1979, Music

Einstein on the Beach (1976, 1979) by Philip Glass

I am a very big fan of John Adams’ Nixon in China from pretty much the moment I heard it. It seemed impossible to me that two seemingly diametrically opposed styles of music could be merged s seamlessly. It’s safe to say it changed my (musical) life.

That experience is always shocking (in a wonderful way) to me, especially as I get older. I have been going out of my way to find supposed major events and touchstones in music history for about 15 years now, and every so often – sometimes every few months, sometimes less than once a year – I find something that I cannot believe I didn’t hear until I was [insert age here]. My life prior to listening to the thing now seems incomplete. That’s how I felt with Nixon in China. And that’s how I feel about Einstein on the Beach, another supposed minimalist opera.

Einstein on the Beach isn’t anywhere as near a traditional opera as Nixon in China though, and certainly as opera Adams’ work is far more successful. This monster from Glass is a totally different thing.

I remember first listening to Pelleas et Melisande and thinking it was almost ‘anti-opera’, in that it was clearly made with some knowledge of and respect for the tradition of opera, but with a clear desire to overcome that – to make something new.

And if that piece of Debussy’s is ‘anti-opera’ in anyway shape or form, Einstein on the Beach is almost like a complete negation of opera. I mean, it’s not really an opera at all. There’s no narrative, and it’s barely about the subject. (If it is at all, I would be quite sympathetic to any interpretation that argues it has very little to do with Einstein.) But that doesn’t matter.

Glass has creating this dense wall of repetition and slight variation that is unlike anything I have ever heard – of its time. The incredible thing is now that I’ve heard this, I hear it in so many things. I can’t even begin to count the number of songs and other pieces of music I have heard in my life that owe something to this ‘opera’. Hell, there is a commercial on Canadian TV right now with a jingle that is practically outright stealing from one of the pieces in Act IV.

I can understand why some people don’t like this: it’s not really opera, it’s insanely long, you really have to like your ‘minimalism’, you have to not care about the literal interpretation of lyrics, you have to not care about the fact that these guys deliberately set out to create something inscrutable and practically outside the traditional they were claiming for themselves, you have to be okay modern musical technology in a ‘classical’ context, and so forth. But I don’t know how you can ignore the import – the monumental path-breaking and inspiration this thing was. And I think if you give it the time it deserves, you will come to respect it.

I don’t think I will ever love this as much as I love Nixon in China, but I think this is the far greater achievement in terms of music history. This is an absolute must hear. One of the great works of the 20th century.


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