When I saw that one of my ushering assignments for 2012 would be Einstein on the Beach, the seminal Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration, I believe I murmured a dutiful, “Oh. Awesome.” Glass’s music does very little for me. I find it odd that he’s been termed a minimalist. I wrote a definition of minimalism that I taped to the wall behind my desk: “Exactly the right amount of a good thing.” Glass’s musical phrases, often in 6/8 time (da da dah DAH da da) are repeated ad infinitum, which is hardly the right amount, and the phrases themselves are tedious, droning on an on; I don’t need to hear them 8 times, let alone 500. Someone likened the music to Ravi Shankar’s: “You’re supposed to just kind of trance out, I think.” Shankar never simply repeats, and he’s fully engaged; watch his sequence of Monterey Pop (scroll down if you can’t wait) for an example. Glass’s music is the essence of detachment. When I hear the allegros, I feel stuck inside an audio blender.
Einstein is 4.5 hours long, and I lasted for 1.25 of it. There is no question that the tableaux are breathtaking, and all performers evince extraordinary discipline as they strike poses and repeat movement continually over 20 minutes or so; the opera is constructed of a series of vignettes of approximately that length. In particular, the musicians seem to have made some sort of pact with the devil; the score is not just fiendishly difficult, it repeats so often I’m not sure how anyone keeps his or her place. It’s plotless, something I heartily appreciate (as a Balanchine fan, it’s required). It’s utterly cerebral, and is in fact a towering work of conceptual art.
As I sat, first on a step then in an unoccupied aisle seat – the performance was almost completely sold out – I kept thinking how much I would enjoy the whole thing were it hosted in a museum. I imagined myself walking around to look at the different sequences from a number of angles: peering at a particular performer up close, hunkering down so I could look up, walking to the back to get a far perspective, and, most importantly, whispering to a companion about how the thing was speaking to me at a particular moment. Like a great painting, Einstein constantly provides new and interesting things to look at, but it would be so much more effective to not be confined to one ass-numbing vantage point.
Glass and Wilson’s solution is that audience members are free to leave the theater at any time; as ushers, we were told to give the instruction “come and go as you please.” But the lovely thing about a museum is that you can discuss the art, quietly, of course, while you’re in the room with it. How marvelous it would be if Einstein were installed for a longer period of time in a museum-like setting. And I imagine it would prove a valuable experience for the creators as well; interactivity would point to fascinating patterns, I’m sure, as you could see when the audience is truly transfixed and when they’re just plain bored. Stuck up on a stage, its audience alternating between still reverence and static bewilderment, the piece isn’t fully served.
No doubt had I been able to last, I would feel immensely rewarded; certainly my dreamscape was altered somewhat, and it seems my REM was populated by big panels of white and smiling people in trousers and white shirts (an early motif). But it was a cold night in Michigan, I’d been away from the kid for a week, and I wanted to Skype with my beau. I left Einstein and its icy, glassy thrills to the virtuous theater elite of this fine city.
Now here, to warm you up, is Ravi. Trance-tastic.