21 November 2015

Minimalism Pre-Prints 2: Structure, Repetition, and Reception in Einstein on the Beach (1)


Please see the Preface to this Series to understand the goals of putting up this unpublished work and the general apologies for not citing a more up-to-date bibliography.

This paper is a (mostly unedited) seminar paper presented to Reinhold Brinkmann's seminar on twentieth-century opera (Fall 1999). Thus no bibliography or citations post 1999 are included.  It was also written at a time when many musicologists could have not known the basics of Einstein; now this view seems a little obsolete. The only changes (beyond fixing of typos) in this version are the YouTube clips that have been added where easily found.

It Could Be Very Fresh: 

Structure, Repetition, and Reception in Einstein on the Beach (1999; part 1)

December 1976 witnessed the dropping of a new work, startlingly unusual in many ways, on a mostly unsuspecting Metropolitan Opera public.  Einstein on the Beach, a collaborative opera by artist/director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass brought the worlds of extreme avant-garde theater and repetitive minimalist music to the conservative opera hall for the first time.  Five hours without intermissions, omitting identifiable characters or narrative structures, and based on a tiny melodic and harmonic vocabulary, Einstein’s fundamental elements had all been developed in experimental theatre and music during the previous decade, but their union in Glass and Wilson’s opera resulted in a work whose impact has changed new music and especially new opera for the last quarter-century.

This paper asks what this impact has been and why this work has come to have such an influence.  It is an attempt to explain some of how Einstein works and how the piece came to exist at this point in Glass and Wilson’s creative output.  To present this study, some new and slightly unusual analytical tools are employed which rest on my ideas about how we listen to and perceive minimalist music.  While there is certainly not space to even attempt at a complete analysis of the work, it is my goal to use examination of a few representative sections to get at some of the underlying structures of Einstein, an opera I see as, if not flawless or totally without precedent, nonetheless remarkable and original in its musical and theatrical conception.

Structure of the Opera

Any analysis of the musical structure of Einstein must begin with Glass’s own comments on the subject given in the essay “Einstein on the Beach”, included in both recordings of the work.  In his essay, Glass describes the opera as being divided into sections defined by the number of distinct chords in them.  The opening “Knee 1” is obviously a three-chord section, A minor, G major,1 C major.  Glass asserts that sections from one chord (Trial 1) to five chords (Spaceship and similar sections) are present in the opera.2  While an examination of the score according to tonal conceptions supports his arguments, whether the listener actually perceives changes in the pitch content of chords as the primary organizing feature of the music will be examined and challenged below.

1 We do not know for certain that this chord is major until it appears in altered form in Knee 3 and 4 and in the recap in Knee 5. The dominant-tonic motion suggested by G-C allows us to hear G-major in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

2 Throughout this paper, small caps will be used to denote motives in the opera. These motives can be found in charts in the appendix.

Addition of Wilson's Comment

Wilson has stated that his musical theater has its roots in the visual arts—especially painting and drawing.  As such, he has organized his use of theatrical space according to the way space is used in three different styles of painting: portrait, still-life, and landscape.  In a portrait, the focus of the observer is nearly completely taken in by the subject.  A still-life, while still having a main subject, derives much of its visual force through the relationship between that subject and the sounding context.  A landscape takes this sounding region and makes it the subject; while there may be different levels of foreground and background within a landscape, there is not a sharp distinction between subject and context as there is in the other two forms.

Wilson applied these concepts to Einstein by distinguishing three different uses of the stage.  He treated the knee plays as portraits: the action is limited to a small part of the stage, the actors are the focus of the scene, and what little “scenery” there is consists of chairs, slabs of glass, etc. at the same spatial distance as the actors.  The train and trial scenes (including “Building” and “Spaceship”) form the second of Wilson’s three divisions of theatrical space.  Actors are seen in relation to larger backdrops at the back of the stage and smaller props are placed throughout the stage.  The longer title of the two dance scenes, “field with spaceship” confirms their place as the two landscape sections of the opera.3  The entire field of the stage is used as the dancers move about causing the viewer’s eyes to continually shift from one actor to another.

3 There would be some question whether the spaceship scene in Act IV is also a landscape had Wilson not stated (in Einstein on the Beach, the Changing Image of Opera, 1986) that there were only two landscape scenes in the opera. Although the entire stage is used in “Spaceship” and the back of the stage, rather than being a backdrop, forms an integral part of the action (the musicians are placed there), the isolation of action in only a few places on stage at any particular moment distinguishes it from the other dance works.

Wilson’s portraits, still-lives, and landscapes are distributed symmetrically throughout the opera:

The opera can be symmetrically divided in several ways.  First, the knee plays divide the opera into four parts—the four acts—each of which contains two or three still-lives or landscapes.4  The landscapes divide the opera again into three sections as bracketed in the figure above.  The titles in italics are grouped together by their similarity in style: texts based on counted quarter notes.  These sections further divide the opera into two sections.

3 The musical material in “Building” and “Spaceship,” being derived from “Train 1” allows us to consider them as a unified section interrupted by “Bed.” With this conception, the symmetry is preserved to an ever greater degree.

The division of the opera into five knee plays,5 four acts, three sections articulated by Wilson’s “landscapes,” two sections divided by the recurrence of the counted quarter notes in “Prison,” and one unity parallels Glass’s contention that the musical material is made up of sections consisting of five, four, three, two, and one chord.  The symmetric divisions of the opera stand in contrast to the asymmetric rhythms and phrases of much of the work, reversing the standard of Western classical music.

