Saturday, December 1, 2012

Einstein on the Tour / Michael McDonagh

What becomes a legend most?  Well, in the case of two legends -- composer Philip Glass and director/designer Robert Wilson -- an international tour of their first and most famous of their five collaborations, Einstein on the Beach (1975), which began in Ann Arbor, Michigan in January 2012, goes on to Amsterdam in Jan 2013, and ends in Hong Kong in March 2013.  But there's an irony.  The piece "that broke all the rules of opera" -- there's no story, and certainly no star-crossed lovers, murder, or even betrayal -- is an endeavor on a par with the scale, ambition, and work force of 65 (onstage and off) of a standard repertory work, with according to lighting supervisor John Torres -- 800 cues, with about 75 each for its Dance 1 and Dance 2.  Its incarnation at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House, the University of California's Zellerbach Hall, and Mexico City's Palacio De Bellas Artes was the product of 4-5 days of tech (each scenic element and the actors and dancers are lit separately) and cast rehearsals, with about a week's lodging for all at each stop.  But did Einstein live up to or even exceed its reputation as a seminal work of 2oth century music theatre?  Judged by what I saw in New York and Berkeley, it clearly did, and it also drove home the simple fact that seeing it with others in a darkened theatre is a far more complete experience than hearing it at home alone on even the best sound system, and I've listened to both its original 1979 Tomato LP recording and its 1993 Nonesuch CD set many times over the years.  But let's face it: music is as confrontational as anything else.  It's like meeting someone online, and then live.   The latter is no longer an invention, but something implausibly real.

And much of Einstein does seem implausible.  Is the train which inches forward and back in Train One to Glass's rapidly shifting and rapidly modulating music really the Night Train and a Building; is the white toy plane slowly going up across the screen the one that causes the final scene, The Spaceship, which seems to be about nuclear catastrophe?  Are the two largely immobile and hieratic trials about something more than their exquisite tableaux look?  Glass has said that what you see is all -- "that's it" -- while Wilson says, "Here, it's a work where you go and can get lost.  That's the idea. It's like a good novel.  You don't have to understand anything."  One can easily come up on the side of either Glass or Wilson, but that's not the point, and it certainly isn't the matter because Einstein is something to be encountered live.  And it felt live in entirely different ways at BAM and Zellerbach:  the full bore purity of the sound with large banks of black speaker monitors at the Gilman, and the thicker, sometimes muddled sound in the Art Brut concrete interior of  Zellerbach which paradoxically allowed the music's different lines with their combination tones to come through loud and clear.  The images were just as astonishing each time, with dancers leaping from behind the masked proscenium at Gilman, and from the black curtained flies in Zellerbach.  The Trial looked even more epic and inscrutable at Zellerbach, and felt different too.  Was it personal circumstance that made me feel that Glass's colors in Trial One -- which he lays down as methodically but ineluctably as Arnold Schoenberg's Farben movement in Funf Stucke Fur Orchester (1909), was too little, too long in the first presentation, but felt just right in the second?  But then how long is long and how short is long?

Or maybe my response to Trial and other parts of Einstein has more to do with what Glass experienced perceiving his score for Mabou Mines 1965 production of Beckett's Play where the "quickening " he felt was in a different place each time.  And Einstein, if it's about anything, is about our experience of space, and/or time, in different times when we experience ourselves and time in a fresh way.  Time in the moment stilled, or perhaps open to another space, and time, in this present time.  And I think if Einstein questions anything, it's this.  Forget the critics saying Einstein's the new Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk.  It ain't.  It's just "very fresh and clean."  An eternal Gertrude Steinian "continuous present" in which nothing external obtrudes.