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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

Einstein on the Beach

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Well this was a revelation. Einstein on the Beach (1976) is Philip Glass’s first opera, a collaboration with theatrical producer Robert Wilson, and the only Glass opera with which I’m familiar. With a running-time of almost five hours it’s not light listening, and when many of the pieces consist of little more than slabs of keyboard or choral arpeggios it’s always been evident that visuals are required to augment music that otherwise threatens to outstay its welcome.

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The opera has been revived several times, and in 2012 a touring presentation was staged. Despite it being one of the most celebrated works by Glass and Wilson a complete performance has never been filmed, until this month, that is, a staging at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. The shots here are from a video stream of the entire four-and-a-half hour show, and it’s astonishing to discover how much your appreciation is elevated—and the music enhanced—by the performance and the production.

Einstein’s life is the ostensible subject but it’s up to the audience to interpret the many allusive symbols and motifs that may (or may not) be derived from either the man’s biography or his scientific theories. The libretto is strictly formal and fragmented, and while the score alone may drive some listeners to distraction the visuals change continually, maintaining the interest while the text and music work through their cycles. Philip Glass had this to say about the work in 2012:

The opera isn’t a narrative about Einstein’s life. What connected Bob and I was how we thought about time and space in the theatre. We worked first with the time—four hours—and how we were going to divide it up. Then we thought about the images, and then the staging. I discovered that Bob thinks with a pencil and paper; everything emerged as drawings. I composed music to these, and then Bob began staging it.

Yet the piece is actually full of Einstein. Practically every image comes from Einstein’s life or ideas: trains, spaceships, clocks. And I suggested we have a musician taking his part, because Einstein played the violin—although he was such an amateur musician he couldn’t possibly have played the music I composed for him. (more)

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I’ve seen many photos of Wilson’s designs for the opera in the past but static views do nothing to convey the drama and impact of his designs when you see them coming together on the stage. The same goes for the performers, many of whom are required to be trained dancers as well as actors: several scenes are elaborate dance pieces. It’s been a pleasure to see at last the presentation of the mysterious “Knee Play” sections which separate the four acts. And I was surprised by the similarity—intentional or not—of some sequences to the shots of the slaving workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, especially the climactic (and incredible) “Spaceship” scene where the whole stage erupts into light and movement. It’s easy to see why New York’s art crowd were so beguiled by this opera following its first performances in the 1970s, it really is a remarkable piece of work. The streaming version will apparently remain active for a while (there’s also a DVD release planned), and while I wouldn’t want anyone to indulge in piracy I’ll note that there’s currently a torrent of the entire video circulating if you know where to look. If you’ve any time for Philip Glass I can’t recommend this too highly. (Via Metafilter.)

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  1. #1 posted by jeff ingram

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    I saw EOTB in Los Angeles in October. First time for me. I have to admit I have never seen a Wilson piece that I was not entranced by, and several of the parts of EOTB meet that standard. The boy on the platform, the ensemble in the urban landscape, the duet on the train, come to mind right off.
    Knowing Glass’ musical style so well may have taken an edge off that would have been present in its early days. For me now, it was all a comfortable context for Wilson’s work, and for that matter, for some of the text — especially the numbers.
    That said, “Satyagraha” on the Met’s HD show is more gripping — no surprise.

 


 

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