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Music Review: Philip Glass and Robert Wilson – Einstein on the Beach Highlights [CD] and The Changing Face of Opera [DVD]

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In the world of contemporary classical music, Philip Glass is something of a living legend. For one thing, he is an incredibly prolific composer. A partial listing of his works includes symphonies, concertos, solo pieces, and three Academy Award-nominated film scores. Glass is also credited/blamed for pioneering the so-called school of “minimalism,” with others such as La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Yet with all of these accomplishments, Philip Glass’ most famous work is undoubtedly Einstein on the Beach, the opera with which he shares credit with Robert Wilson.

Einstein on the Beach premiered in July, 1976, and its impact is still being felt. Just as an example of how far the word of this work spread, it was the first “non-rock” music I ever purchased. As a teenager, I was so intrigued by what I had heard about it that I shelled out for the four-LP box set on Tomato Records way back in the early ‘80s. I am still not sure if I fully understand the opera, but the box remains a treasured item in my collection.

Having said that, I kind of wish that the Einstein on the Beach Highlights edition had been available back then, because it makes for a marvelous introduction to the piece. The Brooklyn Academy of Music have presented EOTB numerous times over the years, and the new 77:23 Highlights CD is drawn from a 1984 performance.

Due to the inherent time constrictions of vinyl and compact disc, the opera has been edited a few times. The four-LP set I own runs 160 minutes, the 1993 CD version is 190 minutes, while the “complete” opera (only available as a download), runs a whopping 217 minutes. I mention all of this just to give the reader an idea of the scope of the piece, and of how difficult it must have been for Glass to maintain the integrity of the work when faced with the unavoidable time limitations of the various formats.

Even at “only” 77 minutes, there is still a great deal of wonderful music to absorb here. There is a repetitive motif to the music which serves two purposes. One of these is very simple, for it allows the listener to have a “hook,” which certainly helped me initially. But the second, and most likely strongest reason is that the process of doubling-back delays the resolution. This is an essential component, as it allows the narrative to move along, no matter where the story takes us.

It bears repeating that even though I have been listening to EOTB for around 30 years now, I am still finding new elements of it to explore. I think I understand the basic themes, which have to do with nuclear weapons, science, and radio. My point is that EOTB is a work which is deeply layered, and a very rewarding listening experience.

One element of opera for someone (like myself) who comes from a rock background is a fear of the music being too intimidating. EOTB is musically varied, there are sections which could be described as dissonant, and others which are a little more “listener friendly,” (for lack of a better term). Once again, this Highlights edition provides an excellent opportunity to basically sample this huge work, as it offers representative portions of the whole thing.

This is quite a nice package, as it also includes a DVD of the documentary film Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Face of Opera (1984) by Chris A. Vergas. The documentary is 58 minutes in length, and was initially aired on public television. It is basically a behind the scenes look at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s presentation of the opera.

This CD/DVD combo pack has just been released by Philip Glass’ own Orange Mountain Music label, and offers a delightful introduction to one of the most talked about, and important operas of the late 20th century.

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About Greg Barbrick