Minimalism without frills in 'Einstein on the Beach'

The modern music ensemble Ictus, baroque choir Collegium Vocale, and folk-pop superstar Suzanne Vega are the unlikely triad staging Philip Glass’s ground-breaking opera Einstein on the Beach. Although “staging” might not be the correct term, since it is all about the musicians struggling through the score.

When Philip Glass first showed Einstein on the Beach at the 1976 opera festival in Avignon, it was immediately clear that the production marked a new step in the development of the operatic tradition. There was no story being told, instead nine visual scenes by Robert Wilson played out in front of the audience. Glass’s music was repetitive and seemingly never-ending, going on for almost five hours straight. There was no intermission, but the audience was free to walk in and out during the performance. They could even take a nap if they pleased.

Needless to say, Einstein on the Beach was an immense success. For the composer and his compatriots Steve Reich and Terry Riley, it meant the breakthrough of their, now lauded, minimalist music into popular culture. In a matter of years, Glass went from playing in art galleries and Soho lofts to scoring Hollywood classics like The Truman Show.

The original production may have been equal parts Glass’s revolutionary score and Robert Wilson’s trailblazing scenography, with a dash of choreographer Lucinda Childs. But this time around, there are no identical costumes, hyper-synchronized movements, or steam trains driving across the set. “We really wanted to focus on the music,” says Ictus’s Tom De Cock, who is directing the new version of Einstein on the Beach. “The way it infuses classical with pop influences. It’s such a masterpiece that it deserves to be considered simply as it is. That’s why the subtitle of our production is ‘Musicians at work’. You really see them working through the piece.”

It’s pretty daring to cut out the scenography. Philip Glass always said that it’s a coproduction between him and Robert Wilson, so to separate the two feels unusual.
TOM DE COCK: It is unusual, but it is interesting as well. The whole tour is completely sold out, so I think that proves that the audience is excited about what’s going to happen. (Laughs)

You described Einstein on the Beach as a mix of classical and pop, Tom. Is that how Suzanne got drawn into the project?
VEGA: There’s definitely some pop in there, but I mainly hear eastern influences: repetition, mantra... Anyway, I think the main reason I’m here is because I worked with Philip Glass. He helped orchestrate my song “Fifty-Fifty Chance”. I met him when I was 24 years old and have worked with him over the years.
DE COCK: And because of your fantastic voice of course. (Laughs)

You say you hear repetition and mantra in Glass. I hear that in “Tom’s Diner” as well. Just a melodic line repeated with a parlando voice.
VEGA: That might have to do more with the production of the song. Then again I was a dancer in the 1970s. I was aware of the Minimalist movement. I loved Steve Reich, I loved Philip Glass. So maybe, yeah, it makes sense that you hear a bit of minimalism in my music sometimes.

A lot of people say they saw the original production and it changed their life. Did you see it?
VEGA: I was there for the second staging in 1984. I wouldn’t say it changed my life, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had moments of humour and of ecstasy, and all the repetition made you kind of transcend everything. Especially at the end there is a feeling of joy that you all went through this together.

This production had a preliminary run at the Concertgebouw in Bruges. Did you feel the same then?
VEGA: I almost wanted to cry at the end. There was such a feeling of joy in that audience.
DE COCK: It’s an accomplishment for us, but also for the audience. And the strange thing is that they are allowed to leave, yet almost nobody does. My wife, who normally hates classical music, and wants to leave after half an hour, sat through the entire three and a half hours, without once wanting to leave. You’re sucked towards the end of the piece.
VEGA: It’s very tantalizing, this feeling of what’s coming next. Even the smallest shift is an event. If the bassline changes even a note, you feel the whole piece shift.
DE COCK: It’s almost existential.

It’s asking a lot from your audience, but for you as a musician as well I can imagine.
DE COCK: Definitely. You have to measure your energy. There’s no way that you can keep the energy at 100 percent for three and a half hours. You need to know when you can rest. I have two breaks of five minutes, and I am very grateful for them.
VEGA: I might have a bit more. But even when you go out and take a break, you constantly have to keep track of what’s going on or you might forget to come back in.

Philip Glass famously said that his musicians hadn’t even performed the entire piece before the premiere. At least you have managed that.
VEGA: Well we did it back then but we haven’t really done it since.
DE COCK: We did the most important parts, obviously, but we didn’t do it from beginning to end. It’s like a marathon. Marathon runners never run the full distance beforehand. They always do 30km instead of 42. So we’re ready for the marathon but we haven’t run for a while.

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