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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Einstein on the Blog: Your Einstein

By Robert Wood

Photo: Lesley Leslie Spinks 2012
For the third time in almost 40 years, for possibly the last time ever, Einstein on the Beach has come, cast its enigmatic spell, and gone. The “knee plays” have played, the “trials” have adjourned, and the so called “spaceship” has taken off, we can only presume, in a sublime detonation of light.

But this spaceship has contrails, and Einstein has left behind what all great works leave behind: talking, writing, ruminating, puzzling, poeticizing, hand-wringing, and various other forms of fascinating post-show reckoning. Einstein on the Beach presents itself as an exhilarating, maddening, implausible four-and-a-half-hour question, after all, one that we don't feel compelled to answer at first either because the question itself is so compelling or because the work’s mythic authority convinces us that it secretly has all the answers that it needs. But as our audiences’ fantastic blog submissions testify, the itch to demystify inevitably comes— whether it be via sports metaphors, appeals to the subconscious, allusions to personal encounters with livestock, or otherwise. Here is a recap of some of your attempts, sent to us from around the interwebs, at getting just a little bit closer to that enigmatic question that is Einstein.

For Ian, Einstein was a baseball team with no post-season hopes:
There is no narrative. There is nothing to win, there is nothing to lose. The same pattern repeats itself every day with little change, yet still we watch. Sometimes I get tired of it, but then the pattern changes just enough to pull me back in. And even without the post-season on the line, a ninth inning rally is special. Read on...
For Laura, Einstein was a sandcastle:
I found myself mesmerized in my memories and thought of Nietzsche, who believed that we could imagine our relationship with time in the building of sandcastles at the beach. We know what Einstein’s experience at the beach would have been, aptly ignoring impending waves, just as the audience ignores the passing time through hypnosis by the pendulum of dancers.  More...
An ecstatic Piotr, still buzzing from his pre-Einstein 5-Hour Energy, found a web of references that spanned centuries:
The out-of-left-field Irish step-dancing in the choreography to “Dance 2;” Coltrane’s tenor tone illuminating an ambient-techno instrumental, performed in front of a Renaissance-perspective-styled painting of the Holland Tunnel’s vent shaft [and] complete with a calculating “princess” in the window during “Building”; and the gorgeous minimalism of “Bed,” with its funereal, Bach-like (-quoting?) organ-chords constructing a darkness only pierced by the wordless aria of Hai-Ting Chinn and the image of a single horizontal fluorescent illumination slowly (!!!!) rising into a vertical monolith, before being erased by blackness (visually progressing from Dan Flavin to M_nus, via Cory Arcangel). More...

For Leslie, who prefers tea, Einstein wasn’t as much about postmodern pastiche as it was about evolving opera conventions of yore:
[In Einstein,] dance functions as a kind of diversion—in the old sense of “divertissement”—to rescue the audience, who are taxed by a work; instrumental music serves a function we’ve seen before in […] music drama, taking us into the realm of the unconscious or the inarticulate. [And] at least one [scene]—the spaceship—seems to suggest an almost Wagnerian build-up to a climax. More...

Speaking of yore, Amanda got plain medieval, portraying Einstein as the threshold of a nihilist purgatory:
The theater entrance to Einstein on the Beach should be marked with the imperative: Abandon all Narrative, All Ye Who Enter. The paradox is that the less one searches for meaning in the work, the more meaningful it is. More...
"Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."
Dante's Inferno, depicted by Gustave Duré

But there would be no medieval or other yore for Nik, who found Philip Glass’ music in particular to be thoroughly modern:
I could compare [Glass’s] music to a different long-form genre thriving on repetition—electronic dance music—making it better suited as a backdrop for shaking booty or for drunkenly chatting up a stranger. More...

Along those same lines, William found in Glass’ score a computer code to be cracked (visit his blog for an image of the score):
It’s an algorithm. It’s code. 8 (4 + 4) x 2 means count eight, four plus four, one-two-three-four one-two-three-four, for each bar in the score (that is, six times), and repeat it (x 2). More...

