The First “Knee Play” of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach: A Musical Analysis

 

kneeplay1
Image courtesy of YouTube.com (https://youtu.be/5wXnFABYY8I)

Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is one of the most provocative and unconventional works ever to be described as an opera. It is almost five hours long, and while there are several obvious themes, there is no discernable plot and the libretto is fairly nonsensical. What the opera is about is arguably its most intriguing aspect. Einstein is clearly a main fixture of any message the work might be meant to convey, but how does he relate to the recurring themes (the train, the trial, and the spaceship)? Tim Page explains that Glass “was immediately attracted to what he called [director] Wilson’s sense of ‘theatrical time, space and movement,’” and that “the opera is intended as a metaphorical look at Einstein: scientist, humanist, amateur musician – and the man whose theories, for better and for worse, led to the splitting of the atom.” This information is no doubt fascinating, but it provides little help in interpreting the show’s visual and textual elements. What should one make of said elements in the absence of a clear connection to the subject, Einstein? Glass and Wilson deliberately left these elements open to interpretation, and the music and text in Knee Play 1 illustrate this point quite well.

The music is relentlessly repetitive, and has been formally categorized as “minimalism” – though most “minimalist” composers (Glass included) do not care for that term. Glass instead describes his music as composed of “repetitive structures.” Listening to just the first several minutes of Glass’s music likely makes one wonder how they will survive five hours of such insistent repetition! Much to the relief of many audience members, however, Glass has stipulated that they are free to come and go as they please during the performance. This informal setup, combined with the show’s staging and visual aspects, takes the edge off of the music’s intense repetition.

I would contend that the majority of people prefer minimalist music in small doses – myself included – and this is one of the reasons I chose to examine the first “Knee Play” of Einstein. It is a short piece compared to the others in the show, and is meant to be performed while audience members are taking their seats (likely to encourage the informal atmosphere that Glass asks for). The rest of the Knee Plays function as interludes of sorts, and also as entertainment while set changes take place. Knee Play 1 seems to express most of the show’s musical elements. Text is spoken by a solo performer, who is accompanied by electric organ and chorus members singing numerical text. According to Nicolas Sceaux, it “is based on a la-sol-do pedal” played by the organ in the key of C major. The organ enters alone to present the pedal, and the chorus later joins, each voice part counting from the number one on a tone within the triad. The soprano line favors the tonic of each chord. Nicolas Sceaux has devised a visual/verbal aid to illustrate the chorus’s “repetitive structure”:

 

(La) one two three four,

(Sol) one two three four five six,

(Do) one two three four five six seven eight…

 

Single digit numbers are sung frequently by the chorus throughout the opera, just as in Knee Play 1, to signify the constant calculations occurring in Einstein’s mind. Glass’s “repetitive structures,” like the realms of math and science, are formulaic and consistent. The text’s relationship to Einstein, however, is much less clear. It is a poem by Christopher Knowles, mainly describing an “it” through a series of reiterated and incredibly vague clues, which are occasionally interrupted with new text. The opera’s director, Robert Wilson, became acquainted with Knowles’s “cryptic” texts after having worked with him “as an instructor of disturbed children” (Page). The soloist recites it as follows:

Would it get some wind for the sailboat. And it could get for it is.

It could get the railroad for these workers. And it could be where it is.

It could Franky. It could be Franky.

It could be very fresh and clean.

It could be a balloon.

All these are the days my friends, and these are the days my friends.

It could get some wind for the sailboat. And it could get for it is.

It could get the railroad for these workers. It could get for it is where.

It could be a balloon. It could be Franky.

It could be very fresh and clean.

All these are the days my friends, and these are the days my friends.

It could be those days.

Will it get some wind for the sailboat and it could get for it is it.

It could get the railroad for these workers. It could get for it is.

All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends.

But these days of 888 cents in 100 coins of change.

These are the days my friends, and these are my days my friends.

Make a tiota on these are the days loop.

So if you say will it get some wind for the sailboat and it could for.

It could be Franky.

It could be very fresh and clean.

So it could be those ones.

So if you cash the bank of world traveler from ten months ago.

Do you remember Honz the bus driver? Well I put the red ball and

blue ball and two black and white balls. And Honz pushed on his brakes and

the four balls went down to that. And Honz said,

“Get those four balls away from the gearshift.”

All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends.

It could get the railroad for these workers.

It could, would, will it get some wind for the sailboat.

And it could get for it is.

 

What “it” refers to is very much open to interpretation, but I argue that “it” is what a scientist hopes to discover at the end of an experiment – a solution to a problem (“the railroad for these workers,” “some wind for the sailboat,” etc.), a new discovery (“a balloon”), or a newfound characteristic of something already known to exist (“very fresh and clean”). Though most experiments are formulated along with a hypothesis, scientists recognize that results could yield anything. The findings of an experiment could be nothing or anything. They could be many different things that the scientist had not thought of. Thus, the text presents a wide range of random things that “it” (an experiment’s result) could be.

— SUSAN SMITH

Bibliography

“Biography – Philip Glass.” Philip Glass. 2016. Accessed March 04, 2018. http://philipglass.com/biography/.

Glass, Philip. “Notes: Einstein on the Beach.” Performing Arts Journal 2, no. 3 (1978): 63-70.doi:10.2307/3245363.

Johnson, Timothy A. “Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique?” The Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (1994): 742-73. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/742508.

Owens, Craig. “”Einstein on the Beach”: The Primacy of Metaphor.” October 4 (1977): 21-32. doi:10.2307/778477.

Page, Tim. “Einstein on the Beach.” Grove Music Online. 4 Mar. 2018. http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000004372.

Potter, Keith. “London, Barbican Theatre: Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’.” Tempo 66, no. 262 (2012): 53. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/23362914.

Robert Adlington, and Philip Glass. “Through a Glass Darkly.” The Musical Times 135, no. 1813 (1994): 164-65. doi:10.2307/1002910.

Sceaux, Nicolas. “The Knee Plays.” Einstein on the Beach: The Knee Plays. Accessed March 04, 2018. http://nicolas.sceaux.free.fr/einstein/einstein_4.html#SEC15.

Swed, Mark. “Philip Glass’s Operas.” The Musical Times 129, no. 1749 (1988): 577-79. doi:10.2307/966783.

 

 

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