Einstein on the Beach is returning to BAM this weekend. The importance of the work cannot be overstated. It’s not just a collection of famous names, a work of daunting size and duration, but an entirely new way to think about and make dramatic music. The narrative features that Wilson and Glass developed were not new at the time, they could be found in films and novels, but there were absolutely new to the operatic stage. Since then, there has been no movement to develop those ideas further, except in the work of both men, and considering the power and beauty of the concepts, that stuns me. Wilson was most recently seen at BAM with his production of The Threepenny Opera, which seemed to both run astray from his ideas about the character and emphasize how great the music is. Wilson is not a humanist, but he sees how music can be expressed through the human body, and he works best with great music, like Weill, Debussy and Glass. And this is great music.
Like a lot of composers working in what is, at the time, the avant-garde, Glass was criticized for what seemed to be his lack of craft, the idea being that repetition was a substitute for craft. But repetition is not easy to write, to being with, and the music is full of skillful counterpoint, and is constantly interesting. And if you know anything about the nuts and bolts of composing music, you know that modulating from the key of F minor to E major is tricky business. In the middle of the “Train” section, Glass accomplished it elegantly in the space of one bar (approximate, I transcribed this without tackling the meter and rhythm in any detail):
This introduction is to update the reposting of a look at the opera from a couple years ago, more relevant now than ever. Enjoy.
One Two Three Four
One Two Three Four Five Six
One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight
[These are the days my friends these are the days my friends]
Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight
Three Four Five Six
Three Four Five SIx Seven Eight
[Will it get some wind for the sailboat] Three Four Five Six Seven Eight
One Two Three Four Five Six …
… We sit in the audience, and watch and listen to Einstein play his violin. The sound comes to us in waves. Einstein sits at the beach, playing his violin, producing waves of sound. He sits at the beach, Einstein, playing the violin as the waves come in. The waves come into the beach as Einstein sits there, playing the violin. The waves come in, and the waves come out. And the violin. And Einstein. And the beach. And we sit in the audience, watching the waves come in and Einstein waving the bow and the waves and sound come into us in the audience. And we sit in the audience and see this all in terms of waves, just as we hear this all in terms of waves, just as the waves come into Einstein on the beach…
It’s not easy to experience Einstein on the Beach, that grand collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, live on stage, and I mean that in both senses. It premiered in 1976, and then was revived twice at BAM, in 1984 and 1992. It’s fortunate then that I’ve moved back to New York City, where as a surprise the Philip Glass ensemble gave a concert performance of the work at Carnegie Hall in December 2007, roughly marking its 30th anniversary. The performance was wonderful, and left me not so much curious as why it’s such an infrequent event — opera is an enormous and enormously expensive undertaking, after all — but why, a generation later, this work stand so much alone.
It’s puzzling. Glass is arguably the most well known living composer on the planet. He has enormous appeal outside of the world of contemporary classical music, with fans and followers who ordinarily are only interested in rock music. He’s got an increasing number of scores for an increasing number of increasingly popular and well-known films. He’s produce a rock band, Polyrock, and recently collaborated, wonderfully, with Leonard Cohen on the excellent Book of Longing. And, while his work can be uneven and certainly repetitive (no, that’s not a joke; when Glass is weak he falls back on repeating too much previous repetitive material) his operas are a substantial body of work, the first three especially are stunning masterpieces, and Einstein on the Beach is one of the most important works of music for the dramatic stage ever created and one of the most important artistic achievements of the previous century. It opens the door to many areas of exploration and innovation, even more now than 30 years ago, yet no one working in classical music drama, in opera, seems to have gone through any of those doors. A mystery.
Now seems the time for composers to open those doors. What Glass and Wilson did in creating Einstein, and what they could not have realized they were doing at the time, is create a work for operatic stage that demonstrates the strengths and possibilities of art in the digital age.
