Sunday, March 25, 2012

Einstein on the Beach

One of the benefits of living in this brave new world of ours is that, if you really want to hear or see something, someone else on the internet likely wants to give it to you for free.  Once you've satisfied yourself that this person or company actually has the right to do so, you can then enjoy the desired content with a clear conscience.  You can just steal it too, but we don't promote that sort of thing here.

Upon some idle musing while browsing Spotify (which you should get if you don't have it now) the other day, it struck me that I had never actually heard any music by contemporary American composer Philip Glass.  This struck me as an oversight, since he is kind of famous and important and all that stuff.  Clearly, this was something I had to do promptly, so I sought out his discography, did a little research, and gave a listen to his most famous operatic work. 

Einstein on the Beach is an opera, but that doesn't really tell you much about it.  I've listened to operas before, and suffice to say this wasn't really anything like what I knew.  Parts of it do resemble "classical music" as the term is commonly understood, but on the whole it is devoted to abstraction in a way that you can't really be prepared for until you've waded into it for a while.  In full, the performance is over four hours long: the 1993 CD version I listened to clocks in at 190 minutes.  There are no intermissions or natural stopping points, but mercifully, opera-goers are encouraged to walk in and out whenever they please during performances of Einstein.  I took this as permission to divide up the listening over three days.

The opera is about Albert Einstein, but without knowing the title or any background information, I don't really know how you'd put that together.  It's one thing to not know what's going on because everyone is singing in a language you don't know.  It's another thing to make sense of something when the words are mostly numbers and solfège syllables.  Occasionally a poem or monologue is recited over the music, often repeatedly, but these are usually non sequiturs about women's liberation or Carole King songs, or ruminations on bathing caps at "prematurely air-conditioned supermarkets."  Of course, they can't really be said to distract from the plot, because there is no plot: just endless sound, of the sort you might expect to hear echoing around in the head of someone crazy enough to think up general relativity.
Hearing this opera without seeing its staging (originally done by Robert Wilson) is a little maddening.  It forces you to engage directly with the sound, without forming any connections between the sound and visual symbolism.  There's a lot going on in this music, and yet not very much.  Most of it boils down to keyboards, strings and voices, all repeating in tight, intricate patterns which occasionally border on the impossible: I just don't know how humans are supposed to sing some of these sections, particularly when they come in at such high speeds and feature so many abrupt and arbitrary changes in speed and rhythm.  There are points when I can't honestly say how the singers are able to breathe, but I'm sure they teach those people some tricks so they don't pass out on stage.

Do I sound like I'm confused?  I am a little confused.  I don't know anything about modern classical music.  I think I gave my roommate doubts about my sanity as I sat listening to this for hours.  I often asked myself just how many repetitions were necessary to get the point across, or whether there was even a point at all.  The music is often very pretty, but would the average listener be wasting his or her time?

But I like strange things, and I find I can enjoy them infinitely more when I abandon the effort to impose plain logic on them.  The point, so to say, doesn't come from a given number of repetitions of "fa-fa-la-si-do-si," but from the act of repetition itself: accept that, and you can start to notice all the small changes that fade in and out of each piece.  With a background of seemingly endless repetition, every modulation in key or meter jumps out like a meteor in the broad night sky, and they rain down with such surprise and wonder that it's hard not to be captivated once you've learned to spot them.

And anyway, there's a lot in this music that does make a strange kind of sense to me.  I like the way "Train 1" contrasts with "Night Train," even while they share so many sounds and themes in common.  The way the two "Dance" sections evoke a furious spinning ballroom without actually adhering to any recognizable dance beat is a source of endless fascination.  The abstract poems (written by Christopher Knowles) have a peculiar sound to them that I find inspiring, if a little intimidating: they seem to frighten the listener with their ability to be abstract and mundane at the same time.  Something like that is in the heart of every piece of Einstein on the Beach.
I think I'll be getting into more of Philip Glass in the future, but I'll see about getting him in more digestible chunks.  190 minutes of no-kidding avant-garde music is an awful lot to handle, and you risk coming away from it with the same reaction every time: "I like it, but I can't really say or understand why."  Of course, it's hard to really put into words why we really like any music, but it's always better if you can say something.  Even if it's "fa-fa-la-si-do-si," over and over and over again...

One last thing.  I praised Spotify early in this review for making this and other works accessible to me, but it did hamper the experience somewhat.  Spotify is a commercial service, and they make their money by playing very loud commercials every couple of tracks (or, when they average ten minutes long, between every track), and these commercials seldom have anything to do with what you're listening to.  There's something very, very odd about jumping immediately from "Trial" or "Bed, Aria" to a snippet from the latest single by Juanes.  Of course, this whole business was very odd, so I just went with it; it's the price we pay for this brave new world of ours.

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