Sunday, November 08, 2009

A rare opportunity to dip back into some vinyl.

As luck and the alphabet would have it, directly preceding my rather un-looked-forward to reinvestigation of my Glass on wax [not a fair assessment, as it turned out], there sits Jon Gibson's "Two Solo Pieces", issued in 1977 by Chatham Square (my only vinyl from that label--kicking myself for not ordering the early Glass things from NMDS when I could have). Two side-long works: "Cycles" (1973) for pipe organ and "Untitled" (1974) for solo flute, both performed by Gibson. It's interesting how fresh something like "Cycles" sounds today; essentially a dense organ chord with a huge number of interior fluctuations, all of them somewhat clouded due to their sheer mass, it's the kind of thing that, if attempted today, I think would inevitably sound half-hearted and mannered. But in 1973, the ideas were new enough that their energy and sense of discovery were readily audible. Really excellent piece, holding up a bit better than many of Glass' things from the same period. The (alto) flute composition is also very beautiful, only "minimalist" in the sense that its long melodic line is repeated and elaborated on but it bears virtually no relationship to Glass (or Riley or Reich) with whom Gibson was playing. It sounds, if anything, more like something Rzewski might have written around that time--in an especially inspired moment. A little bit of his piece, "Song and Dance" comes to mind.

I'm not sure as to its current availability. It's been issued on disc by both New Tone and Dunya records. Great recording, though, try to hear it. [just checked--I did, in fact, write this up for All Music and mentioned that, at the time Robi Droli had issued it with three additional pieces]

I'd heard Riley's "A Rainbow in Curved Air" in July of '72, on WBRU (Brown University) while working for the summer on Block Island, buying it soon upon my return along with "In C". But I think that was my only exposure to minimalism for a couple of years, immersed as I was in jazz. I wasn't, in fact, aware of minimalism as a genre and wrongly thought of the Riley works as being sui generis. I'd caught a piece of Reich's performed at the New England Conservatory in '74 and quickly picked up the DG 3LP set, "Drumming". Glass' music was occasionally played on KCR and, as mentioned above, I drooled a bit over Chatham Square items in the NMDS catalog (shortage of funds!--though I bought them on disc later on) but didn't actually have a recording in-house until my brother Drew (at my urging, iirc) bought "North Star" which appeared around 1975 on, what, Virgin?

"Einstein" premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in November, 1976, just after I'd moved to NYC. I knew of the event and wanted to go but lack of finances made that an impossibility (I eventually saw its second NYC staging at BAM in 1984). The first recording came out in '79 on Tomato (a very interesting label at the time) which is what I have here.

It's a commonplace to observe that "Einstein" is a tipping point in Glass' career and I subscribe to that view. There are certainly moments of beauty subsequently but (to my knowledge) nothing with the thrilling rigor of the pre-Einstein work or the unbridled energy, still strongly informed by work like "Music in Changing Parts" of the maximalist explosion that was "Einstein". It might not be a precise balance, the down slope already impinged upon, but this work, especially when seen in the theater, is still enthralling, hugely imaginative and extremely moving. One wonderful feature, naturally unavailable on any recording, is that when the house opens, the piece has already begun, Lucinda Childs (on whom I had a huge crush) and Sheryl L. Sutton seated on opposite sides of the stage, reciting the extraordinarily touching libretto of Christopher Knowles.

A word on that. Knowles was born in 1959 and was (is still, I assume) autistic. Robert Wilson on Knowles:

