What becomes a legend most? Well, in the case of two legends–director/designer Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, an international tour of their first and most famous of their five collaborations, EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (1975-76 ), which began in Ann Arbor, Michigan in January ’12, goes on to Amsterdam in Jan’ 13., and ends in Hong Kong in Mar’13. 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 wor force of 65, onstage and off , a standard repertory work, with–according to lighting supervisor John Torres–800 cues, with about 75 each for its Dance 1 and Dance 2. And its incarnation at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, and Mexico City’s Palacio De Bellas Artes was the product of 4-5 days of technical– 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 exceed or even live up to 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. They may e-mail in a certain tone of voice, and may come at you differently if you speak on the phone, but encounters face to face are a different thing. It’s 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’ rapidly shifting and rapidly modulating music really the Night Train and a Building–based on the Holland Tunnel–and is the white toy plane slowly gong up across the screen the one that triggers the final scene–The Spaceship–which seems to be about nuclear catastrophe? And are the two largely immbile and hieratic trials about something more than their exquisite tableaux looks? 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 — where I was seated in Row L Orchestra Rt and at Zellerbach where I was seated Row L Orchestra Left with my friends Amy and Jeff. 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. And the images were just as astonishing each time. The dancers leaping from behind the masked proscenium at The Gilman, and from the black curtained flies in Zellerbach. The Trial which looked even more epic and inscrutable at Zellerbach, and felt different too. Was it the wedding reception and cake for my actress friend Sophia Holman and her husband Nick Ellsberg the night before and not enough Juniors coffee that made me feel that Glass’ colors in Trial One–which he lays down as methodically but inelectably as Schonberg in ”Farben ” in Funf Stucke Fur Orchester (1905 ) , was too little, too long, but felt just right here? But then, how long is long and how short is long?
Or maybe my response to Trail and other parts of EINSTEIN has more to do with what Glass experienced with his perception of what he did in his score for Mabou Mines 1965 production of Beckett’s PLAY ( COMODIE ) where the “quickening ” he felt was in a different place each tiime. And EINSTEIN. if it’s about anything, is about our experience of space , 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.