Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Einstein on the Beach and the Relations of Production

I caught the last half or so of the live web broadcast from Paris of the revived Einstein on the Beach.  The theatrical pacing is still unlike anything else, the dancing this evening was especially clear and sharp-edged and the music still carries its particular charge, although now no longer its rough ensemble charm, but thankfully with restored tone colors closer to the original analog electric organs rather than the slick synth sounds that had turned up in revivals during the early CD era.  Everyone who knows Einstein probably has their own vivid recall of first hearing it (and those lucky enough to have seen a production even more so); for me it was an extended broadcast on Carl Stone's KPFK program, in headphones in a big recliner in the family den, and I immediately started saving to buy the box set of LPs.  (That set would later get played in entirety on Hallowe'en in 1981 over the biggest set of amp and speakers found in my Santa Cruz dormitory hall, creating an evening in which chemical enhancements were entirely unnecessary for an elevated sensory experience.)

But enough nostalgia for a moment:  I don't think it's been remarked upon often enough that Einstein (with, a little later, Robert Ashley's opera for television Perfect Lives) represented the most important challenge to opera in terms of its use of labor and means of production.  When Wilson and Glass rented the Met and Glass plopped his amplified keyboard, wind and solo vocal ensemble (with strategic use of violin obbligato and chorus)  into the pit, this constituted a fundamentally different way of filling a large hall for an evening with a complex and compelling mass of sound from business as usual in the opera house, which usually means the production of music via the last mass manual labor practice surviving from the steam age.  Now, to be certain, I find that there is a real and unique value to a good that requires the live participations of several hundred people with highly specialized skills working in close coordination yet able — sometimes spontaneously — to respond to sudden changes (there is no production line on the planet, not for cars, not for cell phones, not for bathing caps, that has the level of sensitivity and flexibility towards impromptu changes that a good opera company has when forced to respond to, for example, an inexplicably absent sword carrier in a crowd scene, a curtain falling when it should be raised or a missed vocal cue by a momentarily distracted soubrette (to be fair, of course, not all opera companies are that reliably good!)) and, more importantly, the sound of a large orchestra with or without unamplified voices in a good hall is a value in itself.  But, it is an honest question, in terms of both economics and aesthetics, to ask if this is a use of labor and resources that can be often afforded for new music for the theatre.  Let's stipulate that the amplified and mixed Einstein ensemble was cost-effective, but let's also be clear about precisely about the ways in which it is effective.  An amplified-and-mixed chamber group does not, and will not, have the same presence in any hall that the big orchestra has, but neither should it try to, as it has qualities of its own.  The strength, in this regard, of Einstein, as far as I'm concerned was that Glass used the ensemble's sound as an acoustic thing in itself, not as an orchestral surrogate, and although much of the music had, at the levels of notes alone, its infamous simplicity, at the real sonic surface there were all sorts of other things going on, in terms of beats and resultant tones and surprising patterns of melodic reinforcements and unexpected spatial resonances, a liveliness and complexity both different to and impossible in the traditional orchestral organization. Moreover, temporal and tonal control was in real time (Glass would nod his head to indicate moves forward from repetitions, and similarly the live sound mix would be adjusted to spontaneous changes in the composite sound.)  Glass's later operatic works use more traditional instrumental resources (pit, big band, man with stick), so there is a lot more remaining to be done in this direction.

1 comment:

Justin Friello said...

You can watch the whole thing now using the same link. They've posted the recorded performance from opening night in Paris.