1 Jun 2012

Einstein On The Beach

What follows are the scrawlings I made in a notebook whilst watching the opera Einstein on the Beach - scored by Philip Glass, choreographed by Lucinda Childs, and directed by Robert Wilson - at The Barbican Theatre, 2012.  There was a little confusion over the naming of the various scenes, as I had only glanced at the running order beforehand.  Aside from having an idea of Glass's minimalist style, and the knowledge that the opera was 5 hours long with no plot or interval, I had not prepared myself by reading up on what each scene contained, or what I was to expect musically or dramatically.  The notes were made by information coming in through the eyes and ears and going directly to the pen - the brain was, for the most part, bypassed in order to achieve maximum sensational enjoyment!

So, as people are entering, we're faced with one girl at a desk miming typing on some sort of keyboard and another...


... on a mouse.

"These are the days, my friends."

Orchestra pit slowly fills with chorus (Cons; grey trousers; white short sleeves; braces; white faces; smiling, surprised)
Pause on way up stairs

The bloke next to me is wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a black turtleneck with no apparent irony.  He also smells very musty.  Like he's spent a fortnight in a library or a second-hand book shop in Shoreditch.

"It could be very... fresh!"

Photo of child by lake.


Child holding cube of light on gangway up high. 
Conch shell underneath
Girl walks back and forth (upstage - downstage - upstage) holding pencil?

Red jumper enters downstage. Seems delighted.

Music a mechanical, contrapuntal mash.

Red jumper's writing in the air with chalk now.

Big argument over seats on the row in front.  Getting quite heated. 

Meanwhile, a train enters upstage left.

And exits as soon as it entered.

Another dancer's just entered downstage left.  Think she's operating a train or something. 

Argument resolved - people here first are on the wrong floor!

Ooh, the train's back again.

Poor girl's been walking backwards and forwards at about 120bpm for 7 minutes now with her left arm at 45degrees.  Must be getting tired.

Paper aeroplane on stage.

Photo of a train now.  Ah, this part is called "Train."

More train operators!  And the walking girl's trying to controll something with her hands.  Could she be the... conductor?

The train (sorry, engine) has a mannequin with a red beard in the driver's cab.  Now the train operators are joined by a triangle of string and a shalf of light descends centre stage. 

After 11 minutes, the engine and operators leave.  Walking girl continues and red jumper speaks. 

More paper aeroplanes from the kid, little tyke!

Operator's back.

"It would be somewhere."
"The [xxx] are like into this."

CAUTION! Slow moving newspaper reader.

"Like into where like that it could be so like that into..."

Girl runs on; everyone freezes momentarily... then walking girl starts up again!  Running girl has the conch! It's all happening...

Right, the train driver's not a mannequin - he's smoking a pipe.  Conch girl has been stood still listening for five minutes. 
The platform the kid's on is leaning over, and walking girl is going nuts. 

And we're now into Trial 1. Walking girl was walking for 22 minutes.  Fat bearded stage hand clears up the paper aeroplanes.  They're bringing on desks with various papers, orbs and jars. Conch girl's still listening.  Red jumper's lost his jumper but he's still writing in the air.

Benches, gallery, movable floor with a massive fitted sheet.  Or is it a bed?

Flute's going right through me!

Stage now in darkness (apart from the chair on the right apron).

Lights back up. 

Every so often you see one of the keyboard players stretching his hands out, presumably to avoid R.S.I.

Enter 3 blokes and a red indian with a massive staff.

They've brought lunch.

Gallery fills. 

"Hear me"

Two secretaries filing nails.

Defendant (?) comes in; bed lights up; judges enter - big black guy and the kid.

Fuck, there's Einstein on the violin!  Where did he come from?!

Why are the jury wiggling their fingers?

The court is now in session, which is the judge's cue to pour sand into a tray. 

No, they're writing - that's a press gallery, not a jury.

Did I say secretaries?  Sorry, I meant stenographers.

So far the two judges have announced that this court of common pleas is now in session four times.

Bloke on the bench doesn't like the book he's reading.  Enter camp man with a black briefcase with lights on it.

"If you see any of those baggy pants..."

Fuck knows what they're on about now.  Ah, it's "Mr Bojangles".

I wonder if this trial is that of the fake Mr Bojangles the song's about... After all, the writer met "Mr B" in a jail. 

"This is about the things on the table."

So far they've named three Beatles.  Not Ringo.


Is that a badly photocopied cross section of a lemon?

Ooh, there's a slow-motion fight breaking out!

They've stopped now.

Blonde wig says "No!" She says it a lot.  She's not happy about something.

Massive picture of a beaker.  All men are created equal.  65 minutes in...

Clock and a compass.  The clock, naturally, is running backwards.  Did I mention thr bloke on the bench who doesn't seem to be enjoying his book? He's been holding it up and shaking his head constantly for fucking ages...

Einstein violin solo!

Looks like a total eclipse of the lemon...


Now they're all gathering downstage with their lunch.  I'm starving.  That chap still doesn't like his book. 

