embracing repetitive processes that could be easily heard by the listener and that were—in theory, at least—about nothing but themselves.

Minimalism: Robert Wilson
Like Glass’ minimalism, its counterpart in visual art originated as a reaction to the pretenses of the 1950s—in this case, genres like abstract expressionism. The mantra was painter Frank Stella’s “what you see is what you see”: art was to be about itself and itself only, embracing flatness over metaphysical depth, a resistance to puffed-up verbal interpretation, an aversion to metaphor, a return to right angles, and so on. But minimalism can only account for a slice of Wilson’s Einstein. By being unspecific about the correlation between music, drama, and text, Wilson was just as much glossing ideas from Symbolism, Surrealism, and Artaud—using dramatic content to conjure a kind of dreamlike beyond existing outside of language and linear time.

Additive Process
Sing the first phrase of “row row row your boat” five times in succession. Now add an additional “row” and sing it again. Now take two “rows” away but add another “boat” and repeat. That’s basically an additive process. Composed of small four- or five-note musical modules that repeat while expanding or contracting by a note or two each time, additive processes are one of the ways Philip Glass’ “music with repetitive structures”  stays efficient while also staying interesting.

Christopher Knowles
A poet and author of much of the libretto for Einstein on the Beach, Christopher Knowles is the mind responsible for “Hey Mr. Bojangles,” “these are the days my friends,” “it could get the railroad,” and other phrases from Einstein you’ll have stuck in your ears for days. Born in 1954 with autism, Knowles wrote poetry perfectly suited to the self-referential, obsessive quality of minimalism. For Wilson, Knowles became a sort of muse. “His art holds the excitement of molecular reaction,” Wilson has said, and rightly; Knowles’ words and phrases repeat deliriously but never monotonously, generating a kinetic energy that lurches off in unpredictable directions while always seeming to remain guided by a mysterious hidden hand.

Christopher Knowles. Photo by Richard Landry

The fact that Glass and Wilson’s work was originally titled Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street should clue you in to the fact that we aren’t really dealing with E=mc2 and the speed of light here. The goal was  more to capture what they called the “poetic idea” of Einstein, Einstein as a kind of mythic and indescribable evocation shared by the collective unconscious and conjured somewhere—who can say exactly where?—in the work’s stunning imagery and sounds. Forget the name, the equations, and the hagiography and let  Einstein be something in between.

Photo: Lucie Jansch

Knee Play
Of the many amusing things one can with one's knees, the interstitial moments known as “knee plays” scattered throughout Einstein are not among them. Rather, they’re interludes that provide time for scenery changes and music. "We decided that each scene would be about 20 minutes long and that we would connect the scenes together with what I call 'knee plays',” wrote Robert Wilson. “The knee is a joint that links two similar elements, hence 'knee plays.'” Simple enough. And yet consider your bathroom breaks carefully; the knee plays contain some of the most virtuosic music in the entire show.

Photo: Lucie Jansch
Lucinda Childs
"They were the new constellation, the next generation after Merce [Cunningham], John [Cage] and Bob [Rauschenberg],” said Lucinda Childs of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. As an original performer and collaborator in Einstein on the Beach, she might have easily included her own star in that pantheon. Childs, who after 1984, became the official Einstein choreographer, was a member of the Merce, John, and Bob-influenced Judson Dance Theater—other members included Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, and Trisha Brown—before being recruited by Glass and Wilson to join them for Einstein. Not long after, she took on another project with Glass, the 1979 work Dance, which ended up being hugely influential for postmodern dance.

Photo: Lucie Jansch

Rhythmic Cycles
Like additive processes (see above), the use of rhythmic cycles is a techniques Glass uses to keep “music with repetitive structures” dynamic, interesting, and—as per minimalism’s mantra—completely transparent (i.e. if you listen closely, you can hear exactly what’s going on at all times). In a nutshell, it involves the simultaneous repetition of two or more rhythmic patterns of different lengths that move out of and finally back into phase over a given period of time. Just think of wheels spinning inside of other wheels, turning at different rates but eventually sinking up again to create a single cycle (and very puzzled gerbils).

Solfège Syllables & Numbers
In place of a traditional libretto, the chorus in Einstein often sings either numbers or solfège syllables, those nonsense words—do, re, mi, and whatnot—that Maria von Trapp went so wild over. One of the reasons is that, much like the rest of Glass’ minimalism, they’re self-referential; solfège syllables describe a note’s place on the musical scale, while numbers describe its place in the rhythm. The result is that, rather than thinking about unrequited lovers or hips that don’t lie, you stay focused on the music. The words disappear into the music they describe.

“Newton, forgive me,” wrote Einstein in his Autobiographical Remarks. The reference was to relativity, of course, and its claim that—contrary to Newton—people travelling at near-light speeds would experience time in radically different ways. Minimalism proved to be equally eye-opening in the context of a specifically musical time. Involving harmonic changes that occur over a very long time span, minimalism creates the sense that everyday time is being experienced up close—the musical equivalent of viewing a painting’s brushstrokes at a nose’s length. Wilson’s minimalism and pacing involve similar distortions on the visual and kinetic level. “J.S. Bach, forgive us,” we might imagine Glass and Wilson writing.

Photo: Lucie Jansch
“We suppose a very long train traveling along the rails with the constant velocity v…” Thus began one of the thought experiments Einstein offered readers in 1920 to help them better grasp his theory of relativity. Trains were Einstein’s go-to metaphor for that purpose, and it’s perhaps for that reason that they appear in Einstein on the Beach as well. In that book from 1920, trains are staging grounds for all sorts of experiments involving stone throwing and lightning strikes. In Einstein on the Beach, they become general metaphors for the relative experiences of time—and the source of some pretty stunning imagery on stage as well.

Photo: Lucie Jansch

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