Blogging 'Einstein'

Philip Glass's Masterwork, Minute by Breathless Minute

Lucie Jansch

By Eileen Reynolds

Published September 21, 2012.
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Can’t get enough of Phillip Glass? Here’s a minute-by minute account of ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ now onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

6:56 p.m.: I’m in my seat in the big hall at BAM. The house lights are still up and people are milling about and talking, but that recognizable three-note “Einstein” bass line (la, sol, do) is already playing, and there are two women — one black, one white, both tall and thin with short hair — sitting in chairs stage left. They’re wearing high-waisted gray trousers, black suspenders, white short-sleeve button down shirts, black converse sneakers and wristwatches. They have exceedingly good posture.

7:02: The hall is not yet two-thirds full. How will we know when the show “starts”? The two women are saying words and numbers I can’t quite hear over the din of the crowd, and one has her fingertips on the tabletop in front of her. La, sol, do. That lowest note is so low it shakes the floor.

7:04: A guy in a hat who looks rather like Paul Simon strides up to an usher and takes his seat a few rows ahead of me. He is with a boy who looks to be 12 or 13. Does Paul Simon have grandchildren?

7:06: The women are now holding their hands a few inches above the tabletops and moving their fingers as if operating an imaginary computer. Or telegraph. Folks are crawling over one another to get to their seats. A jovial man in the row ahead exclaims, “They say you can come and go, but I don’t think it’s going to be so easy!” He has a point. I’m thirsty. I wish I’d refilled my water bottle. To my right is the aisle seat. I hope it stays empty.

7:08: More people in the trousers-and-suspenders getup have appeared in the orchestra pit, stage left. When did that happen?

7:12: The trousers-and-suspenders people (the chorus?) have started singing! “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.” They have long, thin drawn-on eyebrows. Some are moving their hands like the other two women. I read somewhere that this is supposed to be a pantomime of counting on an abacus, but I still think it looks more like everyone is clicking on an imaginary computer mouse.

7:14: I think the house lights have gone down. I still can only catch snatches of what the two women are saying: “red ball, blue ball, two black-and-white balls.” Everyone in the chorus looks so darn happy. Are they? Is it super fun to sing a string of numbers, or does the score indicate that they must smile?

7:16: The men are now singing along with that bass line, “La, sol, do.” One guy moves his arms like he’s steering the big wheel of a bus. A painting of a boy (Einstein?) descends. I have to stand up to let a couple get to the two seats to my left. A man with the sniffles plops down in the aisle seat to my right. He peers over my shoulder at my notes.

7:18: New scene! The organ music has turned busy. A little boy stands at the top of a tower, holding a glowing white cube. He’s got a wire attached to his back; I hope this means he will fly. On the ground, yet another lanky woman in suspenders is marching back and forth and waving her arms like she’s trying to land a plane. She’s got something long and thin in her left hand — a pencil? Meanwhile, a guy in a red shirt seems to be scribbling on an imaginary chalkboard. A train slowly inches its way onto the stage from stage left. The chorus is singing so quickly that I can’t quite make out the solfege syllables. I look at the train and think they’re singing, “Keep moving; keep moving.”

7:20: Something big and white is coming down from the heavens! Is it going to be a giant crucifix?

7:22: Not a crucifix. Just a big, white vertical bar. The train is gone. The boy’s still got that glowing white cube. Mi-mi-so-so-so-mi-mi-mi-so-so-so. Here comes another suspenders girl, and a picture of a train crash. What? The boy throws a paper airplane from up in his tower.

7:28: I notice a big seashell — a conch — shrouded in smoke on the ground stage right. Lots more suspenders people are marching out on stage, grinning. They look like an army of happy automatons from “Doctor Who.”

7:30: Holy rhythm shift! This is almost groovy. Ah, there’s the train again, with a conductor on it. He’s got a red beard, a white face and a pipe. A pipe! Like Einstein! I think that’s what landing-a-plane girl has in her hand. When will the boy fly? I want him to fly. The guy in the red jacket is saying something about love.

