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On Second Thought: 'Einstein on the Beach'

July 29, 2008 |  2:31 pm

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

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