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Trainwreckin' Crew? Philip Glass' Einstein On The Beach At The Barbican
Leo Chadburn , May 11th, 2012 06:07

Philip Glass' opera Einstein On The Beach is having its first UK performance at the Barbican Centre. Leo Chadburn attends a potential trainwreck

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Einstein on the Beach, like all of Philip Glass' early works, is difficult music to perform. Very difficult. Like particles in a supercollider, the whirling loops rush at an apparently superhuman speed, augmenting incrementally, note by note. Their implacable flow is real edge of the seat stuff for the musicians involved. One slip, one fraction of a second's lapse in concentration, and the whole thing falls apart. Rehearsing with his small band (saxophones, flutes, Farfisa organs) in the early 1970s, Glass borrowed a wry term for these musical meltdowns: "trainwrecks". Adding to the mental toughness is the issue of stamina - infamously, Einstein runs continuously for five hours without a break.

Originally staged in 1976, it has taken until now for the work to reach Britain. It is testament to the piece's trickiness that 36 years after its world premiere it still presents some challenges. This first night of the first London production features, if not any full-blown trainwrecks, a few near-miss derailments and an unscheduled consignment to the sidings for some malfunctioning scenery. It is testament to the piece's brilliance that it is nevertheless an unforgettable experience.

Einstein is Glass' first opera and his most notorious. It has a radical, uncompromising quality that speaks of the time and place of its composition. In post-1960s New York the influence of John Cage and his followers had given artists of all media the permission to push and stretch the boundaries of their work, and the old constrictions around the worlds of performing and visual arts began to dissolve. It became rather more difficult to pin down and categorise the work of, for example, the choreographer Trisha Brown, whose work sometimes more closely resembled sculpture or installation, or the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose work strayed into performance, demolition and even opening a restaurant in the name of art. In this milieu, Einstein on the Beach was free to ditch many of the conventions of opera and theatre. The decision to let the work run continuously, for example, comes with the still unusual invitation to the audience to wander in and out as they wish.

Glass' collaborator on this project was the director Robert Wilson, the renaissance man routinely described as a theatrical visionary. In 1976, he had already made a name for himself through his ambitious, often very lengthy productions (sometimes running to days on end), fusing his artist's eye for lighting, his architect's perceptions about set design and his dancer's feeling for abstract movement. The most radical aspect of Wilson's concept for Einstein is its plot. Or rather its lack of plot.

Wilson recently said, "you don't have to understand anything… that's the idea". Rather than a linear narrative, Einstein presents a sequence of recurring, shifting, archetypal images: a puffing steam train pulling imperceptibly slowly onto the stage, a trial, a spooky, wordless midnight tryst ('Night Train'), a towering building around which a crowd gathers and finally the glowing interior of a spaceship. Rather than a libretto, Wilson presented Glass with drawings of these images. The telling of any kind of tale goes out the window and the spotlight is thrown on the abstraction of Glass' music, Wilson's set design and the choreography of the dancers who stand in for the usual operatic soloists.

I said, "Chris, who is Einstein?", he said, "I don't know". I said, "Chris, who is Einstein?", he said, "I don't know". I said, "Chris, who is Einstein?", he said, "I don't know".

Above all, Einstein on the Beach is not about Albert Einstein. In Wilson's words, "We all know stories about him. We come to the theatre sharing something, so in a sense there was no need to tell a story". Einstein appears, sure enough, in the form of a virtuoso violinist dressed in a disheveled white wig, moustache and braces, who periodically emerges from the orchestra pit to play Glass' spiralling patterns, but the audience is told nothing about him. Instead, Einstein is an emblem, a mascot.

I said, "Chris, who is Einstein?", he said, "I don't know". I said, "Chris, who is Einstein?", he said, "I don't know". I said, "Chris, who is Einstein?", he said, "Let me think".

Robert Wilson's repetitive conversation with the poet Christopher Knowles, as remembered above, resulted in the bulk of the opera's text, which is always spoken by the dancers, rather than sung by the singers. Knowles' autism and apparent lack of knowledge about Einstein results in surreal, dreamy non sequiturs, full of pop culture references and semantic hiccups, pre-empting Laurie Anderson's musical recitations. Meanwhile, the singers' material is reduced to a minimum: either sung numbers to represent Glass' rhythmic structures (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8) or solfège syllables (do re mi fa sol la ti do) to lay bare Glass' melodic structures.

The whole piece is coloured by a similar logic. The opera is a puzzle to be solved. What is the meaning of the single dancer in the red shirt and the clock running backwards? What is the meaning of the phrase "prematurely air-conditioned supermarket"? What is the meaning of the scale, the repetitiveness, the simplicity, the complexity?

The complexity. Press night at the Barbican and the start of the performance is delayed by a good half an hour. Eventually, the theatre opens and the audience enters to find the music in progress. Over an ominous, unearthly bass line played on the trademark Philip Glass electric organ, two dancers are sat calmly reciting random numbers and Knowles' curious, cryptic text. "Will it get some wind for the sailboat... it could get the railroad for these workers… it could be Franky… it could be very fresh and clean". As they speak, they perform strange, small gestures, like a pair of receptionists from another dimension operating the interstellar switchboard.

These two 'characters', played with exactly the right coolness of inflection by Helga Davis and Kate Moran, re-appear throughout the opera, in the 'Knee Plays' which act as transitions between scenes. They're performing the original choreography by Lucinda Childs and they're dressed exactly as their characters were in 1976. This is because, uniquely in theatre, Einstein is now inextricably linked to its production. The sets, movement, costume, everything tonight is a recreation of the original version, with minor adjustments to some technical aspects of the lighting. It's a curious feeling, entering into this theatrical world which is familiar from pictures, books, essays, but never actually witnessed on British soil before. It's a strangely timely experience, seeing the same images that caught the imagination of New Yorkers 36 years ago, the production that Susan Sontag claimed to have been so impressed by that she went to see it forty times.

When the curtain finally comes up on the first scene, 'Train', it is a heart-stopping moment. The extraordinary power of the music shifting immediately into gear at high velocity is completely timeless. Throughout the piece, the music's hallucinatory relentlessness seems to bend time. The staging is extraordinary too: a boy stands on a tower high in the proscenium arch holding a eery cube of light, whilst below him the dancers make signals like futuristic semaphore. It is genuinely a 'moving painting', full of details, so the viewer's attention is held over the half an hour it takes for the scene to unfold.

Then, the spectre of the trainwreck raises its head. There are a few rhythmic wobbles from the otherwise exemplary band. As the scene ends, the boy is rescued from the tower, which begins to move offstage on wires. Then it judders to a halt, before dangling above the dancers' heads. There is an awkward pause before the tower is winched off and the enormous stage management team begin to shift on the stylised set for the first of the 'Trial' scenes.

It is these two courtroom scenes which give the real atmosphere of the late twentieth century. There's something a little dated about the slightly daft, anachronistic texts which the judge spouts (albeit superbly read on this occasion by Charles Williams). Especially the "my sisters!" anecdote about "the woman… so modest she blindfolds herself whilst taking a bath". I guess it would have been read as a satire of sexual politics at the time. Likewise in the second 'Trial' scene, the imagery of prisoners in striped suits and the dancer changing out of her evening gown to wield an automatic weapon probably would have resonated very effectively. Post-Guantanamo Bay and post-Arab Spring, however, these scenes root Einstein very much in the world as it was 30 years ago. They seem, somehow, a little facile.

Two hours in, the performance falters. A curtain bobs up a few feet, instead of sweeping elegantly into the fly tower. A Barbican producer emerges onstage to explain the breakdown and the infamously interval-less Einstein is forced to have an interval. Interestingly, the break occurs at a very natural point in the drama, suggesting that the opera might benefit from having one as a matter of course. Certainly, most of the audience have chosen not to 'wander in and out' until this point. Despite Philip Glass' recent suggestion that it's "OK to fall asleep" during the show, Einstein is detailed enough for it to feel like you'd miss something important by having a tea break or fag break. I have the impression that the continuous five-hour structure of the production is another relic of 1970s radicalism, rather than dramatic necessity. But this is a kind of re-creation after all - Wilson and Glass have probably made the right decision in not revising or fiddling with it.

Wilson himself emerges onstage after the emergency landing to explain the abandonment of the broken flying machine and exhorts the audience to "fasten your safety belts - have fun". Any thought of technical imperfection is blown away by what happens next - the astonishing 'Dance 1' sequence. On a empty stage, illuminated by a halo of light, the dancers spin like gleaming white windmills to the pulsating, sparkling music.

This energy, athleticism and formal beauty is the heart of Einstein's excellence. Similarly, the intensely abstract 'Bed' scene, in which nothing happens other than a single band of light shifting gradually from vertical to horizontal, is tremendously powerful. The music at this point, featuring a wordless soprano floating ethereally over the organ, is Glass' most ravishing. Elsewhere, there are some surprises, like the sudden (and unique for Philip Glass) appearance of a barking, improvised sax solo during the 'Building' scene, as the curtain rises on a huge tromp-l'oeil backdrop, to audible gasps from the audience.

Counter to Glass and Wilson's claims about its meaninglessness, the piece in no way seems to be about nothing. It is not a simple, extended exercise in abstraction and endurance. In fact, Einstein himself, there onstage in cartoonish form, might stand as a symbol of what the opera really represents, as the 20th century crashes in during the final scene, 'Spaceship'. The stage shimmers with light, and the music moves towards a staggering climax, the band racing, racing, racing as a diagram of the bomb descends in front of the action.

"Bern, Switzerland, 1905". The heroic advancements in physics during the last century contrasted with the threat of atomic war. While citizens of the world enjoy freedom like never before, the cold war testing of nuclear arms increases exponentially. We look to the skies with the hope we might see humans on the moon rather than the mushroom cloud. 1976.

Einstein is, in part, a period piece, but the sheer visceral thrill of the music is totally undiminished. On the evidence of this piece alone, Glass' status as one of the most well known and successful living composers is well deserved. A monumental work, unscathed by the shaky machinery.

Postscript:

The performances since the opening night are reported to have gone without a hitch.