There’s no actual Einstein in Philip Glass’ groundbreaking and plotless opera, but you can picture Einstein sitting on the beach contemplating the meaning of life or working on a new mathematical theory to the sound of counting numbers and random whispers. This could be the sound of his mind trying to think, or trying not to think. As a man of science, I image his mind was never quiet. Then again, when are our own minds ever completely silent? We have to train ourselves to become still in mind and body, which is hard and does not come naturally to us. In that sense, you and I are not so different from Einstein.
The counting and whispers are juxtaposed with a choir singing a hymn as simple as staring off into the ocean. There is comfort in the beach. This is the peace of mind that Einstein is trying to achieve, but even when he finds it, there’s still some sort of distraction. Yet somehow, there’s peace in the noise.
And then things get weird.
With Einstein on the Beach, Glass wanted to change your mind of operas. Operas shouldn’t just be associated with rich Italians; they can be relatable to modern times, or whatever you wanted it to be. “It’s a story that you have to create for yourself,” said Glass. “We don’t give you a plot; we give you a theme. And the audience completes the story.”
In this sense, Glass mostly succeeded. This is an opera in four acts and, with an almost five-hour run time, is an ambitious piece to take in all at once.
“I have rarely heard a first-night audience respond so vociferously at the Metropolitan Opera House as for this bizarre, occasionally boring, yet always intermittently beautiful theater piece.” – New York Times critic Clive Barnes said in 1976.
Forty years later, Glass’ opera has only gained in stature while still retaining its curious inaccessibility. What makes this opera work is that it jumps styles often and when you least expect it. Once you believe the piece has gone stuck up its own ass, a drastic change transforms your mood and attention. It’s hard work, but committed and full listenings are rewarded.
Glass has insisted that you cannot just listen to Einstein on the Beach. You have to watch it too. Glass worked on the production with director and playwright Robert Wilson, who added the set design and production value that Glass insisted, along with Lucinda Childs’ choreography, was essential to the piece. When you watch the performance, you can pick out the violinist who kind of resembles Einstein, and there are references to beaches and a trail. But that’s all you get in concrete details.
Does it sound offputting? Absolutely. Yet I encourage a full listen to discover what this piece means to you. You might be surprised by what you hear.
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber