Number Nine

By Ross, Alex | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Number Nine


Ross, Alex, The New Yorker


Philip Glass's place in musical history is secure. His sprawling, churning, monumentally obsessive works of the nineteen-seventies--"Music with Changing Parts," "Music in Twelve Parts," "Einstein on the Beach," "Satyagraha"--have fascinated several generations of listeners, demonstrating mesmeric properties that are as palpable as they are inexplicable. Twice in recent months, I've been gripped by the almost occult power of early Glass. Most memorably, I had my first live encounter with "Einstein," his epic 1976 collaboration with Robert Wilson, which, twenty years after its last revival, is being prepared for a yearlong international tour. Three preview performances took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in mid-January; the official premiere will be in Montpellier, France, in March.

Accounts of earlier stagings of "Einstein" primed me for transcendence; more than a few friends had told me that the work had changed their lives. For the first hour or so, though, I worried that the phenomenon might have faded. Each element of Glass and Wilson's pop-absurdist fantasy on Einstein-ian themes came recognizably to life: the cool recitation of numbers, the frantic mathematical gesturing, the purring Gertrude Stein-like texts ("These are the days my friends / It could get some wind for the sailboat"), the locomotive inching across the stage, the violin-playing Einstein, the iconic beams of light, and, underneath it all, those moto-perpetuo arpeggios and churchlike drones. Yet I felt a bit detached, as if watching a reenactment of a lost culture. Then, during "Dance 1," as the music fell into a furiously pulsing polymetrical scheme and Lucinda Childs's dancers darted about like limber androids, the bliss kicked in. It was a feeling of abstract intellectual delight, a pure interplay of musical and physical motion.

What is going on here, beyond primal pleasures of sight and sound? The musicologist Robert Fink, in his book "Repeating Ourselves," relates the insistent repetitions of Glass and his onetime ally Steve Reich to the strategies of modern advertising. A 1957 report noted that shoppers in a supermarket move around in a "hypnoidal trance," their consumer longings stoked by slogans that have been endlessly drilled into their heads. As Fink points out, one of the most famous scenes in "Einstein" is a monologue beginning with the lines "I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket," in which a speaker rattles on about a display of bathing caps with "Fourth of July plumes on them." The performer--originally Childs, now Kate Moran--delivers the anecdote several dozen times, and by the end the audience can recite along. Here, though, no transaction is taking place; indeed, the speaker specifies that instead of buying a cap she was "reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach." The ecstatic meaninglessness of such repetitions, Fink suggests, is an oblique protest against the machinery of consumption. "Einstein" shows how great art can be assembled from junk fragments of an anti-artistic society. It makes us happy because it creates a private wonderland, a beach of the mind.

No less remarkable than this "Einstein" was the Metropolitan Opera's revival of "Satyagraha," in November and December. As pointed as "Einstein" is obscure, "Satyagraha" shows episodes from Mohandas Gandhi's campaigns of nonviolent resistance in South Africa, the title meaning "truth force" in Sanskrit. The production, by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, of the Improbable theatre company, immaculately splits the difference between the historical and the visionary, intermingling scenes of Gandhi in action with vividly imagined motifs out of the Bhagavad Gita, from which the sung text is drawn. This is Glass's most formidable score, with minimalist processes acquiring symphonic heft: the "Protest" scene of Act II is driven by a grandly plunging, minor-mode theme, recalling the opening of Mahler's First Symphony. Richard Croft gave an indelible performance as Gandhi, his fine-grained tenor at once fragile and commanding--limitless power within a slender frame. …

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