on the Beach' was written in 1975
by Philip Glass
(music) and Robert Wilson
(visuals), with contributions from Christopher Knowles
and Samuel M. Johnson
(text, not to be confused with the other Samuel Johnson
). It was first performed in 1976
in Europe and America, where it proved to be very popular and more than a little controversial
, not least because it was originally five hours long
and went biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly
. Despite its success, it cost so much to stage that Philip Glass was forced to continue his day job - driving a taxi in New York
Although it is an opera, 'Einstein on the Beach' does not have a conventional plot. In fact, it does not have a plot at all. Instead, the much-parodied experience involves actors slowly moving across a stage, in front of a variety of backdrops (a train, a spaceship, a nuclear power plant, a court) whilst the Philip Glass ensemble kicks out the minimalist jams. The libretto consists of a mixture of multi-layered stream-of-consciousness gabble, and curious, eloquent passages of text which connection with Einstein or beaches.
Musically, the opera belongs firmly to Glass' contemporary 'hold and modify' style - short musical phrases are repeated, singly and in groups, and modified slightly as they repeat. Initially, much of the music appears so complex as to be a single block of unwavering, high-speed noise; whilst other parts sound as if a violinist is practising scales in a room filled with radios tuned to discussion programmes. It is essentially Glass' first attempt at combining his loop-based style with more traditional, albeit unconventional, passages, and sounds today like a mish-mash of different styles and ideas. The primary instruments are electric organ, woodwind, solo violin and voices, and consequently 'Beach' sounds more like an extended chamber piece than a full-scale symphonic work. Glass' subsequent operatic output has been much more conventional and less confrontational, indeed both 'Satyagraha' and 'Akhnaten' seemed to please neither Glass' fans nor the music critics to whom he is the devil.
The most famous part is the 'overture', in which voices chant "one two three four / one two three four five six / one two three four five six seven eight" over the notes A, G and C. Like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the underlying structure of the music is out in the open - the players chant the notes they are singing in solfege, and mark time by shouting numbers. In the mid 1970s this seemed like the future, and although modern opera has retreated from the avant-garde extremes of yore, 'Beach' remains an intriguing look at what was modern at the time. It is often described as a 'multi-media opera', perhaps because 'multi-media' was once as big a buzzword as non-linear, another term which is often used to describe Glass' work.
There are currently two different versions available on compact disc. There's a transcription of the original vinyl version released in 1978, and a modern re-recording from 1993. Both have their merits. The latter is half an hour longer, comes on three discs instead of four, and the recording is slicker - although some of the 'acting' is a little hammy, to the extent that even if this is intentional it jars with the rest of the opera. On the other hand, the former contains the original cast (particularly missed is deep-voiced Samuel M. Johnson, who unfortunately died in the interim), and has a rawer, tougher sound which sounds more 'live' than the re-recording. The cuts made to the original are not really noticeable, although curiously the final part - 'Knee Play 5', the large sections of the opera being joined with 'knee plays', each a variation on the opening theme - ends a few lines before it should, on the words 'impossible, you say?'
In both recordings the instrumental performances are awe-inspiring both for their complexity and the stamina required of the player, especially considering that, as mentioned before, the opera was originally five hours long. In italics.
Glass went on to do several other large-scale musical works, and he worked with Robert Wilson again. But if he's remembered in a hundred years, this is what he'll be remembered for. And Koyaanisqatsi, that as well. Newcomers to Philip Glass' oftentimes samey work would be well advised to listen to the latter first. Excerpts from 'Einstein' appear on all the major compilations of Philip Glass' music, and both 'Glassmasters' and 'Songs from the Trilogy' include several sections from the two operas mentioned above.
See also John Adams' 'Nixon in China', for many people the next big thing in modern minimalist opera.
'Einstein on the Beach' is also the origin of following, hilarious joke:
Q: Would it get some wind for the sailboat?
A: And it could get for it is!