PHILIP GLASS – Einstein on the Beach (1975)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

An opera by a minimalist composer? Well, after all Philip Glass doesn’t like the “minimalist” label, and John Adams was influenced by that school and has composed operas, right? So it might be something normal, right?

Wrong. Philip Glass might not like the term minimalist but he likes describing his work as “music based on repetitive structures”. And this is an “opera” without plot and almost without lyrics. This is not “The Death of Klinghoffer”.

Actually, the only thing resembling lyrics here are the spoken word passages, the sung passages are entirely comprised of numbers and solfeggio syllables. The work is comprised of lenghty passages (about 20 minutes each) describes as corresponding to one of three settings – “Train”, “Trial” and “Dance/Spaceship”. I get that trains and spaceships might have a relationship with Einstein’s theories, but damned if I know what “Trial” refers to. These passages are linked by shorter pieces called “Knee Plays” which are the equivalent of overtures and entr’actes in usual operas. The pieces are indeed repetitive, but not static; imagine one of those complicated melodies on prog or jazz fusion records but instead of going through harmony or rhythm changes they are looped on what seems like infinity. Or at times it resembles an electronica piece but without drum machines. Or imagine listening to something like “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson but more complex and for several hours.

And I mean hours – the original recording of this is a quadruple album, but apparently it’s abridged. A complete staging of this work lasts about five hours and the audience are allowed to take pee breaks whenever they feel like.

The instrumentation is sparse, but the repetition of a single melody line by several instruments does result in interesting sounds. Usually in classical music one appreciates instrumental combinations in chords as a manner of pads, or in focused instrumental lines. Here we have these quick, rapid arpeggios, which by virtue of their slow evolution force your brain into registering the subtle mixtures of sounds, so for instance the tenor sax, soprano sax and flute in the first scene end up sounding like a particularly well programmed synth patch, and the interaction between them, the voices and the electronic organ creates a rhythmic pulse that seems to make you hear notes that probably aren’t even there.

In the shorter parts (the “Knee Plays”) the focus seems to be more in the choir than in the instruments and in this case is the beats created by the subtle rhythmic displacements between the groups of singers what gives the most striking impression. 

I won’t lie to you. It’s challenging to sit through it.The best strategy might be to have it as background; while the music is the opposite as the usual “ambient” strategies, the end result is similar – something that you can tune in or out almost at will but that will excite your brain if you do pay attention to it.

Selecting highlights from this would require a thorough analysis as so much of it is similar, but I’d advise to listen to the first two pieces (“Knee Play 1” and “Act I, Scene I – Train”), as those offer maybe the most accurate summary of everything. If your interest is piqued, I would encourage you to continue. I would also recommend “Act IV Scene II – Bed” which is mainly based on organ and later some gorgeous wordless vocal phrases.

In short this is probably not something I’d listen to frequently, but I am very glad I got to know it. Thumbs up – for what might sound as a totally “brainy” music, this resonated more than I thought it would.
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Author: tomymostalas

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