Are you tired of being constantly bombarded with meaningless pop fluff that MTV throws at your brain? Need a little something fresh and exciting? Then head to your local record store’s opera section and pick up Philip Glass’ 4-CD epic, “Einstein On The Beach.” Who is Philip Glass, you may be asking? Glass is a celebrated “New Music” composer who started out playing lofts in New York during the late 1960s. His groundbreaking 1975 “opera,” “Einstein …,” brought Glass praise and recognition almost overnight from even some of the most jaded critics. You may have heard his music underlying the visuals of movies like Candyman and The Thin Blue Line and over scoring the entire films of Koyaanis-qatsi, Powaggatsi and Anima Mundi. His most recent work, “La Belle et la Bete,” an opera based on the film by Jean Cocteau, played to sold-out crowds worldwide.
Although “Einstein On The Beach” is considered an opera, I hesitate to call it so.
Its libretto consists of numbers, solfege syllables, and cryptic poems written by a then l4-year-old named Christopher Knowles. The music is far from “classical,” as the ensemble uses keyboards, organs, saxophones, flutes, and skillfully mixed voices which are not at the forefront of the pieces, but mixed in as if they were just another instrument. The voices themselves aren’t even operatic. But all this makes “Einstein” more enjoyable to listen to.
I must warn you, though, this music is not for everyone. Be prepared to be subjected to repeated patterns of four or five notes, each going through twists and turns and additive processes for about fifteen to twenty minutes. At first, it gets annoying hearing a woman singing “re mi re mi re mi” over hyperactive ensemble melodies for seventeen minutes. But after a while you realize the needle has not stuck, and that progress within the pieces has been made, and you can listen to the music for hours at a time. You cross from being irritated to hypnotized, and when you cross that point, you realize that you’re listening to something special.
“Einstein On The Beach” consists of five “knee plays,” four “Train” sections, two dances, two trials, and a “Spaceship” scene that climaxes the opera. The “Knee Plays” aren’t much to fawn over, except “Knee Play 3” which consists of a chorus, in unison, frantically singing numerals representing the beats of the music. The “Train” sections are based on a four-note theme, added to and subtracted from when necessary, going through wonderful shifts. The trials are mainly speeches (like “I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, and there were all these aisles … “) over more singing of numbers, except for a euphoric outburst from the ensemble for the last six minutes of “Trial/Prison.” The dances are the most boring of the opera’s sections, only consisting of two-note figures repeated for unbearable lengths. My personal favorite, though, is the “Spaceship” section, which could be described as a musical nuclear holocaust. This piece holds on and doesn’t let go, keeping you in a trance-like state for twelve minutes until its rousing conclusion.
My explanations are probably making “Einstein On The Beach” sound mathematical and complicated, which it is not. Take my word for it. If you have any taste at all and are willing to open your mind to a fresh approach to music, then check out “Einstein.” I know you’ll find it’s well worth the time to let it sink in