Anyone who sticks around long enough to see half of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is likely either intrigued and wants to analyze and understand it, or accepts it as it is and is comfortable with its ambiguity and eccentricity. It is a work made up exclusively of what Glass calls “repetitive structures.” Every musical structure in the work is relatively short, usually only one measure long, and is repeated many times. Each initial structure is at some point followed by a similar but rhythmically different figure, which also gets repeated a certain number of times before the initial structure returns and the cycle begins again. These two structures alternate in a fairly symmetrical fashion, each repeating the same number of times before the passing the baton. In some scenes, additional similar structures are presented at certain points – but the emphasis seems to be on two alike alternating structures. This highly unconventional work begs many questions, but there are two I find most interesting to explore: what reaction or interpretation did they hope to produce, and do artists have a responsibility to explain things to their audience?
Each structure does become gradually varied by added beats or notes, but most of these progressions are so subtle that they may go unnoticed to the untrained ear. The visuals presented on stage to accompany the music also follow this pattern of alternating repetitive structures that become gradually varied. The train, trial, and field/spaceship themes evolve such that by the end of the opera they are vastly different (i.e., the train becomes a building, the trial becomes intertwined with the visual of a bed that by the end there is only a bed, and the field with the spaceship gradually brings us out of the field and into the interior of the spaceship). Musical themes are tied to each visual theme, and upon each varied presentation of the visual, the music it accompanies has also been varied. The thread that ties everything together, however, is the gradual change in both the repetitious visuals and music.
It seems that the artists involved in creating Einstein on the Beach wanted to distort audiences’ sense of time through unrelenting reiteration. I see the work (and this style of minimalism in general) as a sort of endurance test, as if Glass and Wilson were wondering, “how long can people stand monotony if we regularly throw in some tiny morsels of variation for them to hold on to, with some vague text and visual themes that they’ll try to forge connections between?” This work is described perfectly by the term “experimental” – it tries audiences’ attention spans and analytical processes. Having one of the world’s most renowned scientists as the subject of the work further highlights this purpose.
Since traditional opera is so incredibly straightforward, and this minimalist opera, according to Craig Owens, “[lacks] the correlation between music and dramatic action” (24), it is fair to ask if pioneers of unconventional art forms are obligated to explain their work. While I think it’s always interesting and relieving when artists provide explanations, I don’t think they should be expected or required to. The more explanation an artist provides, the less people seeking to “understand” the work will employ their own analysis. When each spectator comes up with their own interpretation, the work produces a unique tapestry of human thought that we otherwise wouldn’t have if the artists just handed down their description. I would contend that art doesn’t exist just for artists who want to make statements and hope they’ll provoke thought (though that type of art is equally as valid). Art also exists for viewers, who bring with them their own human experiences as they perceive other people’s expressions. There is beauty in being able to engage with a work, free of its creator’s notions, so that you can create your own relationship with it. A work that could otherwise touch someone may not do so if they learn what the artist’s “true” intentions were in creating it.
— SUSAN SMITH
Owens, Craig. “Einstein on the Beach’: The Primacy of Metaphor.” October 4 (1977): 21-32.