A touring production of Philip Glass’s monumental “Einstein on the Beach,” one of a great many tributes that kicked off this year in honor of the 75th birthday of the world’s most famous living composer, arrives this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Glass and his collaborator, avant-garde director and playwright Robert Wilson, called the sprawling work an opera because it shares certain superficial attributes — dancers, a pit orchestra, a proscenium arch — with the traditional form. But as the audience for the piece’s 1976 premiere in the United States at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House must have realized right away, the similarities end there.
Instead of words, the chorus sings numbers and solfege syllables (like do-re-mi, representing the different notes of the scale). Text spoken throughout the piece was written by choreographer Lucinda Childs, an autistic 14-year-old poet named Christopher Knowles and Samuel L. Johnson, an amateur actor who auditioned for a role in the show. Various images and ideas from Albert Einstein’s life and work — trains, clocks, gyroscopes, a violin, an outstretched tongue, a spaceship — appear and reappear in various combinations, amounting to no discernible plot. Small musical fragments undergo subtle variations as they repeat, seeming to distort the passage of time itself. The opera’s ecstatic final act, which many have interpreted as a poetic vision of the nuclear holocaust, centers on a shifty, five-chord pattern that, looping back on itself, is as sublime as it is unsettling.
“Einstein” marked a point of transition from Glass’s earlier works, which eschewed harmonic motion in favor of strict organization by rhythmic variation, toward pieces that married these strict “minimalist” principles with traces of functional harmony. The rest — from “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten,” the two operas that followed, to the film score for “The Hours” — is history.
Here, in honor of the prolific composer’s achievements in music for stage and screen, is a quiz about the minutiae of Glass’s life and work — assembled (how else?) in modular parts.
I. MINIMALIST EXPERIMENTS AND THE BIRTH OF GLASS’S ‘INTENTIONLESS MUSIC’
Philip Glass, who is generally regarded as a polite, mild-mannered fellow, once punched a man. What for?
Climbing onstage and trying to play along on the keyboard at a performance of “Two Pages” in Amsterdam in 1969. Hecklers were common among audiences first hearing Glass’s loud, repetitive experimental music. At another performance, in Central Park, a schoolteacher started yelling that the musicians didn’t know how to play their instruments. That time, the police intervened.
What exactly was Glass smoking in the 1960s?
Nothing — maybe. Producer Kurt Munkacsi claims that in those early days performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble in downtown art galleries and lofts, everyone but Glass did drugs. Can this possibly be true? Glass’s solo violin piece “Strung Out” (1967) was ostensibly named for the way its 20-page manuscript was meant to be unfolded and hung up on the walls of a performance venue, though Glass also allows for the possibility that the title could refer to the expression meaning “to be at the end of one’s tether.” In interviews, he has often rejected the claim that his minimalist compositions were designed for meditation (chemically assisted or not), insisting that his music, like most, is meant to be listened to.
Which Philip Glass work did the U.S. Copyright Office refuse to register?
“1+1” (1967) — a piece in which the performer, tapping his or her hands against a tabletop, is instructed to combine two basic rhythmic “building blocks” into “continuous, regular arithmetic progressions.” The squares at the copyright office said it was a “theoretical model” rather than a true composition.