No, the opera is not made or performed with computers. One of the pleasures of the concert was the ensemble coordination and energy, the dramatic feeling of change when the human voices of the chorus enter, singing something as simple as a sequence of numbers, the physical pleasure of a sustained tenor saxophone solo over pumping keyboard arpeggios, the dry calm of Lucinda Childs and Melvin Van Peebles recitations and Tim Fain’s passionate violin playing in the various “Knee Plays.” The Philip Glass Ensemble is based around electronic keyboards, but his work is completely made for human performance. It’s the style and content of the opera, it’s structure, that matter. Glass’s composing style can also be described as digital in nature. He works with discrete loops of melody, counterpoint and chords and builds small and large-scale pieces by fitting those blocks together — on top of each other, next to each other, cantilevered. His rhythmic augmentation and diminution changes only the relative duration of these blocks, their contents are constant (this gives his work an episodic structure that is not unlike Bruckner, although with a very different sense of time and activity). Digital processes work in a similar fashion; software performs its functions by accessing instructions sets built into a computer’s microprocessor. These sets include instructions for performing operations based in arithmetic, logic, data or program control instructions, and depending on the complexity of a particular action they can be chained together in discrete units to function as directed.
Einstein himself is a figure in the opera, not just in the title, as he sits on stage, playing the violin. Superficially, the work seems to have nothing to do with Einstein’s great breakthroughs in theoretical physics. But the nature of the opera does elide with one of the most important contributions of the scientist. Not the Theory of Relativity, without which the man would never have reached the height of fame from which operas are made, but his conception of light as both particle and wave, simultaneously.
We hear sound as a wave, which is what it is, cycles rolling through the air to tickle our ears, just as we watch waves themselves roll in from the ocean to meet us at the beach, the place where land and sea occupy the same space simultaneously. And if what we hear, from our computer speakers for example, or through our ear-buds, is a wave then what we see is also a wave, one that conveys quanta of particles to our eyes. In terms of what comes off our computer monitors and our television and movie screens, the waves and packets of light from the former are produced via digital technology, through a process of the quantization of discrete bits of information. The words I am just this moment writing, via my keyboard interface, onto the simulation of a piece of paper on my computer screen, are translations in digital quanta from the interface to an image, which recreates them into a simulation of something that I am familiar with, words on a physical page. Until such time as I produce this information on a physical page, these are not really words, but it’s necessary for my computer to interpret my desires to produce these exact words in such a way that I can read them and recognize them, so that I can know if I have actually executed what I intended. The screen is the wave, roughly, of my own production of digital quanta.
This digitization means that I can also take words I have written, or am writing, or will write, and copy them to other locations, move them forward or back, cut them from here and put them there instead. I can even create blank space going forward, down the page, or into the future, if you will, since I need to advance from one particular point, the present, into a point further along, the future. Through the means of digital technology, I can take the idea from my head which is ideally conveyed and best understood in a linear sense, in the logical and orderly presentation of one thing after another, as in a clear plot in a story, and make the same passage discontinuous. Does that necessarily destroy the meaning I mean to convey?
I cut them from here and put them there instead. I will write or, have written, or am writing, and copy them to other locations, passage discontinuous. Does that necessarily destroy the meaning I mean to convey? Move them forward or back I can take the idea from my head, digitization means that I can also take words can even create blank space going forward, down the page, or into the future, if you will. This, which is ideally conveyed and best understood in a linear sense, since I need to advance from one particular point. Through the means of digital technology, the present, into a point further along, the future, in the logical and orderly presentation of one thing after another, as in a clear plot in a story, and make the same.
It doesn’t read in a standard way, but it does express the idea, both in content and in style, even though that style would not ordinarily be accepted as successful. That is, not only does the discontinuity of the altered passage convey the same idea, but also the fact that it conveys the ideas through discontinuous means integrates the content and the style and proves the argument. Einstein on the Beach does this same thing musically, although I don’t believe that Philip Glass and Robert Wilson intended to demonstrate that an opera could be made based on the ideas of information theory. However, that this work can be seen even more effectively through the perspective of the next generation of audiences is a great measure of its artistic success and value.
