Narcissus' Echo

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Aural indulgence: Einstein on the Beach

'Spent 3.5 hours listening to Philip Glass' monumental work, Einstein on the Beach on my system in the dark. What a treat.

Spanning 3 CDs, the 3 hour 20 minute 40 second recording is the score to the opera, which consists of 4 acts and is 5 hours long. There is no plot, no climax, and certainly no dénouement, but a montage of solfege syllables, recited numbers, excerpts from poetry and prose, and texts on general relativity, nuclear weapons, general science, AM radio, and yes, love. (Some info taken from Wikipedia)

Not for novitiates, Einstein on the Beach is quintessentially Glass, with its endless repetition. An acquaintance of mine detests Glass with a passion. "It's all nonsensical repetition. Anyone can do it!" he sniffs. But isn't that what our lives essentially are? They are repetitions. You wake up; you have breakfast; you perform your toilet; you leave for work or school; you do whatever you have to do; you come home; you have your dinner, perform your toilet, go to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Sure, there are occasional anomalies: you are born; you get baptized; you get sick; you fall in love; you get married; someone you care for dies, etc. These are the changes that we look out for, celebrate, or grieve over. Similarly, anomalies or changes are what Philip Glass fans look out for in his music.

For the music of Glass is not just mind-numbing repetition, there are subtle changes to the overall pattern in the repetition, between and within multiple layers of repetition. The fun is being able to spot the first note that is different. Maybe it is played in minor at this one section. Maybe he speeds up a little here and inserts an additional note. Maybe it is extended half a beat. Then, satisfied that you spotted the genesis of an eventual sea change, you sit back, content to observe it taking place. The longer the work, the subtler the change, and the larger the sample of repetition your memory has to work with. This, is the fun of Philip Glass' music. You have to use your head. I suppose it is far easier to listen to rap and have wet dreams about outrunning the poh-leez. (*koff!* *koff!* Did I just say that?)

Repetition also has its uses. It draws our mind into a pattern. Ever walked into a Buddhist temple and hear the monks chanting mantras? My mother studied with Yogis in India last year. They too, use mantras. Ever used a rosary? How many times do you repeat The Apostle's Creed, The Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, Glory Be and O My Jesus? The late Dr. Stephen Jay Gould made the hypothesis of Punctuated Equilibrium, where the process of evolution is neither gradual nor constant, but rather occur by leaps and bounds, interspersed with long periods of unchanging repetition.

Repetition can be lush, foreboding or comforting too. It thus might come as a surprise to some readers to find out that Philip Glass is the composer for the movie, The Hours. But I digress.

On the other side of the coin, Glass' compositions also make unique demands upon the musicians:

Glass' parts make technical demands that the typical concert pianist may find difficult to handle. There's lots of repetitive finger motion over long stretches, with relatively little movement up and down the keys. Though it sounds simple in some ways, it can be exhausting over the course of an evening; Riesman once calculated that at each ensemble performance, he was called upon to play approximately 80,000 notes! He has, however, adjusted. "If I were to suggest exercises for preparing to play Philip's music, I'd just say the standard scales and arpeggios that everyone learns," he says. "But, really, the best practice for me has been to just play Philip's music over the years. The music itself is like an excersice [sic] because of its repetitive nature. It stays pretty stationary most of the time. The patterns tend to be four- or five-finger patterns, so the hand doesn't move all that much. I try to move the fingers as little as possible, to push the key down only with the force necessary to make it move, and no more. This is how I can keep it up night after night." (Source)

The last track on the collection, Knee 5, begins with Michael Riesman playing low bass notes on the keyboard, with 3 min 55 sec of women singing, "1, 2, 3, 4... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8... 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6," while two females engage in one-sided conversations, commenting on anything from getting gas for the car, wondering about their friends, to the state of their lives. These serve to form an aural backdrop of mundanity.

