There hasn’t been much in the papers about Robert Wilson since ‘A Letter for Queen Victoria’ and ‘The Dollar Value of Man’ last season, but his Spring Street studio is as busy as ever. From 10 in the morning until 7 at night every day, a company of 26 has been preparing a new work, tentatively called ‘Einstein on the Beach.’ The first performances of the work, in Germany and France, will not begin until August, so it is far too early to say anything final about what it will be like. But since theater is a new genre for Philip Glass, who has already spent about a year composing the music for ‘Einstein,’ it seemed worthwhile to drop by one afternoon and find out what is going on.
Glass’s approach in the new piece turns out to be a fairly predictable outgrowth of the work he has been doing during the past few years with amplified winds and organs, and his regular ensemble will be carrying much of the show. In fact, the piece which the group premiered last spring, under the title ‘Another Look at Harmony,’ is included in this score. But in addition there will be sections for solo violin, others with vocal solos, and others featuring a 12-voice chorus. The five hours of music will be divided into a number of shorter segments, generally alternating between large ensemble pieces and smaller groups. Much of the music will be carried by the chorus, which will apparently be onstage playing roles most of the time.
The vocal lines in Glass’s choral music employ the same kind of rhythmic modules as his instrumental parts. The little melodies repeat over and over, shifting to slightly new patterns maybe once every 10 to 30 seconds. The only lyrics are ‘do re mi’ and ‘one two three,’ which are used simply to articulate the melodies. Most of the time the music is diatonic, though there are a few chromatic passages.
It’s hard work for 12 singers to keep together on such fast rhythms, but judging from what I heard, and considering that they have several months of rehearsal time left, they just might be as crisp and unified as Glass’s regular ensemble by the time the production begins its European run in August. The curious thing about this chorus, however, is that Glass has selected thin, relatively untrained voices for his group, despite the plans to perform in a large hall without choral amplification. The singers were barely holding their own against the loud electric organ Glass was playing at the rehearsal, and knowing the kind of high volumes he normally uses in concerts, I couldn’t imagine how he was going to achieve a balance in this piece.
Glass says that he is interested in the natural resonance of the voice, and wants to avoid soloistic qualities, since he rarely writes solos. He went on to explain that trained voices, working with supported tone and nominal vibrato, never blend very well. I asked him if he had heard any groups like the Robert Shaw Chorale or the Gregg Smith Singers lately, and he said he hadn’t. In any case, the composer was quite confident about his group, and assured me that they would be producing two or three times their present volume by the time the show opens.
Glass’s way of working with Wilson appears to involve the same kind of give and take which one normally finds in collaborations where both artists respect each other, and neither is determined to dominate. But it was curious to learn how they got started when they first began working together about a year ago. Glass told me that Wilson did a lot of preliminary sketches of what he expected various scenes to look like, and that Glass began working out musical ideas based largely on these visualizations.
I was not surprised to learn this, because it had always seemed to me that Wilson is basically a visual artist, and that his feelings for the exact placement of people and objects on the stage, his color sense, and his sets are the most fundamental aspects of his work. His scenes always become animated paintings for me, and I have the feeling that if we ever have any really useful criticism of Wilson’s work, it is going to come from an art critic, or at least someone who really understands surrealism, Hopper, O’Keefe and so on.
Meanwhile, back at the rehearsal, the group was completing a short physical warm-up, and Glass was asking me if I would like to sing along on a section they were about to rehearse. I jumped at the chance. I’d been hearing Glass’s pieces for some time and had often wondered what it would be like to try to read one of his parts. It is obvious just from listening to the long repetitions and quick pattern shifts that there has to be a lot of counting involved. But what kind of counting? Is it tricky, difficult counting that requires heavy concentration? Is it dull drudgerous counting that bores the hell out of you? Is it the kind of counting that can alter your consciousness, as in so many yoga and Zen exercises?
It’s really none of the above, though it’s a little like each. Let’s say we’re working on pattern number 65, and our part is something like ‘fa si la si.’ And let’s say that there is a little ‘4’ off to the right side, meaning that after we’ve sung ‘fa si la si’ four times we’ve completed one sequence. And let’s say that there is another ‘4’ above the music, meaning that we have to sing four sequences before going on to pattern 66.
If you followed that, you’re probably thinking, as I did, ‘Glass, can’t you multiply? Why didn’t you just say to do it 16 times instead of going through all this four times four stuff?’ And if you are pretty headstrong about your opinion, as I was, you would decide to do it your own way, and the downbeat would come, and everyone would start charging through their quick little patterns, and everything would be fine until you discovered that you weren’t sure whether you were on the 12th repetition or the 14th. And meanwhile the music would be going by so fast that every time you tried to figure it out you would just become more confused.
I decided I’d better try it Glass’s way the 1976/how-to-perform-john-cage time around, and for some reason it was a lot easier. It still took a lot of concentration, but somehow the challenge seemed fun, a little like keeping track of how many times the runners have gone around the track, or something like that. It felt good as the sequences went by, feeling the fours within the fours, or the twos within the eights, or whatever, and getting ready for the 1976/how-to-perform-john-cage shift. And sometimes I could make it through three or four patterns without loosing count.
The problem is that a single segment might involve 10 or 20 patterns, and there are an awful lot of choral segments in ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ all of which Glass expects the singers to memorize. But of course, every time I started thinking about something like that, I lost the count again.
I enjoyed the challenge of the whole thing, and I guess I was doing all right, because during the 1976/how-to-perform-john-cage break Glass offered me a job. I figured he was kidding, but by the time he’d mentioned it three times, complimenting my sightreading and complaining that they really did need another good musician on the tenor line, I decided I really ought to consider the prospects.
The rehearsal atmosphere seemed quite pleasant, the money would be adequate, and the months in Europe wouldn’t be hard to take. But then I started thinking about how I’d have to do the four sequences of the three-note pattern four times and the eight sequences of the four-note pattern two times, and about how it would all have to be memorized, and I realized that I’d probably
never be able to muster up the kind of dedication the task would require.