Einstein on My CD Player

I’ve started working through Einstein on the Beach, and I do mean “working through.” The liner notes say that audience members were encouraged to wander in and out of the hours-long opera at will, so that’s what I’m doing, in a virtual sense — digesting one of the three CDs per night, and even allowing myself to doze off during scenes.

Why bother? Well, I actually have fond memories of mocking a friend’s copy of the CD set. He played me one of the knee plays — segments between acts of the opera, which can stand together as a play of their own — where one female voice is chanting along with the rhythms: ONEtwothree ONEtwothree ONNNE-two-three ONNNE-two-three ONEtwothree ONEtwothree… and so on.

This was 1988. I didn’t listen to any remotely avant-garde music, or even anything classical. I laughed heartily.

Years later, I’d been exposed to more of Phillip Glass, and I’d learned how to listen to minimalism, to admire the tapestry while studying the weaving, the tiny shifts making up the whole. And I’d developed a sense of humor for the avant-garde — ONEtwothree ONEtwothree is still amusing, but I feel like I’m in on the joke.

That first listen had stuck in my mind all these years. I wanted to go back and discover what I’d missed.

I was also inspired by Eric Bogosian. The introduction to his book, Drinking in America, is a longtime favorite, something I reread a few times every year. He describes his immersion in the New York avant-garde art world of the ’70s, and how he departed that phase to do the solo works that made his name. Of Einstein, he wrote:

“I was a true believer and sat dutifully in my seat for the full six hours. I found an excitement I couldn’t find in traditional theater. Einstein was a visual and aural masterpiece, intellectually stimulating, bold, loud, bohemian, young and unfettered by commercial stodginess.”

To be fair to my 1988 self, there is quite a visual element to Einstein that a listener can’t grasp. That’s the Robert Wilson contribution, as I undertstand it: big, spare, minimal, abstract sets. Large spaces and oddly robotic movements by the actors. Musicians scattered about the landscape of the set.

Yeah… none of that comes across on CD.  ONEtwothree ONEtwothree…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying the opera. Minimalism is not my preferred style of classical, but as I said, I can appreciate its intricacies. I’m amazed at the concentration it takes to keep one’s place in that maze of twisty tunnels, all alike. And I’m really enjoying the knee plays, where violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who nominally “plays” Einstein in the cast, really tears through those arpeggios.

There’s an athleticism to the singing, too. I don’t understand where the chorus takes their breaths! There are times when they’re barking out wordless rhythms, keeping up with that Glassian patter, and they seem to go minutes without a break. It’s impressive.

The opera certainly has punch and energy, sometimes accentuated by Glass’ bright major-chord tendencies. A very large percentage of the music comes from the two keyboards, for a very non-classical sound that must have been invigorating (or off-putting) to 1976 ears.

On top of everything else, I think one of my goals here was simply to add the opera to my library. Like my copies of Kind of Blue and Sgt. Pepper, it feels essential. I can’t wait to hear my kids giggle at it — and then, maybe years down the line, return to it with open minds and earnest curiosity.

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