At the 3 min 56 sec mark, Professor Gregory Fulkerson comes in with the violin, playing a melody that repeatedly alternates between being pensive and romantic. Jasper McGruder (acted as the hotel clerk in "Malcolm X") comes in shortly after, orating the text of "Two Lovers" with a perfunctoriness that is almost ludicrous. His tone is similar to that of the announcer over the PA system in the TV series, M*A*S*H (younger readers, if you do not know what M*A*S*H is, ask your parents). Meanwhile, the women have stopped singing the numbers and switched to a sort of exultation very similar to the "Alleluia" sung during Eucharist. The ironic dissonance between McGruder's bored tone--which even seems disbelieving of the speaker himself--and the emphatic, quasi-religious chorus of the women at his every word, is just simply delicious in its palpability.

1 min 2 sec sample of this part. (MP3)

McGruder reads disinterestedly:

Two Lovers

The day with its care and perplexities has ended and the night is now upon us. The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm. We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.

And what sort of story shall we hear? Ah, it will be a familiar story.
A story that is so very, very old, and yet, it is so new. It is the old, old story of love.

Two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight. There was silence between them. So profound was their love for each other, they needed no words to express it. And so they sat in silence, on a park bench with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight.

Finally she spoke. "Do you love me, John?" she asks.

"You know I love you, darling," he replied. "I love you more tongue can tell. You are the light of my life, my sun, moon, and stars. You are my everything. Without you, I have no reason for being."

Again there was silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench, their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.

Once more, she spoke. "How much do you love me, John?" she asked.

He answered, "How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the ocean with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the sea shore. Impossible, you say? Yes, and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you. My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the earth. It has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you."

There was more of silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench, with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.

Once more, her voice was heard. "Kiss me, John," she implored. And leaning over, he pressed his lips warmly to hers in fervent osculation.
(Copyright 1976 by Samuel M. Johnson)

Is Glass saying that, in post-modern society, the closest the average denizen can approach a religious experience is through romantic love? And even then, this attempt is but a tired repetition of an empty cycle that has been repeated time and again through the ages? (Try and ignore the glaring internal contradiction within the text of "Two Lovers").

I remember pissing off (one of my few talents) a classmate when I made the observance that everyone who falls in love suffers from the insufferable audacity of believing him or herself to be the first person to do so--and are the most ardent at it--in the history of the human species. She condemned me as "an evil, soul-crushing cynic." I am flattered. Like I care.

One only has to look at the manufactured romance industry. E.g. Valentine's Day. In Korea, there's a romantic occasion for every month. And don't get me started about diamonds. There is a big difference between the agreement of value between the majority and the agreement of perceived value between the majority. The former is legitimate. The latter is fraud.

How so? A simple illustration will suffice. My US$20 bill is but a piece of cotton-based paper. The majority of the people (and the US government) in USA attach a value to it. I take it anywhere and I will get approximately whatever US$20 in that geographical area buys me. As for a diamond. Try appraising it. Seriously. Now, it is appraised for X dollars. Now try to sell it. You will be lucky to get half of X dollars. What the majority agreed on is X dollars, but what you get is half of X dollars. And so, I stand by what I said earlier: schmuck.

Having examined the content, perhaps Glass is also poking fun at society through an implicit reference to structure and form in his composition. I.e. "Yes, my music is repetitive, but hey look! So are your dating and courtship rituals, marriage, coupling, and breeding patterns!"

The cynical side of me views all the awful proclamations by the male ("John") in "Two Lovers" as nothing more than puffing up a display of colored feathers on his chest to get her into the sack--again, something that has been done through the ages. (Hmm... a pattern, sense I... you thunk?) This is reinforced by my recollecting a part of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland:

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun's last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest -
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which are still unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit...
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
'Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over.'
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone. (215 - 56)

The attitude of the woman in the excerpt of The Wasteland matches the tone of McGruder's articulation of "Two Lovers." That Glass was deliberate to this end is moot (i.e. directing McGruder's tone). His impetus, however, remains contentious.


Blogger Carolyn Duede said...

The love story in Einstein on the Beach is all the more beautiful because it is a parallel to the cyclical repetitive music of Phillip Glass. It is the same, old, wonderful, familiar story but each time it is repeated, it adds to the beauty and glory of that which has come before.

10:08 AM  

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