Einstein on the Beach
Often regarded as the most popular and longest opera composition of Phillip Glass, Einstein on the Beach is a four acts connected by five “knee plays” theatre work. The opera was based on the life of Albert Einstein to showcase his brilliance as a scientist, humanist, and an amateur musician. Glass’ idea was to make Einstein’s character the subject of the opera. The “knee plays”, similar to the traditional intermezzo, are based on an allusion to Einstein’s theory. The knee play five consists of electric organ, solo violin, soprano, and alto chorus. A recurring three-note motive, which later develops into three chords progressions, form the main structure on which Glass built the allusive knee play five.
The music began with a repeated three note introduction played by the electric organ in the key of C major. Beginning with the sixth scale degree (A), which hold four counts, to scale degree five (G), which holds six counts, and resolves to tonic, scale degree one (C), which holds eight counts. The introduction maintains a stable and moderately loud dynamics. The three-note motive soon develops into a harmonic chord progression, beginning with a minor chord followed by G major, and resolved to C major. The chorus sang to number one through eight and solfege depending on the rhythmic change on each of the chord.
The production of the knee play five brought about the infusion of images, actions, and music. This spectacle and meditation creates an object of curiosity for the audience. One of the conventions that bind the opera together is choreography, which illustrates the sequence of movements that beamed light to the depicted Einstein’s theory that is been projected. The highlight of knee play five was the introduction of violin, which was played by Einstein’s character. Glass described in an interview, that Einstein’s role of playing with violin is an “association”, meaning a sense of shared dream and witness. The violin played an improvisatory role to the already established harmonic progression, a minor – G major – C major. This further illustrates the role Einstein played during WWII of developing atomic energy. After observing the ongoing Nazi atomic research, Einstein alerted the United States that the German scientists were on the verge of building atomic bomb. This led the United States to research and develop the first nuclear weapon known as the Manhattan Project.
My thought on this piece is how Glass deviate from aesthetic conventions of traditional opera to initiate an innovative way of writing an opera. This Avant-garde approach makes audience broaden their perspective on works like Einstein on the beach. Glass uses the new trends musicological methodology to engage the performer and the listener in determining the meaning of his work. This approach allows the individual to be conscious of different musical expression ranging from structure to form and to blend juxtaposition of visual effect with music.
Duckles, Vincent, Jann Pasler, Glenn Stanley, Thomas Christensen, Barbara H. Haggh, Robert Balchin, Laurence Libin, Tilman Seebass, Janet K. Page, Lydia Goehr, Bojan Bujic, Eric F. Clarke, Susan McClary, Jean Gribenski, Carolyn Gianturco, Pamela M. Potter, David Fallows, Miloš Velimirović, Gary Tomlinson, Gerard Béhague, Masakata Kanazawa, and Peter Platt. “Musicology.” Grove Music Online. 5 Mar. 2018.
Groueff, Stéphane. 1967. Manhattan Project; the Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb. n.p.: Boston, Little, Brown, c1967., 1967. Nugget, EBSCOhost (accessed March 5, 2018).
1984 Philip Glass Documentary (Einstein on the Beach) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1PxYB0wqSE