7:36: The tall black woman walks out onstage reading a newspaper. I wonder how many people in this audience are high.

7:38: Guy in red jacket is doing that weird talk-singing that in German they call Sprechstimme. I am proud of myself for remembering this music-school word. The rhythm shifts again — “1,2,3,4,5” — and the organ is blasting out low notes that I can feel in my chest. Wait — we’ve got this whole train scene but there’s also one girl facing away from us and waving a red signal flag like she’s trying to help a ship come to shore. One of the cheerful automatons picks up the conch and looks pleased with herself. What is the conch for? All I can think of is “Lord of the Flies.” Oh! The boy’s tower is slowly tipping over to the right. Will he fly now?

7:43: New scene, I think. Looks like the stagehands are assembling a laboratory, with beakers full of something red.

7:48: Flutes! Flutes are playing an additive pattern — a string of notes that keeps getting longer. Automatons enter, looking marginally less cheerful. That big white vertical bar is on its side, like a Freud couch, with a cylindrical pillow at one end. The tall black woman comes in wearing a vest, like a lawyer. Two judges enter — black robes, white wigs.

7:53: Two of the automatons seem to be doing their nails. Downstage right, Einstein enters, holding his violin. He has hairy arms and a wristwatch. The judges bang gavels and say the court is in session and then pour things out of beakers a few times.

7:58: Aha! The second judge is the little boy. A guy with a briefcase runs out and freezes center stage, like the romantic lead in a musical. The woman in the vest is talking about baggy pants, Mr. Bojangles, Christopher Knowles, all the Beatles but Ringo. (Poor Ringo.) “Gun, gun, gun,” she says.

8:04: This repetitive text does sound like Gertrude Stein. Or do I only think that because Alex Ross said so? The Einstein violinist is playing some additive scale pattern that sounds like a technical exercise. I like listening to it; it reminds me of an autumn Sunday in the practice room. Pianists have Hanon and Czerny; violinists have…what? I should know this. I should also look this violinist up. He’s good.

8:10: Oh! There’s a big clock with no hands. The music is going really fast. The vest woman is doing her Bojangles speech in fast-forward. A giant black dot is coming in to eclipse the clock.

8:?? (sometime later, after a brief loss of consciousness): The one judge is giving this whole speech about how “All men are created equal” didn’t include women. He’s talking in a high-pitched voice and addressing us as “sisters!” like he’s a woman trying to rile up a crowd. This all has something to do with “Kalamazooooooo,” which he says like that, extending the “ooooo.” A joke about a woman who’s so modest she blindfolds herself when she’s taking a bath. Another joke about a boy who’s too modest to say he’s going to the A. & P. A drawing of a naked woman descends from above.

8:33: Mass exodus! The audience is running for the hills (or the bathrooms). The pair of women are back in their chairs. One prattles on in a cheerful customer service voice, while the other continues her Bojangles speech. “If you see those baggy pants, chuck the hills. It was trees. It it it was trees.”

8:35: Einstein is playing arpeggios now. The bottom notes of each outline this trippy five-note chord progression, like Bach but not Bach. Ah! Another Einstein photo.

8:??: People are dancing on a big open stage with a backdrop that looks like heaven. All these dapper young men in high-waisted khaki pants remind me of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” The music — organ and chorus — is busy, so busy that my brain’s usual channels of worry are blocked. I am happy. I am beaming. I want to record this sound and play it in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep. I want this part to go on forever. The dancers are doing these twirly leaps. They look weightless. Most are tall men, but my favorite is a short woman with yellow hair. She seems springier than the others, and when she leaps, her hair poofs out to the sides. Dancers seem to move in unison, but because their limbs are all different lengths, they’re all really moving at different speeds. Relativity! I can’t believe I’ve never thought about this before. Oh! A big white disk is moving across the stage, through the air. It’s almost at the other end, already. Why didn’t I notice it until now?

8:55: The dancing is over. The crowd applauds. I move my bag so that people in my row can get back to their seats. There are hours to go but I already know I’m never leaving mine.

