Tuesday 7 February 2017

Einstein On The Beach

‘Really’ Of Telly-tivety

Einstein On The Beach
France/UK 2016
Opus Arte Blu Ray All Regions

Composer Philip Glass has been playing a musical backdrop to my life for almost 30 years now. His music, and also this opera in particular, was a big influence on me when I was studying for my degree. Up until then I had been listening primarily to musical scores written for movies but was also shifting into more experimental, contemporary classical stuff. I had already discovered a form of minimalism, the musical form accredited to brilliant composers like Glass and Steve Reich, to a certain extent in the ‘Ladbroke Grove sound’ perpetuated by Michael Nyman, initially through his scores for the Peter Greenaway movies and then onto all his other stuff. When I finished my General Art and Design Diploma I then studied for my degree in Graphic Design at the London College of Printing and it was here, fairly early on, that a fellow student, @thatkeithmartin introduced me to Philip Glass by way of his compositions for the documentary Northstar and the stage show 1000 Airplanes On The Roof. I was absolutely hooked from the opening notes of each and then I went into one of the HMVs in Oxford Street (I don’t believe it’s there anymore) and bought the original CBS CD set of Einstein On The Beach and, predictably, it blew me away.

And that’s the kind of stuff I was listening as a counterpoint to my degree course. A solid wall of Philip Glass in the evenings as I worked on various degree projects and his music just kind of seeped into me and, I’m sure, seeped out again in various ways in my own work on a visual level. And, on and off, I’ve never really stopped listening to him since. I’ve seen him live in concert too many times to count over the years. Watched him do live performances of Koyanisqaatsi and Powaqaatsi a number of times too and seen various operas such as Galileo Galilei and, my favourite of his works, Satyagraha. However, I’ve never had the opportunity to see his opera Einstein On The Beach and apparently, that’s because I missed it when it was in tour in 2013. Which is something I’ve only just found out and which I’m annoyed about but I have, at least, seen this new Blu Ray version of it taken from one of those 2013 productions and... I’m very much better off for having done so.

So I finally got to see what this thing was supposed to look like behind this fantastic curtain of music and... it’s the same but different.

For instance, the opening ‘Knee Play’ music which is one of my favourite all-time Philip Glass pieces and which, in the recording I have,  lasts only four minutes, is performed here in an entirety that I never knew it had... with a long, slow build up to those last few minutes which takes almost a half an hour. I would absolutely love to get a CD of this version but, heck, at least I have it on here (and you can apparently watch this section on you tube too here) and it’s absolutely incredible.

In fact, all in all I’d have to say that this production and the way this has been captured here for the home viewing market, with the director using close ups of various elements of what is often a packed out stage, is just overall incredible in general, barring a minor grumble. That grumble being the introduction, in a few sequences, of some fairly standard dancing moves... thankfully these sections don’t go on too long though and the majority of this thing is absolute bliss. And even if there are some sequences you don’t particularly like, the music is always there in the foreground so, frankly, the whole four and a half hours as featured on this quite nicely put together, two disc blu ray set, is a huge hit with me.

I’d have to say that my favourite part of the opera is the first hour and a half and the opening knee play, where the two ‘main ladies’ start saying words or phrases from the ‘get some wind for the sailboat’ lyrics and hurling out seemingly random numbers (yeah, I bet they’re not). It’s truly startling and the main choreography from original choreographer Lucinda Childs (who put it together in collaboration with Glass back in the early 1970s) is amazing as people move slowly... very slowly... around the stage space and throw out frozen expressions of joy and wonder which, frankly, cracked me up laughing in several places and which really carried me along on a wave of joy right from the word go. As this opening plays out, the chorus gradually, over the space of a quarter of an hour or more, assemble themselves in slow motion until they catch up to the ‘Knee Play' section and start the familiar counterpoint singing... One Two Three Four, One Two Three Four Five Six, One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight as a repeat phrase which then, possibly without some people even noticing, metamorphosises into One Two Three Four, One Two Three Four Five Six, Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight but still retaining the beat for the missing number. It’s just sublime.

And that’s one of main things about the music of Philip Glass that I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with and not realise over the years. It tends to take you by stealth sometimes but there’s always a lot more going on than just a repeat motif... it shifts and strays and progresses itself until it reaches a logical conclusion or change and it does it slowly. Which is another thing which I have a theory on when it comes to people who don’t really ‘get’ the music of Philip Glass. When certain people hear it they tend to hear a jumble of notes repeated very fast, over and over again. Nope, that’s not what it is... as far as I’m concerned...

Think of micropolyphany in music.

It was invented by György Ligeti and some of his music, which was accidentally appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for 2001 - A Space Odyssey without paying the composer (at first), such as Lux Aeterna, uses this invention... which is lots of short, indistinguishable notes played very fast to make up one, long even tone. Think of that concept for a moment and then think about the music of Philip Glass. It sounds fast if you listen on the surface but think about how those notes and phrases are slowly shifting and mutating and you’ll maybe come to the conclusion, as did I back in my college days, that Philip Glass doesn’t really write fast music and that his works do, in fact, incorporate ponderous melody lines. What he does, it is my belief, is write very slow music which is, itself, made up of lots of very fast repeat notes. So try listening to what the notes are saying in clusters rather than as individual notes and... you may start to get hooked on the music the same way I did all those decades ago.

And it’s great hearing this stuff and seeing the accompanying visuals for the first time. Especially with the director hand picking which parts of a composition you see on the stage at any one time so you don’t miss what he considers to be important. It’s also an absolute mind blower to try and figure out how all the performers know where to come in an go out. Glass’s music can’t be all that easy to get right and I wonder how much concentrated counting is going on in the heads of the actors, actresses and singers. My best guess, from having seen some of these singers coming in on the same cue, time after time, is that there is a complex series of clues at work here and each individual is both looking out, and listening out, for them. For instance, when person x gets to that line in the floor over there, the next person can start to move and go into their singing  which will, in turn, trigger somebody else to start their next part of the performance. That’s my best guess scenario anyway.

It must be a fairly complex set of signifiers to get the stuff right, I’m sure and not only extremely easy to screw up but fairly physically demanding... even for dancers (who are notoriously strong). There’s one sequence, for example, lasting around a half and hour or maybe longer, where a girl is strutting backwards and forwards across the stage in repeat motions while her arm is outstretched and pointing upwards at a fixed angle. I was feeling her pain... if you’ve ever tried to hold your arm steady for even a few minutes, let alone keep a beat with the music and keep within your area of a stage while moving fairly quickly... well, you can probably get some idea of what these people are accomplishing here for their art.

The whole opera is very well performed, in fact, and extremely well put together. I’ve both more and less of an idea of what I am listening to every time I reach for that album these days and I think I’m better off for it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but it is truly brilliant stuff and if you’re a fan of Philip Glass, or even contemporary or historical minimalism in the first place, then you probably owe it to yourself to give this one a look. Especially since it’s clear some revisions or changes have been made to the original text. I’m feeling really grateful to Opus Arte for being able to finally see Einstein On The Beach in a presentation of some sort and I hope they keep up the good work with their Glass back catalogue and release some more of his projects, past and present, in the future. Really looking forward to seeing more of this kind of stuff out there.

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