Emily, bringing a completely different perspective, found in Einstein echoes of her rodeo days:
When I studied this opera in college the only moment I enjoyed was Knee Play 2. The violin flows between the aggressive articulations, which always made me feel like I was riding a wild bull, my aural skills trying to cling desperately to every passing phrase. [After seeing Einstein at BAM], it was still my favorite moment of the opera. More... 

Jake found echoes of painter Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine:
The gaze typically reserved for soloists in opera and dance becomes diffuse, omni-directional, scanning the stage for hundreds of tiny movements. Like Klee’s twittering machine, there is a constant buzz of motion onstage, even though each performer seems to be repeating their own basic routine. More...
Paul Klee, Twittering Machine

For Brian, Einstein was about the deeply personal redemption of a disability:
Having a speech impediment as a child, Wilson had a passion for children with autism. His friend and poet Christopher Knowles, who has autism, wrote much of the text in Einstein. As a parent of a child with autism, when I first read that Wilson was using Knowles's text, I was horrified. How could he take advantage of this person with a developmental disability? Then I heard the piece. It's brilliant. […] Sitting in the theater, about 30 minutes into Act 1, I found myself suddenly weeping. […] I couldn't help thinking of my son. More... 

For Anonymous, writing while on hold with Cablevision, the libretto of Einstein was more an indictment of impoverished communication:
Einstein on the Beach captures the […] truth about human dysfunction in its many forms. The language is fresh because dysfunction is more apparent than ever. It is everywhere. Our daily language is abundantly dysfunctional and often stripped of any meaning. How are you?…Have a nice day…This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance…Your call is important to us…This is a recording… More...

Joseph at defied the temporal gods by experiencing Einstein as a painting, albeit one that doesn’t hang around for long:
Observing Wilson’s stage pictures, the detailed lighting and the radiant music brought to mind the experience of visiting a museum, sitting down in front of some important painting, and taking the time to let it fully speak. Despite its repetitions and slowness, “Einstein” was full of genuine events and moments to savor. Like a dream, it was a fascinating world unto itself that slipped by too fast and may never return. More... 

It was similar for Richard, for whom that same manipulation of time bore the seeds of an existential crisis:
As it turns out, the piece is a deep meditation on man’s experience of non-linear time. Featuring lush, relentlessly elliptical musical compositions and slowly unfolding stage pictures, the performance brought me into an incantatory, meditative state where I found myself reckoning with my own conceptions of time and identity. More...

But whatever its effects on time, Zerbinetta was not a fan, wanting less pretense and more soul:
There’s something off-puttingly self-indulgent or masturbatory about Einstein’s determined, willful meaninglessness and lack of content, its presentation of itself as a cryptic yet substance-free alien object with no need obligation to justify its existence. I guess I will be told I have no soul because I lack the key that will unlock this thing; I have a short attention span when it comes to bass lines and an appetite for answers that I can write down. But I can’t help it; I want art that seems to have a soul itself, art that has something to say. More...

Phil gave the production the benefit of the doubt, finding in Robert Wilson’s design a cryptic social commentary:
Robert Wilson's contribution […] is by far the most critical and challenging part of the opera. Wilson's work confronts those very social issues that Glass tends to portray in abstraction. That abstraction is the source of Glass's longevity […] but my own personal nostalgia is that it will be Wilson's vision that might reveal something about the avant-garde past that might be worth remembering. More... 
Photo: Lucie Jansch

Esther from Tennessee found her own cryptic truth in prostration:
[I remembered] Professor Morty’s advice before I went to NY. “Submit to the art.” Because these are the days my friend, and these—these are the days, my friends. More... 

Michael, who might have actually been asleep during the performance, found a home for Einstein in his dreams:
Although I felt as if I roughly “got it” while I stood applauding afterward, whatever “it” was vanished in an instant. I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about. Much like a dream, which is as clear and real as anything while it occurs, it’s a blur once awake. More... 