In early 1973 a man named George Klauber, who had been one of my professors at Pratt Institute, gave me an audio tape he thought might interest me. At the time I was beginning work on a theatre piece called The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. . . . I was fascinated. The tape was entitled 'Emily Likes the TV.' On it a young man's voice spoke continuously creating repetitions and variations on phrases about Emily watching the TV. I began to realize that the words flowed to a patterned rhythm whose logic was self-supporting. It was a piece coded much like music. Like a cantata or fugue it worked with conjugations of thoughts repeated in variations; these governed by classical constructions and a pervasive sense of humor. The effect was at once inspiring and charming. I was impressed and called George to ask who had made the tape. . . . It was arranged that Chris could come and live with me. We became collaborators and friends. He co-authored a show called A Letter for Queen Victoria and performed it throughout Europe and New York. In subsequent years we continued to work together. Chris would co-author pieces and his texts would appear in works such as the opera Einstein on the Beach… I am forever fascinated by the decisions Chris is able to make while maintaining control over a continuous and elegant line. He has a unique ability to create a language that's immediately discernible. Yet once he has invented his verbal or visual language, he destroys the code to begin anew. His art holds the excitement of molecular reaction. His product is constantly genuine and always a reflection of his own imagination, humor and good will.

The words by Knowles in "Einstein" appear to have been "downloaded" from AM radio, almost without editing but also, often, structured in a way that's childlike and naive, heartrendingly so. A line like, "Will it get some wind for the sailboat", the first line of text here, I find simply wrenching. "And it could get for it is". Later, he regurgitates programming schedules from WABC, information coming into his brain and leaving his pen, unfiltered, ineffably sad. I think it's crucial to the success of "Einstein" that, on this scale, the rigorous, often (intentionally) overbearing minimalism is offset by this profoundly human character. More, it's triangulated with text from Samuel M. Johnson who writes in an arch, 18th century manner without cracking the tiniest smile. (If anyone knows more about Johnson, please fill me in--not much info out there I could find). Childs' own section, "I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket...", is also oddly fascinating. These unlikely elements swirl together fantastically, caroming off one another, never giving the listener steady footing.

Live, of course, there are myriad astounding, incredibly drawn out visual episodes from the locomotive to the rising bed; it was almost hilarious how long Wilson and Glass would take to complete a "small" action. On record, you get a bit of a sense of that, but the ensemble is so percolating that no one with more than a passing interest in minimalism would be bored. Well sequenced, with scantly populated valleys followed by bubbling stews of activity, punctuated by singular dramatic moments, my personal favorite being Childs' sudden declaration, "Bern, 1905". "Knee Play 4", with some lovely melodies and spirited playing by violinist Paul Zukofsky, is another favorite sequence. Live, the concluding Spaceship scene was utterly spectacular and it's pretty damn exciting on disc (that bass synth line remains mighty cool).

Although the asceticism of his early work is extremely attractive to me, all things considered (beyond Glass, to be sure), "Einstein" remains my favorite work in his canon. Not that I've followed him much since, oh, the late 80s. I enjoyed "Satyagraha" well enough (the concluding "octave" aria is extraordinary), "Ahknaten", less so. Of the things I have on vinyl, his "Dance Nos. 1 and 3", also on Tomato (1980), is very good. The soundtracks for "The Photographer" and "Koyaanisqatsi" are ok (the film dates horribly, imho, save for that astonishing final image of the exploded spacecraft tumbling through the azure) and the set of "Songs from Liquid Days" odd enough to still generate a wee bit of interest. Otherwise, I'm more or less ignorant of his output for over 20 years now, catching it in the odd film or TV show (or commercial!) once in a while; hard to think that I'm missing much. Happy to have "Einstein".

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, holding hands in the moonlight.

Finally she spoke. "Do you love me, John?" she asked. "You know I love you, darling," he replied. "I love you more than 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 oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the sea shore. Impossible, you say."


Barry Chabala said...

Einstein is such a great work. I still drag that out once a year or so for a listen. I've never seen a live production though. Must be fantastic.

Seth Tisue said...

If I had a time machine I'd like to drop by the Met for the original New York production.


To me, Brian, the most touching moment in Koyaanisqatsi is when the voices underline those unbelievable faces (beggars, elderlies, waitresses, etc.) towards the end of the film, just before the finale you quoted. It gives me goosebumps to this day, a sort of preview of what we're living nowadays.

"Einstein On The Beach" is indeed wonderful but, had I to choose a favourite Glass, it still remains "Music With Changing Parts".