Einstein on Lafayette Avenue

Chucks and sand: only one of these things is found in Einstein on the Beach

On Saturday night I said to a friend that I had never fallen asleep at a concert or opera. It was true, at the time. (We were at an electroacoustic concert that was far too fun and loud for the possibility to arise.) But on Sunday I went to see the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson/Lucinda Childs quasi-opera extravaganza Einstein on the Beach at BAM, and I can say this no longer. Sometime as the train dancer was going diagonally forwards and backwards for the nth time, I drifted off. And woke up, and she was still yo-yoing, and I dozed off again. As you may know, this is during the first full scene.

I know that as a theoretically hip arts lover, I’m supposed to find a Einstein on the Beach to be total genius. And if I don’t love it and feel like I don’t get it that means I’m doing it wrong because I am told that “there’s nothing to get.” But, seriously, guys. There’s something I’m totally missing here. I have no idea why this is supposed to be great. It seems like a very small number of mildly striking images stretched out to gargantuan proportions to no effect other than mind-numbing boredom, over a soundtrack of finger exercises.

Maybe you had to be there. In 1976, I mean. Because while this revival preserves Robert Wilson’s production and the disco-y electronics of the score, Einstein occupies a very different cultural space today than it did then. In 1976 it was only semi-professional, its creators at the beginnings of their careers, its sounds and sights presumably fresher than they are now (at least people would get the Patty Hearst references). Now it arrives with classic status, an influential masterpiece. But while it might have seemed otherworldly and mysterious, now it’s more or less a known quantity, and the actual work seems, when stacked up against its legend, so thin that it could almost float away.

As you probably know, it’s not about Einstein, really, though apparently the great scientist liked trains, who knew? The “opera” is a series of mysterious scenes, dances, and texts. Of the latter most are non sequiturs and almost all, in this extremely poorly amplified production, were completely incomprehensible.* People come and go, they stay stuff. A chorus energetically sings numbers over and over and over. But nothing makes sense, we don’t know why there’s a trial and why there’s a bed in the courtroom, or why a rectangular beam of light slowly moves from a horizontal to vertical position over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes of a single arpeggiated chord. The dances that are like the most boring parts of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade repeated 250 times without the Bach.

I love abstraction but there’s nothing here that makes me care about or have any interest in anything I’m seeing. There’s no humanity, no emotion, just a trancelike randomness. The music is subservient to the images, bubbling along in harmless arpeggios before moving on to another predictable, dull harmony to no particular effect. It’s not unpleasant, exactly, but going to a yoga class wouldn’t have taken almost four and a half hours, and my legs wouldn’t have been so stiff afterwards.

It must be murder to perform this music, and it sounded polished to me. My favorite sections were the solo saxophone in “Building” (played by Andrew Sterman) and Jennifer Koh’s solo violin Einstein. Both had a personality and inflection to their musical performance, particularly Koh, not found anywhere else in this anonymous scale book. The amplification wasn’t nice, but it seemed to give Koh’s deep, earthy tone a metallic edge that was quite striking.

There’s something off-puttingly self-indulgent or masturbatory about Einstein‘s determined, willful meaninglessness and lack of content, its presentation of itself as a cryptic yet substance-free alien object with no need obligation to justify its existence. I guess I will be told I have no soul because I lack the key that will unlock this thing; I have a short attention span when it comes to bass lines and an appetite for answers that I can write down. But I can’t help it, I want art that seems to have a soul itself, art that has something to say.

Glass/Wilson/Childs, Einstein on the Beach. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 9/16/12. With Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Jennifer Koh, and many others, and the Philip Glass Ensemble conducted by Michael Riesman.

*But since you hear each at least 20 times, you might pick up all the words by the end. I guess Young Bob Wilson wouldn’t care if you could understand the text or not but it was being enunciated clearly I assumed you were supposed to understand it here, it was just given an acoustic that sounded, from the balcony seating, like it was underwater.

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  1. Despite the number of people who say EOTB had "changed their lives" I still consider it an absurd indulgence. In those 4hrs 40minutes there's maybe one hour of truly engaging, inspirational work. Which leaves 3hrs 40 minutes of pretension. And it's not wearing well.

    The theatre-spectacle that had jaws dropping 30 or 40 years ago looks tame these days. Creaky and shabby too. The truth is, there's now nothing in the visual achievement of this piece that you can't see, done with far more technical sophistication, any night at some of the world's great opera houses. So to the extent that there was always an element of emperor's new clothes about the show, the clothes are now just as illusory but not so new. If you could see them at all, they'd be threadbare.

    When it comes to Glass's music, I accept that it's part of the package, so there's no point trying to imagine Wilson's work without it. And every argument against its minimalist emptiness is too familiar to bear repetition (as it were). But I have to say that I don't think there's a composer in the history of music who has made such a reputation, or so much money, from so pitifully small a talent.

  2. According to an interview on the BBC, Glass and Wilson were shocked at the first staging that noone got up, took a break, had a drink at the bar, and that it had never been their intention for people to sit through it reverently, like an opera. Sounded like disingenuous BS though.