PHILIP GLASS: Einstein on the Beach (highlights) – Philip Glass Ensemble/soloists (CD); + “The Changing Image of Opera” doc. DVD – Brooklyn Academy of Music 1984/Chris Verges, producer – Orange Mt. Music OMM 0082 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi), CD 77:23, DVD 58:00 ****:
There is no escaping the fact that “minimalism” – in fact; seminal, radical minimalism–influenced music in nearly all genres since its appearance in the late 1960s, has been a success. There is also no disputing that Philip Glass will be remembered as not its “creator”, but as its greatest refiner, proponent and definer.
His opera, Einstein On the Beach, was, arguably, his breakthrough work; mesmerizing, controversial, beautiful and – to some – annoying all at once. It was not my own introduction to Glass (who I first heard when I was in high school and thought immediately of a need to find out more) but it was one of my first deep studies into his work.
This is a work that, structurally, is opera but not at all like anything opera goers were used to. Minimalism with its relentless repetitions and a text comprised of very spare and “stream of consciousness dialogue” by his collaborator, Robert Wilson, makes up the sound of the work. The look of the work is an equally arresting matter. Dancers who double as singers are the cast and the set is sparse, symbolic and architectural. The work of Robert Wilson is bold, bizarre and – I think – ultimately beautiful. There are books and videos about his other work that I think you should research after watching the documentary within this set. Glass’s work is – especially at the point in his career of Einstein – equally bold, mathematical and beautiful.
The title of the opera takes its name through portraying Einstein in the context of the world after the atomic bomb (“On the Beach” being a historic post-apocalyptic novel by Nevil Shute). It is not in any way a bio-opera, though, and nor is this recording the whole work. It is as described; a highlights disc. I am a proud owner of the original cast recording of the whole work on the Tomato label, vinyl, all more than four hours of it. Some of the music within has stayed in the performing repertoire of the Philip Glass Ensemble, such as “Train” and “Spaceship” with their ‘high-octane’ performance requirements. (Heard live this is stunning, by the way, for the demands it places on the performers).
The CD, featuring pieces from the 1984 BAM performance is very fine, indeed, and mastered very well for optimum sound and presence. However, the real reason to buy this package is the DVD documentary by Chris A. Verges, again in conjunction with the Brooklyn Academy of Music – who has performed Einstein an astonishing three times. This is a well done and intriguing documentary. The video shows rehearsal and performance footage as well as very insightful conversations with Glass and Wilson. It is like looking at something that seems simultaneously old and historic while still as bizarre and attention seeking as it did thirty years ago.
Philip Glass went on to practically find a home in music theatre, writing several more operas, the most well known of which are Satyagraha, about Gandhi and Akhnaten about the Egyptian pharaoh (completing what Glass considered his “trilogy” of men who changed the world in science, politics and religion). Robert Wilson has also done many astonishing set designs, my favorites being those for Gluck, Alceste and Monteverdi, L’Orfeo. In each artist’s case, though, a strong case can be made that Einstein on the Beach was their “breakthrough” work.
On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of meeting Philip Glass a few times and he is a quiet but friendly and engaging man and I felt each time like I was in the presence of genius and a future historical figure. I would sure like to meet Robert Wilson sometime, for the same reasons.
In the meantime, this is one of my favorite releases from Orange Mountain, owned and managed by Glass’s long-time producer Kurt Munkacsi. I recommend it highly for fans of Philip Glass, for those who want an essential addition to 20th century music history and for the simply curious.