I was about 21 when I decided to figure out what avant-garde music sounded like. A friend and I grilled a visiting artist who seemed knowledgeable on the subject, and madly scribbled down the names he mentioned. Then we got radio shows so we could look up all the music. It was 1996, so that’s what you did.
It was during that time that I first listened to Phillip Glass’s score for “Einstein on the Beach”, a plotless four-hour opera by Robert Wilson, which has been restaged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) over the last two weeks. The CD came with only a few production stills in the insert, and the production is rarely staged, so I and my friends knew almost nothing about the play— but we could listen to the score endlessly.
Back then, I took this option literally; three months were wasted in my studio making bad Glass-inspired paintings. By the end, I had memorized the entire opera and come to a few new conclusions about what Einstein shouldn’t look like; namely, my abstract painting.
It’s for this reason that, when I watched the opera two weeks ago at BAM, I was particularly interested in seeing the visuals Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs produced for the play; presumably they resolved all the problems I couldn’t. I wanted to know what it looks like to dance to a choir chanting numbers, what type of image matches a furiously played organ, and how on earth Einstein had anything to do with this music.
The answers to some of these questions seem obvious once you see them. For example, in the first scene we hear the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6 uttered by the choir as fast as they can chant while a dancer speed-walks back and forth across the stage. She never turns her back to the audience, opting instead to walk backwards. The steps are generic and repeatable, just like the numbers, and this makes sense. Throughout the play we see dancers repeating moves the way Glass repeats notes.
I sometimes had the feeling that almost any image would work with the score, so long as it was representational. The music needs the specificity of representation, as a point of contrast to all those numbers and organ music).
Still, if you know even a little about Einstein’s theories it becomes clear that they shape the opera. In the first of two scenes with a train (a reference to one of the thought experiments Einstein used to explain relativity), a dancer wearing a red sweater is bathed in blue light; a reference to the way colors shift near the speed of light. Move fast enough and the waveforms of an object moving towards you will be compressed and therefore blue. Those left behind the traveling object will be long and therefore red.
Of course, you have to have remembered your science courses to get this and I bet I wasn’t the only one who didn’t. A little additional research on relativity had me wondering if Wilson had actually missed a few opportunities; traveling at the speed of light, for example, can actually completely obscure one’s vision. However, since virtually every visual detail apparently bears some relationship to Einstein’s work, I figured if it was anyone who was missing things it was me.
This observation made me think that Wilson was the 70s minimalist version of superstar artist Matthew Barney’s 90’s maximalist artmaking. Both are known for weaving cosmologies so complex, that audiences won’t ever fully understand their work. Strangely enough it also drew me back to my own painting attempts in 1996, which suddenly seemed similar to the opera. Both were more fruitful for the creator than anyone else. After wasting three months, all I got out of it was a review. Wilson, Childs, and Glass built entire careers.
Some pictures, courtesy of Lucie Jansch: