Musica Fix: Einstein on the Beach

March 16, 2016 8:38 am

March 20, 1916, Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity, which is still central nowadays for our understanding of the universe. Einstein changed not only the world of physics, but even history, philosophy and the political balance of power in the twentieth century, through his scientific foundation in the development of atomic energy.

To his work and life the minimalistic composer (even if he describes himself instead as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”) Philip Glass dedicated one of his most famous operas: “Einstein on the Beach”, the first, longest, and most famous of the composer’s operas.

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This almost five hours long opera – so long that the audience is permitted to enter and leave during its execution – is part of a trilogy of operas dedicated to those that, through the power of ideas, rather than by military force, managed to change the thinking of their times. Besides Einstein, those operas celebrate Mohandas K. Gandhi and the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV).

Einstein on the Beach is not a “classical” opera, and even the reference to Einstein is more abstract than practical. The libretto, by Robert Wilson, lacks a storyline and includes poems by the famous neurologically-impaired poet and painter Christopher Knowles, at that time only 13 years old.

In early 1973 a man … gave me an audio tape … I was fascinated. The tape was entitled “Emily Likes the TV”. On it a young man’s voice spoke continuously creating repetitions and variations on phrases about Emily watching the TV. I began to realize that the words flowed to a patterned rhythm whose logic was self-supporting. It was a piece coded much like music. Like a cantata or fugue it worked with conjugations of thoughts repeated in variations;

– Robert Wilson 

This opera broke all the rules of opera. In accordance with Wilson’s formalist approach, it has no specific plot. The repetitive music is accompanied by texts consisting of numbers, solfege syllables, cryptic poems and enigmatic references to the mid-’70s icons; to the popular song “Mr. Bojangles”; to the Beatles and to teen idol David Cassidy.

The lack of connections with its main theme, though, is only apparent, and it is deliberate. Glass says that the opera was created with the intent to implicate viewers in its own genesis. “It’s a story that you have to create for yourself,” he says. “We don’t give you a plot; we give you a theme. And the audience completes the story.”

The obsessive repetition of numbers, though, can be interpreted as a reference to mathematical and scientific discoveries made by Einstein; and everything on the stage, from lighting to costumes, refers to specific aspects of Einstein’s life. The music composed for the opera is circular, a cycle that repeats itself with no ending or resolution.

When first performed, Einstein on the Beach was considered revolutionary, and it is nowadays recognized as one of the most remarkable performance works of the last century.

“Einstein was like nothing I had ever encountered. For me, its very elusiveness radiated richly, like some dark star whose effects we can only feel. The synergy of words and music seemed ideal…Einstein on the Beach, perhaps, like Einstein himself, transcended time. It’s not (just) an artifact of its era, it’s timeless… Einstein must be seen and re-seen, encountered and savored…an experience to cherish for a lifetime.”

— John Rockwell, Art Critic for The New York Times

Written by Maurizio Fusillo
Communication Trainee at TermCoord

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