Einstein on the Beach

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I was “stuck” in Berkeley, CA two weeks ago during hurricane Sandy. I’m using quotes because “stuck” usually means you’re not in a great place. Berkeley is a great place.

Friends questioned my judgment, but I flew out to California for one day to see “Einstein on the Beach” which was being performed at Cal Performances. My old friend Jennifer Koh was playing the part of Einstein. I had many important questions for her: “how do you play that pattern eighty-five times and count it?” “does the Einstein makeup get on your violin?” “will you get to keep the wig?” She kindly answered them all (they have a click-track, yes—but just on the shoulder rest, and no…)

That one day visit turned into half a week with Sandy. But in the meantime I got to spend time with everyone involved with the production and have some great healthy zero calorie organic food.

The opera production itself was just magnificent. The two thousand-seat Zellerbach Auditorium was completely maxed out for all three performances. Granted, I’m sure there were many other people there who realized how special of an event this was (and the prior performances at BAM got rave reviews, which must have gotten attention), but this was a sold out hall—large by classical music standards—full of people coming to see a five hour opera with no intermission written in 1976 that is, well, full of repetition to put it very, very mildly.

And yes, it is a famous opera from the later 20th century, and the piece that put Glass on the map (one is reminded of the famous story of Glass driving a cab and his passenger on noticing his medallion license saying “hey—you have the same name as the composer!”) But those of us in the new music biz aren’t used to crowds like that. The press was great, and the PR excellent, too—and the opera’s revival has been planned since the last performance in 1992. But still…

In the end, it’s what you are presenting that matters more than anything else. When the NYPhil did Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre a couple of years ago, they also had packed houses. I understand that big productions can be necessary to fill big spaces, but I’ve seen sold out concerts of chamber music in chamber halls, too. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s the programming, stupid.”

Einstein on the Beach runs for five hours, and you have to take your own intermissions (basically, when you feel the need to leave for a time, you leave for a time). But what fascinated me about the piece was that every single scene is completely captivating. Watching the “Night Train” scene, or the Spaceship, or the Courtroom…every single section of this opera draws you in so that you have to watch. It’s that long expectation for change in something moving so slowly, and then it does change, ever so gradually: the soul of Minimalism.

The sounds of the ensemble captures the 1970s when it (and I) was born, with electric organs, saxophone solos, and chord progressions that might be heard in guitar rock and experimental popular music at the time. But those sounds have made a comeback, and they sound current to me, nearly forty years after the piece was written. The music itself certainly sounds current, too—Glass’s influence is so ubiquitous that it never left the conversation in the first place. My own epiphany was that I got to Glass through my teenage fandom of Suzanne Vega, who it turns out is a friend of his. So many of my pieces use the same kind of rhythmic cycling and beat displacement…it’s Glass! I heard Einstein and immediately recalled any number of works from my teenage days to pieces I’ve written in the past year. You wouldn’t know it but to look under the hood.

Einstein is the most unified collection of seemingly random ideas that are really not random at all. Everything alludes to Einstein: what I caught was the importance of trains (used in explanations of relativity), the courtroom (challenging, or understanding perhaps, the laws of nature), the spaceship (future technology, light speed travel), and so on. It’s in the choreography, too—all people and things on the stage move at independent rates, sometimes coming together, often moving in the same direction at these different speeds, all referencing ideas of relative motion. One performer stands back faced to the audience, continually writing in the air with imaginary chalk on an imaginary chalkboard: I swear it was E=MC2 he was pantomiming. Maybe someone can confirm or deny.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to experience the first performances in 1976. After a long period of “Post-Tonal” music, this must have been a revelation for contemporary music audiences. Charles Wuorinen (one of the great composers, IMHO) wrote in 1979:

“While the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers, it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream. It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system”

He has since recanted this specific claim, but it shows the tenor of conservatory teaching and new music culture of decades previous. What this opera would have been, with Glass, Wilson, and Childs as a team, must have been extraordinary to witness the first time. It was certainly that for me, even after knowing the piece beforehand.

As a bonus—an incredible bonus of getting “stuck” there—I got to spend time with the composer of Einstein, himself. We had dinner and terrific conversations about film music (I should write some), pencils and paper (he has his preferences, I have mine; he buys Judy Greene staff paper, I print my own), and the process of composing (he has pieces with no score—he just wrote out the parts knowing how they’d sound together. I told him that was outrageous. He said he learned to do that in France with Boulanger…). I invited Glass to Curtis to talk to the students—at 75 he’s still filled with heretical ideas.

On another front, I was glad to finally meet and spend time with Ken Ueno, of whom I had heard of forever but never crossed paths. Ken is a professor at UC Berkeley and besides being a young and brilliant revolutionary iconoclast of the highest order, he is also a great guy. If you haven't had much exposure to Ken's music, you need to do that now, because it's unlike anything you've heard before.

Ken was the perfect host in Berkeley, and we had more excellent meals than I can blog about here… In exchange for his hospitality and tolerance of my newly bought hurricane "refugee" wardrobe, I took him to Pie in Philly and compelled him toward the Butterscotch Bourbon...

I owe many thanks to the Philadelphia Music Project of the Pew Foundation for making the trip possible. I went for an unforgettable experience, and that is exactly what I got. These few snapshots in my experience remind me of why I became a composer in the first place, and I am grateful for them.

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