5 Glass has stated that the most important musical material is introduced in the knee plays and has asserted that their structure structures the opera. Although I do not agree entirely with this statement, it is supported by the parallelism indicated above.

Visual and Non-musical Structures

Wilson and Glass have emphasized that they conceived of Einstein on the Beach as a “portrait” opera, where the scenes and staging would be composed of elements which related to the subject, Albert Einstein.  By choosing one of the most well-known and important figures of the twentieth century—the figure of the century according to Time magazine—the two creators did not need to present the story of a person’s life, but instead to present images on the stage and allow the audience to relate these images to the knowledge of the subject that they brought with them to the piece.  Musically, this took the form of a solo violin in the orchestra, since Einstein was a violinist, and possibly the prominent use of numbers as a foundation for the sung text.6  The visual references to Einstein are both more numerous and more difficult to connect to the subject.7  While other commentators have identified many of the references to his biography, references to his work in physics have been much more elusive for writers.  K. Robert Schwarz, for example, identified the train, one of the most important symbols in Einstein as simply a vague reference “back to a pre-atomic era.”8 

6 The numbers were not originally planned to be part of the sung text and were inserted for aid in memorization of rhythms. However, that they remained in the opera in the end and only in certain places argues for a connection between their presence and the subject of the work.
7 In many ways, they were also the most important for the first viewers of the opera, who came mostly to see a Wilson production and probably did not know SoHo’s Philip Glass. As John Rockwell wrote in 1978:
To be fair, ‘Einstein’ was a co-creation of Mr. Wilson and Philip Glass, the composer. But most people not only saw it as basically Mr. Wilson’s work—so much so that Mr. Glass was openly aggrieved, and has declined further collaboration with Mr. Wilson—but as the capstone to a series of remarkable large-scale Wilson theatrical creations that dated back to the 1960s. (New York Times, 26 November 1978, p. 5)
There is a certain irony that in America today the work is mostly viewed as not the capstone of Wilson’s creations but the starting block for Glass’s first operatic trilogy.
8 K. Robert Schwartz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon Press Ltd. 1996), p. 131.

The train meant far more than this for Einstein’s work in physics.  The train was a recurring subject in his explanations of special relativity, almost a leitmotiv for showing that the concept of simultaneity is not universal but particular to every observer.  The image Einstein evoked, which recurs in practically every physics textbook today, was that of a train car being struck by lightning at least twice:9

9 Examples from physics books are reproduced from Douglas C. Giancoli, Physics: Principles with Applications (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997), however they could have been taken from any number of physics texts.

“Train 1,” a bar of light cuts through the train backdrop twice, in the sections where the process of cyclical motives of different lengths (cyc) gives way to music in E♭ based on additive processes (add).10  It certainly could not have escaped the notice of Glass that his musical stretching and contracting of our perception of time, through repetition and additive structures, was carried on against the backdrop of a proof that time has no absolute reference point.

(2015: Video clip showing the striking of lightening on a train)

10 David Cunningham, “Einstein on the Beach,” Musics 12 (May 1977), reprinted in Writings on Glass (q.v.), pp. 155-156. Cunningham is one of the few writers to note the train’s importance in relativity demonstrations. He also recognized the allusion to Einstein’s question about riding on a beam of light in “Spaceship”.

The transformations of the train into building and spaceship in Act 4 also have their roots in relativity thought experiments.  The building, seen from both the front and side simultaneously, is a demonstration of how observers at rest see light reflected off objects moving at high speeds.11

11 I have photo-reversed the image of the building from the opera to make the similarity to the physics text’s diagram. Note that the front of the building is not rotated in either image, the important distinction between a relativity demonstration and a standard perspective drawing.

The spaceship image, in addition to being a standard demonstration of relativistic length contraction (along with a rotating ruler or stick or an oblong clock which are also seen in the opera) hints at the prospects for future nuclear apocalypse which Einstein’s work on nuclear physics made a frightening possibility.12

12 Glass, in Music by Philip Glass, has denied that Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach was a conscious influence on Glass or Wilson. There are several other music compositions having “on the beach” in their titles which could have influenced Glass (and possibly even Wilson’s) choice of titles. The second movement of Ralph Vaughn William’s Sea Symphony (c. 1909) is titled “On the Beach at Night Alone.” The similarly titled “On the Beach at Night” by Andrew Imbrie (1961) is scored for vocal ensemble with string orchestra. Roger Session’s song “On the Beach at Fontana,” (1967) taking its words from James Joyce, is another possible influence. All three of these works begin “on the beach at” somewhere, which is a closer parallel to the opera’s original title, “Einstein on the Beach at Wall Street” than is the Shute novel. The connections are unlikely, but Glass and Wilson would be the last to deny that meaning in the opera could be constructed for a listener via past experience with the novel.

The length contraction demonstrated by the spaceship manifests itself in several other ways in the opera.  The tall, narrow chairs used throughout the opera are examples of this physical phenomenon on stage.  Further analysis of how the staging parallels the teachings and life of Einstein will have to await a video viewing of the opera.

(The paper will continue in a coming blog post with musical analysis of the opera. The "further analysis," even several live and video viewings later will still need to wait.)

No comments: