Saturday, September 22, 2012

Einstein on the Beach and Preemptive Nostalgia

I was intrigued by NY Times critic Zachary Woolfe's account of experiencing Einstein on the Beach live for the first time after many years of knowing only the music. Fresh off of admitting that he doesn't like Billy Budd all that much, Woolfe proceeds to deftly puncture the NYC music scene's nostalgia for the Downtown heyday of the mid-seventies, when Patti Smiths roamed wild in the streets and Philip Glass made extremely simple diatonicism revolutionary:
I was surprised to discover that for all those years I had been missing so little. The really important component of the opera turns out to be the music, the part that has always been with us, preserved on those recordings. The other, more evanescent elements — the eternally open horizons of Mr. Wilson’s blue-lighted backdrops; his twitchy movement vocabulary; Ms. Childs’s swirling dances — feel, in the final estimation, dazzling yet dispensable...
Actually, though, I suspect the part of Woolfe's piece that will cause the most heartburn for avant-gardists of a certain age is not his boredom with Wilson's staging, but rather his description at the beginning of how he has been listening to Einstein all these years:
I can’t count the number of times I have sat at my computer, opened YouTube and typed a strange phrase into the search box: “knee 1.”
Ouch! Yes, the nightmare scenario has come to pass: even the Times music critic, the last one standing apparently, consumes music much the way my undergraduates do. Not by carefully cultivating a collection of music, let alone CDs, let alone LPs, but through the vagaries of YouTube. In this music in the age of mechanical reproduction, the experience of Einstein goes something like this:

The first hit is actually a video about knee injuries. The second hit indeed gives us Knee Play 1, uploaded by some guy named "MountGoth." In the video, the 1993 recording is presented (without attribution or any credit to the performers or label) to a static picture of a lake in the mountains.

The second hit gives one a version accompanied by some other random guy's artistic interpretation of vaguely Einsteinian themes. The third hit, a picture of Philip Glass, and then we're back to knee injuries and something about the Battle of Wounded Knee.

As I say, I am aware that this is precisely how my students—currently born in the mid-1990s—consume the music I require them to listen to. Theoretically they are supposed to purchase these CD sets that come with our textbook, but it runs upwards of $150 to buy all three sets, and I completely understand that this seems ridiculous, especially when all they are going to do is rip the CDs into iTunes anyways. For the conscientious-but-thrifty students, I suspect they band together and purchase one set of CDs to be ripped to a dozen computers. For those who are just thrifty, I think most of them go onto YouTube to do their required listenings, a suspicious confirmed when they are deeply confused by issues of orchestration and tempo by the "official" recordings when I play them in class. Personally I am somewhat old-fashioned, and in the classroom I often try to instill in my students at least a small amount of affection for the material objects of sound recording. We pass around Edison cylinders, 78s, 45s, fragments of actual magnetic tape, and nowadays, compact discs. It's not a bad thing that music circulates differently today that it once did, I tell them, but it is indeed very different.

However—and this is a big however after all of the above—I totally appreciate Mr. Woolfe's perspective. Or rather, part of it; I haven't yet seen Einstein on the Beach. I was born four years after the original production, was still only twelve years old for the last one in 1992. I like to think I was a fairly precocious new music kid, but not that much. The Verges/Obennhaus documentary from '84 gives me a sense of the production, enough that I confidently (albeit polemically) tell my students every year that Einstein on the Beach might be the greatest opera in the twentieth century.

But I did by the end of my teenage years discover Philip Glass, first in a new music concert when I was 16 (the same in which I heard 4'33" for the first time, incidentally), and then more systematically in college, where as a freshman I did a class assignment that involved knocking around in the world of 1+1. Then in graduate school I was lucky enough to be immersed in an entire seminar on minimalist theater lead by the indomitable Robert Fink, and although Glass is not a subject I do active research on, it's been a regular part of my classroom ever since. And not that long ago, I saw the Sesame Street video that circulates occasionally on Facebook, in which Philip Glass's music provides the backdrop for a mesmerizing series of geometric abstractions. It first aired on Sesame Street in 1979, the year before I was born. In some ways, Philip Glass has been in my ears for my entire life. And Einstein on the Beach had better not disappoint me.

This, of course, is what Woolfe is speaking to. Those of us too young to have experience the glory days and battles of New Music in the pre-John Adams era can't help but want to experience those thrills for ourselves. Not to sound like Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris, but there is a feeling that surely things were more alive back then. Woolfe:
With “Einstein,” the fantasy is the return to that bohemian, avant-garde New York, so full of excitement and possibility. Both those who were there and those of us who were not want badly, for our different reasons, to conjure an event, a moment, even an entire city that now exists only as a memory. It is Mr. Glass’s music that is more than that, and it remains as close as your computer.
This is an odd sort of nostalgia, but it is nevertheless nostalgia. Nostalgia usually implies personal association with the sentimentalized remembered pass, but it needn't necessarily. And as a form of nostalgia, you have to go the next step and think about what ideologies produce that nostalgia. As Melissa Harris-Perry famously said, "history understands where nostalgia obscures." As I wrote before, I think we need to be more open to nostalgia; it has potential to reveal good in addition to obscuring past evil. The nostalgia for Einstein's radical purity certainly obscures some basic facts of music history.  In the multi-racial, liberatory, free-wheeling world of the 60s and 70s avant-garde, it's not an accident that an opera with music written by a straight, white, Juilliard-trained man remains widely-heard four decades later, as does the music of...Steve Reich...John Adams...hmmm. Ask the ghost of Julius Eastman where avant-garde nostalgia has gotten him in the history textbooks.

And yet, Hilton Als reminds us in his fascinating New Yorker piece on Einstein that Robert Wilson's contribution, precisely what Woolfe did not care for, is by far the most critical and challenging part of the opera. Wilson's work confronts those very social issues that Glass tends to portray in abstraction. That abstraction is the source of Glass's longevity, it's why Glass's music works equally well circulating in mainstream movie soundtracks as it does when you're knocking out additive patterns on an amplified tabletop. But my own personal nostalgia is that it will be Wilson's vision that might reveal something about the avant-garde past that might be worth remembering, even in the gauzy, soft-focus light of nostalgia.

I've got tickets for the very last show, Sunday's matinee. Here's to hoping.


Anonymous said...

Despite the number of people who say 'Einstein on The Beach' had "changed their lives" I still consider it an absurd indulgence. In those 4hrs 40minutes there's maybe one hour of truly engaging, inspirational work. Which leaves 3hrs 40 minutes of pretension. And it's not wearing well.

The theatre-spectacle that had jaws dropping 30 or 40 years ago looks tame these days. Creaky and shabby too. The truth is, there's now nothing in the visual achievement of this piece that you can't see, done with far more technical sophistication, any night at some of the world's great opera houses. So to the extent that there was always an element of emperor's new clothes about the show, the clothes are now just as illusory but not so new. If you could see them at all, they'd be threadbare.

When it comes to Glass's music, I accept that it's part of the package, so there's no point trying to imagine Wilson's work without it. And every argument against its minimalist emptiness is too familiar to bear repetition (as it were). But I have to say that I don't think there's a composer in the history of music who has made such a reputation, or so much money, from so pitifully small a talent.

PMG said...

Ouch again! Obviously haven't seen it yet—tune in tomorrow!—but on the subject of Glass generally I'm not sure I'm totally with you. His style has been so over-extended over the years that it does wash out a bit, but I still find works like Music in Twelve Parts totally ear-opening.

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