In attempting to examine the “opera,” Einstein on the Beach, I found it very difficult to grasp onto any solid idea that either was presented or suggested in the work. Considering the nature and motivation of both Glass and Wilson, this is exactly the kind of result they were hoping for: that the listener would be able to form their own interpretation of the work. This is not an altogether new concept in the world of music, though it has definitely been gaining more popularity in the last few decades. Billy Budd also contained a considerable degree of ambiguity, but at least it had a narrative story and tangible characters. Einstein is a seemingly nonsensical conglomeration of entrancing music and bizarre scenery and although there is no narrative, there is a very strong overall structure to the work. “Knee plays,” intermezzo-type scenes before or after each act present major musical material and images that are later expanded upon. In addition, the major scenes of the opera return as well, like the Train, the Trial and the Spaceship, changing with each appearance. The music and scenery go hand-in-hand, so much so that to take one without the other would severely alter the audience’s reception and interpretation. I’ll clarify by saying that it would not be considered “wrong” to separate the two, but rather that Glass’s music and Wilson’s staging, in particular, were developed in such close relation that both are “largely so subservient to [each other] that to place the score in any other theatrical context would seem very strange.” (Clements, 2012). Specifically, I’d like to discuss the first appearance of the train and my own differing experience and reaction to the piece both in and outside the context of the opera as a whole.
My first exposure to the train scene in particular was an audio recording. It starts out with a saxophone duet in a pleasant, ascending solfege pattern of ‘mi, fa, la’ and a four against three polyrhythmic pattern. Soon, vocalists come in with their own solfege pattern, ‘la ti do ti,’ and although they share the same rhythm as the saxophones, it feels sort of like a three against four as well because there are four notes in the pattern instead of three. Slowly but surely, more polyrhythmic elements are added in as the vocalists alternate between three different rhythmic and melodic patterns that slowly reveal the full pentatonic scale. As I was just listening to the music, this development and expansion was relaxing to listen to as each one of the parts phased in and out of my ears; my initial response was positive and the gradual change of each one of the vocal patterns against the constant and unchanging saxophone pattern was engagingly entrancing. However, when I was able to watch a staged recording of the scene, my experience and response were not nearly as positive.
Throughout the entire piece, a woman walks briskly forwards and backwards in a straight diagonal line with one arm up in the air, holding what looks to be a pencil. Occasionally, she’ll whip her head to one side, looking up at the pencil until she sharply returns her gaze in front of her. In addition, other people come on stage and perform different movements, but regardless of what they are, they are all sharp and precise—the word geometric comes to mind. From my personal perspective, this turned the relaxing and interesting music to a disorienting, maddening and even painful experience. As I watched the woman in the middle of the stage on her unceasing trek to and fro, I couldn’t help but the imagine the fatigue and pain that comes along with holding your arms up for such an extended amount of time (the piece lasts about 25 minutes). Though her expression remained elegant and pristine, I just wanted her to be able to stop, to take a break. The relaxing and fascinating music became more like a psychological battle.
Despite my initial, less-than-pleasant experience when I was exposed to a fuller representation of the recorded staged performance, I still enjoy listening to the music itself. It’s meditative and relaxing, but also interesting and engaging. When combined with Wilson’s staging, however, it becomes a completely different experience, and even though I had a strong initial aversion to the whole work, as I continue to study and watch it, the more I appreciate the simple complexity of both the music and staging. I do have to qualify as well that there are times in the opera that the staging is just as hypnotic and engaging as the music (the dance scenes in particular) but my claim still stands that the experience is drastically different when only listening, as opposed to watching and listening. I’d also like to point out that if I were to go and watch the work live, it would also be vastly different than watching a recording, which seems like a rather obvious statement to make. But with a work like Einstein that relies so heavily on the audience member’s interpretation, the way in which a person is exposed to it greatly effects their overall response.
By Jacque Hale
Glass, Philip. “Notes: Einstein on the Beach.” Performing Arts Journal 2, no. 3 (1978): 63-70. doi:10.2307/3245363.
Flakes, Susan. “Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach”.” The Drama Review: TDR 20, no. 4 (1976): 69-82. doi:10.2307/1145076.
Clements, Andrew. “Einstein on the Beach- review.” The Guardian. 6 May 2012. Accessed 1 March 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/may/06/einstein-on-beach-glass-review.
Broadhurst, Susan. “Einstein on the Beach: A study in Temporality.” Performance Research 17, no. 5 (2012). http://dx