Lunch appears to be a biscuit and a cup of tea.  The Indian, however, has no lunch.  What does this MEAN?

Oh no!  They're all late for something!  Spotlight on Blondie as we move into Knee 3.  Some sneezing.

Oh no, we're only just going into All Men Are Created Equal.  "Kalamazooooooooo!"

Philip Glass the Feminist.  Red jumper is writing again.

"Would it get some wind for the sailboat?"

Amusing speech by a feminist speaker, delivered by judge.  Some people laughing louder than necessary so we all know they "get" it. 

EINSTEIN violin solo heralds the actual start of knee 2. Stenographers back at Apron L.  Seem to be telephone operators now.  Some pussy lightweights are leaving for a toilet break.  Pah!

She's not a phone operator. I think she's selling something.  Optitian?


BERN, SWITZERLAND 1903! (Or was it 5?)

Dance 1: More contrapuntal mash with discordant siren noises from vox and alto sax.   Meanwhile, shit loads of ballet going on.

This is exhausting.

Dancers just keep on coming.  It's like a kalidoscope except with dancers.  Dressed in grey and white.  Well, more like mushroom than grey, really. 

It's like a fucking insane version of Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue.

While this dancing's going on, I should mention - the speech delivered by the Judge wasn't humourous; it was the over-the-top delivery that got the laughs.  "Male chauvenist pig" got a big one, but then I am at the Barbican...

So Dance 1 gets a round of applause, and we're into "Night Train."


Chair on Apron R; Conch on L.  Ooh, the light's gone out on the chair.

Curtain up to a lovely crescent moon and the back of a train with one bloke in a tux and a black girl in a maid's costume, singing at eachother.  Can't make out a word of it. 

Ah, it's the same music as Train, only sung rather than played.

The bloke next to me really does fucking foy. 

Tux is on the observation deck now.  Moon's waxing, but it's in a C shape, so either that's wrong or we're in the Southern Hemisphere.  REFUND!

Oh, the lass isn't in a maid's uniform - looked like that through the window.  She's on the observation deck now and it's just a lovely white dress.  Aah.

Are those fucking things even called aprons?!

Is this slowing down or is the keyboard player just getting tired?

"Lassie, Lucy, Laffa"

I think he was just getting tired - they're still going.  Few split notes here and there.  Can't blame him - poor fucker's been playing the same half dozen notes for about 2 hours.

Drama - they might be about to hold hands (after counting to 6 a few dozen times).

He takes her in his arms! (1, 2, 3, 4...)

She's singing up to 3; he's stuck on "fi, fi, fi"

And they part - oh no!

Fuck me - she's going to shoot him!  She's taken 5 minutes to get the gun out, mind. 

Moon's eclipsing randomly... she's grinning; he's terrified - brilliant!

And here's conch girl!  Cutrain down.  Think this is Knee 3.

Two hours and ten minutes in, and I'm getting my pillow out. 

Beautiful choral arrangement of "123123123123121231212312121234121234123412312312341212 etc"  Meanwhile, stenographer girls point at an x/y axis.

They're all calculating and counting in the air.  And why not?

Knee 3 gets a clap, and we're on to Trial 2/prison.  Same set as Trial 1.  Judges already in position.  Stenographers entering - and here are the chaps on the benches.  Reading boy there, but no Indian this time.  He still doesn't agree with what he's reading.  When he starts nodding, I'll get worried.  Defendant in a white frock.

Bench gang, mini judge and half the court set have exited stage left; scenery dragged off with ropes.  Stage hands bringing in a suit, some chains and a blanket.  And a lolipop. 

Defendent writing around on the bed.  Bars come down, and prisoners enter. 

Prematurely Airconditioned Supermarket.

Chorus in this section's amazing.

"I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, and there were all these aisles, and there were all these bathing caps that you could by, that had these kind of 4th of July plumes on them.  They were red and yellow and blue.  I wasn't tempted to buy one, but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach."

Occasional random screams from female prisoner. 

She's put on the white drape (turned out to be a skirt) and some pearls.  Guy enters - 3 WINKS from girl - guy exits.  She puts on tux and produces machine gun.  That was clever- how did she get those trousers on?

Now in chains; now with a lolipop.  What the fuck?

And she's gone!  BTW - one of the prisoners has a red beard - JUST LIKE THE TRAIN DRIVER! 

Brief Bojangles reprise. 

By "brief", I mean about 8 minutes.

Just over half way through, and I think this is "Ensemble".  Einstein's back in his chair, with violin.  Defendent is behind a gause at the back seat on a chair.  Gause gone; defendant in the blue dawn of a new... something. 

Ah, we have "I Feel the Earth Move" - referencing Carole King, Peanuts (I think), Santa, David Cassidy, "This could be very, like..."

Did I mention David Cassidy?  I can't see what I'm writing.  DJ Schedule for WABC New York.

Dance 2.  Just as fucking INSANE as Dance 1.

Couple of squares of chocolate to keep us awake for the next 2 hours. 

