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On Second Thought: 'Einstein on the Beach'

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220 Since 1976, I have enjoyed the music of Philip Glass. Before then, I did not. “Einstein on the Beach” changed everything.

Experiencing the five-hour opera with its repetitious score performed without a break, no real text and a staging by Robert Wilson full of unforgettable images may not have been the full-blown religious conversion for me that it had been to some. But thanks to “Einstein,” I did, so to speak, see the light. And, more importantly, hear the light.

This was a dogmatic time in music. Power was in the hands of Modernists who believed that music should never repeat, that it should provide ever-fresh experiences, that it should change as fast as the world was. The young Minimalists demanded a beat and a groove.

I was committed to change. I was enthusiastic about such Minimalists as Steve Reich and Terry Riley who could create fascinating, unpredictable results from copious amounts of repetition. But not Glass. His performances were for me intolerably loud and mind-numbing. The unkind word that I loudly trumpeted back then for this work was “fascistic.” I felt Glass went beyond intriguing the mind — he messed with it.

“Einstein on the Beach” was not, for Glass, a radical break from his past. His music evolved from its mathematically hard-core cyclic modules of the ’60s to something that made room for the ingratiating melody, harmonic invention and lyricism that gradually entered into his style after “Einstein.” But Wilson’s theater, and particularly his inspired lighting, literally opened my ears. It was as if he turned on the light switch, and I could, for the first time, hear.

The year of “Einstein” was the year I became a music critic. One did not lead to the other, but in retrospect I see that learning to love a composer I hated made it possible to begin listening to music I had once rejected.

Glass wasn’t the only composer I didn’t like at that time — I had no use for Ralph Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, Tchaikovsky (even though I grew up in a Russian household where Tchaikovsky was a minor deity). Mozart, I could take or leave. All those attitudes, of course, required changing.

But the most boring and worthless criticism is that which is about taste. We’ve all got our likes and dislikes. We’ve also got opposable thumbs that, besides going up and down, can be used to grasp things, maybe even to grab prison bars and shake the ego free.

Writing about music is getting inside music, and often that means entering into places one might never have thought of otherwise going were taste alone the main consideration. Love affairs with composers, I find, sometimes come and go. I tire of Wagner and then something like the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Tristan Project” comes along, and I fall for him all over again. But then, as Glass taught me, one man’s fascistic insistence is another’s Buddhist bliss, and it is possible to become the other man.

Criticism is for me a complex series of reactions. Writing about music is a form of riffs on music, writing on deadline almost an improvisation. Like musicians, critics hit wrong notes, sometimes misunderstand musical intentions and evolve over time. Music stops existing once a performance ends, the sounds stop. A review is a considered reaction to a given situation at a given point in time.
I’m afraid this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t believe in regrets. Anything I wrote yesterday, I would write differently today. Meanwhile, I live for tomorrow. And that’s the advantage of writing for a newspaper.

--Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Comments () | Archives (1)

I enjoyed reading your excellent piece on Glass, Einstein on the Beach, and your entry into the world of music criticism. As I mentioned to you in a recent email, I very much appreciate your writing on the music of our time and look forward to reading each and every one of your reviews. That being said, I am compelled to respond to this piece on Philip Glass because my view is in almost exactly 180-degree opposition to yours. I, too, have a long history with the music of Glass but as you will see below my trajectory with it is very different from yours.

The first time I heard Glass perform was in May, 1970, when as a member of Steve Reich's band he played on a gig presented by Walker Art Center at Theatre in the Round in Minneapolis. They did Four Organs, Piano Phase, Pendulum Music, Clapping Music, Music for Pieces of Wood, Violin Phase, and even played the recording of Come Out. A memorable event for myself but also for Glass who in the Parisian L' Art Vivant magazine later referred to his experience playing in Theatre in the Round as feeling as though he were playing inside a Stradivarius violin. Evidently, he dug the acoustics.

The next time I heard Glass play was in May, 1972, in Walker Art Center's auditorium. This was my Glass epiphany. In 2004 I wrote about the gig, which I believe was the first Glass ensemble gig outside of NYC: "...Scheduled to be held in Loring Park on a Sunday afternoon in May, rain forced it inside the auditorium where the audience could come and go. Mostly, it went—there were six people left at the end: Sue Weil, my wife and I, and three others. Glass and friends mesmerized those of us who stayed with an effervescent performance of Music with Changing Parts that was at once ethereal and firmly anchored to the earth. Glass played unceasingly throughout the hours-long performance, conducting by nodding his head while playing quick two-handed riffs on Farfisa electric organ. By the time it was over he was drenched in sweat and had the look of Nirvana on his face. I was lucky to be there, and had the opportunity to tell Steve Lacy, who had never heard of Glass, about it a few months later in Paris." ( http://www.mnartists.org/article.do?rid=33087 ).

Now, for the place in time our perceptions and opinions regarding Glass diverge. No one was a bigger fan of his music than I from the very earliest "mathematical" pieces through Einstein and Dances #1 and #3 (1980). In those years on my show "Fresh Ears" on KFAI-FM I probably broadcast more Philip Glass music than anyone in the country, perhaps in the world. But by 1982, for me the cracks in the glass began to appear. The first was at a solo organ concert at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, the exact date of which escapes me as do the names of the pieces he performed. One of them was probably Mad Rush and his performance of it was pathetic. Talk about flubbing notes - he missed way more than a few. But simply flubbing notes wasn't the worst of it - it was Glass' reaction to his mistakes. After each particularly big flub he would direct a sheepish grimace and shrug of the shoulders towards the audience as if to say, "Well, I'm really not very good at playing this big pipe organ." The audience, most of whom had never heard of this maverick Glass fellow, didn't seem to mind. He received copious applause at the end. I was appalled.

It was 1998's Monsters of Grace that permanently shattered my already gossamer-thin regard for most of Glass' output since the early 1980s. Whereas his former collaborations with Robert Wilson (who sits near the top of my personal pantheon of artists) were truly stellar (obviously, Einstein is a masterpiece of musical theater), the presentation of Monsters of Grace at Minneapolis' Northrup Auditorium was incredibly awful. It was as if two old guys thought they'd try working with these new-fangled computers the kids now-a-days are toying with. Whoa, it was bad. And evidently I wasn't alone in my opinion - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsters_of_Grace .

To conclude my rather lengthy response, I offer the observation that unlike you who approves of the evolution of Glass' music "...from its mathematically hard-core cyclic modules of the ’60s to something that made room for the ingratiating melody, harmonic invention and lyricism that gradually entered into his style after “Einstein...” I emphatically disapprove. For me, the "...mathematically hard-core cyclic modules..." are exactly what made Glass' music so overwhelmingly powerful. The use of Farfisa organs (the only portable keyboard instruments he could afford at the time), the incessantly driving rhythms, the massive wall of amplified sound, the unrelenting absence of "...ingratiating melody, harmonic invention and lyricism..." - these attributes are what made Glass' early music among the great works of the 20th century.


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