The opera does not present drama in any conventional sense. There is no story. There are essentially no characters, although there are people who speak, dance and sing. The work presents a rotating sequence of set pieces, repetitive in the nature of Glass’s music. The pieces themselves begin at a particular point and end, since time argues they must, but the opera as a whole has no beginning and end. It starts, has duration, and then ends. But that doesn’t mean that Einstein is empty. Rather, it is full of content, or what in this case is better to call information. It is full of dramatic information, although it makes no arguments towards the meaning of that information, or even they way that information could be considered. The scenes come in discrete quanta, and this structure says more about Einstein then even the title or the work, or the crazy-haired figure with the violin. How we take these quanta is up to us. Every member of the audience can replace and reorder the particular scenes in our own preferred way, and then reorder them at will up to the limits of our memory and our interest. Einstein on the Beach is a means to convey dramatic information to the audience, and the audience has the responsibility, for good or ill, to determine just what the drama is. Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” produces a similar result, with a narrative of events that seem to follow each other at random, until the final scene ties the entire skein together with emotional concision and power. But that is a movie, and absolutely constrained by the physical limits of film spooling through a projector. And whether it is a movie or the opera, this is by no means easy to accomplish. The order of the work can be rearranged and yet the structure is never anything less than ironclad.
While that is a way the opera can be experienced in performance, and a way which Glass and Wilson encourage audiences to experience it by suggesting that, during a complete performance, people should feel free to wander in and out of the theater as needed during the five hours or so it takes to run through the entire work. Not everyone will actually experience the work this way, however, not all opera-goers want the responsibility of imposing their own structural order on the work they are encountering. Since this is now the digital age, however, anyone with a computer, an internet connection and an account at the iTunes store can indeed experience it just this way, they can literally impose their own order on the work by downloading or importing the work and making their own playlist out of it. The iTunes software is really nothing more than a database, and the flexibility and power of a relational database on a digital platform, even one as minor-league as iTunes, is an astonishing technological change from 30 years ago. It’s a new context which brings out so much more of the inherent quality and power of Einstein.
The iTunes database really begs the question of what composers are doing, or not doing, or missing, when it comes to the possibility of structuring dramatic pieces. iTunes, as a free application, is everywhere, and millions of users have music loaded, or downloaded, into their database. Millions of users/listeners can, at will order and combine individual tracks in any genre available digitally into absolutely any order and structure they desire. It is the mix tape on steroids, crystal-meth and peyote. The means of making the highest quality mix tape – choosing a variety of music and its order, and ensuring that the duration would fit into each side of a 60 or 90 minute cassette, and then taking real time to record that exact duration of music on the tape and most likely having to repeat the process, LP and CD by LP and CD, for each copy of the mix tape – ensured a frequently overly-obsessive attention to the details of song content, style, genre and aesthetic flow from track to track, with the ultimate didactic point of the track order losing focus and direction around the end of side A, never to be recovered … With iTunes, a playlist of hundreds, thousands of tracks can be created within seconds or minutes by dragging and dropping tracks, dragging tracks to reorder, listening to fragments of the beginning, middle and end of each track to discern the content and context. Or, with properly obsessive attention to each detail of the database of each track of music in iTunes, a ‘smart’ playlist, which contains every track that contains one or more pre-determined criteria, can be created almost instantaneously. Whether the contents and the results are mundane or thrilling, the technology makes each user/listener an all-powerful impresario of their own database of digital music. Contemporary composers have all the same tools, especially the conceptual ones, to consider their own dramatic materials with the same power and ruthlessness.
Outside of opera, however, there is music that is specifically meant to be re-thought and reordered by each listener, independent of other listeners. This is possible because the music was created for reproduction on a ubiquitous bit of digital technology, the iPod. International Cloud Atlas is a set of pieces for performances by Merce Cunningham’s dance group that were composed and recorded by Mikel Rouse. In performance, each audience member was given an iPod with the music pre-loaded and encouraged to listen to the one hour set with the shuffle feature on, so that the iPod would randomly choose among the ten tracks, and ideally do so in a different random order for as many listeners as possible. Each listener thereby gets a different listening experience from the same piece, and so a very different concert and performance experience within the same context. The same music can be reordered again, at home, via the iTunes database, so that a specific re-ordering can be created out of the listeners’ desire. Rouse’s music is certainly not opera, and his idiom is very much a popular one, with a progressive rock flavor, but International Cloud Atlas is a work for the stage and one that consciously exploits the opportunities available with current music making and reproduction technology, and is a descendant of close relatives of Einstein on the Beach.
Another contemporary musician working with the some of the ideas Einstein suggests and which have become more familiar and pervasive through time is John Zorn. A large part of his work is specifically narrative, though not in any traditional sense. His particular aesthetic sense is filtered through his full-throttle embrace of contemporary culture, with all it’s obviousness and paraphilia, and he has produced a number of abstractly narrative works that use procedures borrowed from and inspired by his love for his cultural environment, like Godard/Spillane , in which the titles say it all. These two works feature brief and highly varied bits of music that follow one in another in rapid and immediate succession, without any consideration of musical transitions of any type.
