In 1976, the New York premiere of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach” captivated audiences, polarized critics and put both artists on the map of contemporary performance art. In four-and-a half hours, its famously reductive score, enigmatic text and limpid, tensile choreography (by Lucinda Childs) teases out the meaning of the time/space continuum.
The work’s first New York revival in twenty years opens Friday evening as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. On Wednesday, Philip Glass talked about the work—and a range of other pieces that have been performed at BAM over the years—with a former protégé, the composer Nico Muhly.
Affectionately coaxed by Muhly, speaking composer-to-composer, Glass reflected on his major operas, his work in collaboration with artists from other cultural traditions, and the evolution of his own musical style, which Muhly pointed out has become more lush, and (clearly jokingly) “decadent.”
For a man who is indeed an icon, Glass is somewhat bashful about his own place in the musical pantheon, and clearly bemused to be in a position to look back on a work that is entering its 37th year. “As composers, we don’t really write for posterity,” he says wryly. “You’re writing for this year’s repertoire, you’re writing for what you’re doing right now. I think it never occurred to Bob and I that thirty-seven years later we’d still be doing this piece.”
Glass also commented on the ease and confidence with which younger musicians approach his works, because they have grown up on them. “I was the lunatic who was always there,” he notes.
And “Einstein?” This is the first time the piece has received a major revival without any of the original creators performing, so Glass has actually had a chance to watch it, and reflect on intentions of his younger self. “It seems like someone I used to know once.”
With three new operas and a film in development, this is clearly as elegiac as Glass, at 75, is prepared to get.
On new music: "There’s a performance practice that goes with a piece of music…for a piece of music to be truly new, there has to be a new way to play it."
On collaborations: "The reason I was doing it to begin with was to understand my own language better; and I found that when I had to embrace somebody else’s language, I had to find a common place where we could work together."
On the change in his own musical style: "It just comes from having written music for a long time. My brain got re-wired; I don’t have to sound like Philip Glass any more."