I've got the giggles.  I think it's hysteria.  This will be the music playing when my brain finally snaps.

Fucking turtleneck keeps trying to tap out the ever-changing rhythms in these fast contrapuntal sections.  Of course, he can't.  That doesn't stop him from wafting his stupid fucking fingers about.  That said, I'm sure I must be getting on his wires with this writing.  Sorry!

Dance 2 is a lot less dissonant than Dance 1, I must say. Still absolutely batshit crazy, though.

Einstein has a page turner - he's been playing semiquaver runs non stop without a single break for 25 minutes now.- staggering. 

Knee 4, which features male chorus singing "doh ray me fa soh" to notes that don't bare any relation to the major scale, and stenographer girls lying on glass beds while Einstein continues to fiddle.

You lose all sense of time with a piece like this.  I've no idea how long it's been going on now, and I'm not sure I mind.  Quite soothing.

The chorus appears to be brushing its teeth.  And they then display their tongues to the audience.  Ace.

Now: "Building"

Woman in the window, writing in the air.  Tapping on the desk.

You can hear the musicians starting to get tired after nearly 3.5 hours of playing.  Jazz tenor sax solo!  Reader's back.  Still doesn't like it.  Maybe this scene will tell us why?  Lovely chorus in this. "Actors" now at front of stage in various poses.  Woman still writing; reader still shaking his head.

Flautist seems to have a rest for his left hand attached to the flute.  Stage full of human mannequins.

They've spotted the ?teacher.  Except reader. 

Exiting; sax solo still going, still impressive.  Lovely tone.

Maybe reader's not disagreeing - he's just moving his eyes over the page really fast.

And next: Prelude.  Ooh, Keys 2 had the wrong patch selected.  Poor bloke sounds fucked!  This is a tocatta type job, by the way. 

Hang on. We had a solo organ piece that might have been Cadenza, followed by a simpler organ piece that involved a horizontal strip of light being pulled to a vertical position over 10 minutes.  Maybe more.  4 notes.  Now we've another organ piece with solo voice "aahing" over the top while the light strip is hoisted vertically off stage.  This, therefore, must have been Cadenza, Prelude and Aria.

Hour and ten to go.  This should be plenty of time for Spaceship and Knee 5.

I think this is spaceship - Boy in a glass box with clock being hoisted up into the air above a smoking pit.  Choir at back in boxes with some of the musicians for some reason. 

Choir comes in and I shat myself.  Terrifying.  Einstein back with his violin.

Another guy trapped in a box going horizontally across the top of the stage with a compass.  Space & Time, innit.  Somebody in black with a torch walking backwards and forward while a chap with a telescope looks out. 

Two smoke-filled domes have appeared in the middle of the stage, like a massive frog peeping up.

Back-forth walker - is that the z axis?  Oh man, this is starting to...

Everyone's shouting unintelligibly at eachother, and there's a bass clarinet in the house, people!

"Will it get some wind for the sailboat?"

Rocket on a string flying across the stage as Einstein plays on...

Everyone seems delighted as the train driver (bld, in black overalls, carrying two torches, covered in dust and working the z axis) appears.  Stuff of nightmares.

It's not the driver - I mistook his charred and bloodied jaw for a red beard.

Stenographer girls have appeared from under the domes.  Massive diagram of the explosion of an atom bomb lowered, covering whole stage.

Knee 5

Stenographers on bench reprising various bits (including fresh & clean and Bojangles)

Something's coming - think this is a bus!

It's is a bus.  The driver's telling a story!  Ah, that was lovely.  Lovely, lovely.

4 and a half hours of performing - we applauded them for about 7 minutes.  Seems unfair.  No, sorry - 5 hours: they started as the audience were entering.

Well that was incredible.  The stamina of the performers; the subtleties in the music that kept pulling the rug from under you, moving you along on a wave, or drilling into your skull like a crazy hag with a drinking proble.  And the way things slowly began to make sense once you'd been worn down.

How do you go about writing something like that?  Or choreographing it?  Or learning it?  Or playing it?

Amazing.  But although it was wonderfully enjoyable, the tossers on the row in front saying "And you know? It really didn't feel like five hours?" were talking shit. Felt every last minute of it!

That said, I'd happily see it again tomorrow night.  Superb.

Me just before the show.

Me just after the show.

[Photos (c) Lucie Jansch]


divbyzero said...

Came across your blog randomly, but just have to say, this is a brilliant post -- funny but still quite revealing. I like serial minimalism and am particularly fond of Steve Reich, but have always been dubious of Glass because my first exposure to him was a recording of Einstein on the Beach. Based on your description, I now feel like I just might have to see it live to get the proper experience -- the music doesn't really stand by itself.

Peter said...

Thanks so much for your comment, divbyzero

It really was an inspiring evening. Indescribable, really. As I said, I would happily have gone to see it again the next night - completely unlike anything else I'd ever experienced, and so much to take from it. I don't expect it's performed live all that often, but catch it when you can!


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