Unfortunately, each is recorded to a single track and so there’s no way to parse out the subsections into an iTunes database and then reorder them at will, or at the whim of the applications shuffle function. This seems a bit of a shame, since Zorn’s music seems to call out for this treatment, but then again perhaps the random sound world of the pieces is a result of an exacting idea of order and structure. So we are back, not unhappily, at taking the explicit and non-variable and re-creating our own sense of narrative and drama. He takes the film editing of Godard, the tough-guy writing of Mickey Spillane and a musical style and structure learned directly from the slap-dash-bang turn-on-a-dime quick change of cartoon music. Writing about Carl Stalling, the composer of Warner Brothers cartoon music, 1936–1958, Zorn has this to say: “Separating the music from the images it was created to support, it becomes clear that Stalling was one of the most revolutionary visionaries in American music – especially in his conception of time. In following the visual logic of screen action rather than the traditional rules of musical form (development, theme and variations, etc.), Stalling created a radical compositional arc unprecedented in the history of music.… No musical style seemed beyond his reach – and his willingness to include them, any and all, whenever necessary (and never gratuitously, I might add) implies an openness – a non-hierarchical musical overview – typical of today’s younger composers, but all too rare before the mid-1960s. All genres of music are equal – no one is inherently better than the other – and with Stalling, all are embraced and spit out in a format closer to Burroughs’ cut-ups, or Godard’s film editing of the 60’s, than to anything happening in the 40’s.” It’s not opera, but he does craft a style of musical juxtaposition and discontinuity that belongs explicitly to the aesthetics of the digital age.
Zorn has not applied this technique to opera, though, and while Rouse has written several hybrid rock-contemporary music operas, they have a linear narrative and musical structure. In the classical field there are contemporary composers who are working with some mix of ideas of dramatic music, contemporary experiences and the ideas and the means of digital technology. Some of this even makes explicit claims to be opera. However much the individual pieces or complete bodies of work may succeed on their own terms, or succeed in laying claims to the contemporary milieu, they fail in terms of opera, and thus fail the results that this argument seeks.
It’s the cut-and-paste idea that, for good or ill, is missing from opera. It’s a musical idea, a technique, so not inherently better or worse than other styles of 20th century music; Neo-Classsicism, Serialism, Aleatory. We’re in a new century now, and digital technology has become so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the larger, conceptual possibilities it affords. It’s perhaps a human inclination to concentrate on the large-scale, the surprising and the extraordinary. Those certainly grab our attention, and do so dramatically. But we have computers everywhere in the contemporary world, and we use them constantly for personal ease, interest, pleasure — not to mention how many of us have been earning our living with computers and technology. That too should prompt our attentions.
Digital technology gives us portability of media, but, like most computers and their applications, there is a high ceiling of untapped power and possibilities. This portability also has important implications for the structure or opera, again showing a way towards ideas that have yet to be exploited in opera but that are ubiquitous in the experience of contemporary life. If the digital world is one where anything — a photo, a CD, this essay — can be chopped into discrete bits and rearranged so that the same elements have an entirely new effect, then opera can be structured to take advantage of this. An opera of discrete elements, interrelated but each self-contained, can take advantage of digital technology in two important ways; it can be re-ordered at each performance so that the experience and drama could differ without any loss of coherence, and it could be presented to the audience through digital media so that they may re-order the same material in their own ways, recomposing the same structure to find their own meaning and satisfaction in the composer’s material and ideas. This is music as information technology, and the stage – whatever or wherever it may be at this point – is the information media. The new tools of digital technology make this feasible and even easy, but the idea itself should not seem startling because music itself is a form of information, and music notation on manuscript paper is nothing but information technology; it conveys a set of instructions with which musicians produce music. Digital technology is not a better form of this for music, but it is a different one, and just as useful. If Richard Taruskin can write a valid history of music that begins with the start of notation — a means to share musical information beyond hearing in both space and time — then this age awaits the understanding of just how much more musical information can be shared in so many more ways.
First in a series of several articles