But for Judi, Einstein itself was the real home:
In a way I’m yet able to articulate, in Einstein I found a home. A place where end destinations didn’t matter so much as the present moment. A place that felt like being in the clouds, as high as we were and close as we could be to the opera house ceiling. A place where I rested for five full hours and (mostly) paid attention to art. Or dreamt about making my own art. A place where I watched intently and created my own meaning. A place where the choir sang like angels and the solo violinist seduced the audience with her mastery. More...

Einstein, writing from a far-off place while taking a break from his violin, humbly offered:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. –Albert Einstein,

If you've blogged about Einstein on the Beach, please feel free to post your link in the comments. And keep the conversation going by commenting on the blogs referenced here. We always love to hear your thoughts.   


  1. Einstein (subdued) on the Beach
    The current revival of Einstein on the Beach, the avant-garde landmark opus from 1976, is a beautifully recreated Fabrege Egg but an aural experience that lacked clarity, volume and punch. The dazzling score by Philip Glass was severely handicapped by an inadequate sound design, poorly miked and mixed vocals, a muddled bottom and a non-existent top. The absence of Kurt Munkacsi mixing the sound live was a major disappointment. However, since he is credited with the sound design, maybe it was better he did not show up.
    On the plus side, Robert Wilson's beautifully recreated sets were lit with grace and subtlety, and the mechanics moved without a single hitch. Visually, it was simply magical. The performers were usually excellent but occasionally tentative, as if fearful of making a mistake while stepping through this masterpiece. The two lead actresses were so badly miked as to make their words unintelligible, even when there was no music. And that was a shame. Losing all those delicate, enigmatic non-sequiturs to a bad sound design was simply incompetent. The all-important chorus, adequate but undermiked, was alternately powerful and subdued. Their acapella Knee Play 3 was quieter than a whisper. And it should not have been. Whoever was at the mixing board should be retired. This should have been loud and clear, not quiet and hidden.
    Having seen the original Einstein in 1976, the first revival at BAM, and at least 50 concerts of Philip Glass Ensemble in various forms since the 1970s, I know what the Philip Glass Ensemble should sound like. Yes I am a big big FAN. On Friday night, I was in the third row center of the orchestra and the sound was subdued to the point of sabotage. ACT I-Train was lackluster; its running bass line ressembling a train motor was lost in a packed condensed sound. There was no train blast and no punch to this Train. It was too respectful and too quiet. In ACT II Night Train, the vocal duet was a disaster. Neither singer could be heard clearly and Philip Anderson did not seem to be able to get the words out. This lovely scene was a bust. ACT IV Spaceship was also less than thrilling. For a finale, it suffered from a fear of highs, despite its spectacular visuals. However, this particular sound mix made ACT II Dance with Field much more compelling than in any of the produced recordings. As the least interesting music in the opera, this section is when I usually exit for my intermission. But Friday, I sat through it and enjoyed its persuasive quietness, even if the dancers seemed nervous while executing Lucinda Childs' lovely twirls. (Although, I still prefer her original swarms of running across the stage at Lincoln Center and those incredible mathematical dances without music she originally did at Next Wave so many years ago. But I digress!)
    The very best moments in the opera were easily pinpointed: Andrew Sternman blistering saxophone solo, following the incredible Richard Landry's original solo, during ACT IV Building was right on the money and finally the volume was in tune with the production. Following this in ACT IV Bed, the delicate lovely singing of Hai-Ting Chinn following the rise of the bed was terrific. Finally, a voice that you could actually hear clearly.
    Modern audiences should hear a great work the way it was originally produced and played. Einstein should be loud, it should be played with fire and energy, the voices should be clear and separate and distinct, and the music should have clearly distinct highs and clearly distinct lows. The voices should be clear and the singers should sing. The power of the music was extremely diminished during this run of the show, no pun intended. Hopefully, Mr. Glass will set some parameters for the sound design on the tour. This sound was simply not good.

  2. The image you attribute to Albrecht Dürer is actually from Gustave Doré.

  3. The minimalistic concept (repetition with gradual change) works well with music, where it creates a hypnotic effect. With the text, it is simply irritating, and should be completely abolished as a technique. Forever.

    (well, I can wish, can't I?)

    Incredible show. Tres 1970's.


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