9ish: New scene: We’re looking at the back of the last car of a train, which is moving away from us. Silhouetted in the windows are the black woman in a white dress and a white man in a tux. I feel guilty for noticing race but then tell myself that it’s okay, that I’m supposed to: This looks like a scene from the Civil War or something. Fa-si-si-fa-si-si-fa. The man and the woman are now standing on the balcony and reaching toward each other with gloved hands. There’s a full moon overhead — I don’t think it was full before. They’re singing so quickly now — la-fa-la-si-do-si. How long does it take to learn these parts? To memorize the changes? Do they rehearse it in pieces? Maybe it’s like a marathon, where you never really do the whole thing until showtime.

9:!!: What?! She pulled a gun on him! She’s grinning! He’s frozen in fear, with his arms up! My heart is pounding. I am upset. I did not expect this. What’s the stupid conch shell for?

9:18: Okay, I’m getting the hang of this. The automaton chorus is back in the pit, and those two women are back in their chairs, babbling away. The chorus is singing numbers so quickly that they don’t sound like numbers. They’re leaving consonants out so that instead of “1, 2, 3, 4” it sounds like “on-da-tee-fo.” Or “one-da-tree-fo.” Or is that “one da diva”? “One-ah-dee-one-ah-dee…” Ooh, I like when they switch to the more lyrical solfege theme. Sounds like a church choir, almost.

9:28: Oof. Back in the laboratory/court room again. The man to my right exclaims, “All right!” I guess he likes this part. Here comes the automaton chorus again. Are they supposed to be the jury or the crowd? Ah! Stage left has become a jail, bars and all, with two guys in stripes inside. The tall white girl lounges on the big Freud couch and says:

I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket
And there were all these aisles
And there were all these bathing caps that you could buy
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’d been avoiding the beach!

Oh, golly! She’s saying it over and over, emphasizing a different part each time. I kind of like this. What are bathing caps with plumes? Bathing caps with fireworks painted on? Or with big feathers coming out the top, like those marching band hats? I decide it’s the second thing. Then I start thinking about choir stalls, and how they’re similar to jury stalls. Jury lofts? Choir lofts? What’s the name of the thing the jury sits in? Or maybe the automatons are in the spectator seats. What are those called? I don’t know a lot about courtrooms.

9:??: Fourth-of-July plumes girl is moving around now, standing in front of the jail. She’s really flirtatious, writhing around and winking at us all throughout her speech. She’s dressed all in white — I think it’s supposed to be like a slinky white robe. Her voice sounds like what people thought was sexy in 1960. Now she’s turned around to face the jail, with her back to us. What is she doing? Touching herself under her clothes? Oh! Now she’s got pants on — black clothes, eek! A Tommy gun! She’s pointing a giant gun at the audience. I didn’t know this show would have so many guns in it. The two prisoners are mimicking her movements. (Oh, and Bojangles woman is talking about Bojangles again.) Now the 4th-of-July plumes gal has a giant multicolored lollipop. What does that mean? She exits. One prisoner carries the other offstage.

9:50: Big open stage. Plumes girl is sitting on a high chair. I hear bass clarinet and saxophone. There’s the judge and the jail and Einstein and his chair. “I feel the earth move,” says plumes girl, and I think of that Carole King song. No, no, that’s not right. This has nothing to do with Carole King. Bojangles gal is back into her speech, but with some new stuff — “Einstein,” “Einstein on the Beach” — there! She said it. She said the name of the show. “I feel the earth move under my feet,” says the other one. Ah! Carole King! She said Carole King! I was right. “F-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-facts,” says Bojangles, like she has a stutter. More about Carole King, and then some radio call numbers, like we’re listening to a top-40 show from a few decades back.

10:00: Yay — more dancing! This time, when they’re not leaping or spinning, they sometimes do a bit of quick footwork with their arms at their sides, “Riverdance” style. I still like the yellow hair best. The couple to my left steps on me on their way out. Why do people leave during the dancing? It’s the best part. Now the dancers are backlit, and someone in black — oh, it’s the guy with the red beard, from the train! — is sort of ominously moving around downstage. When the dancers step into the light I can see how sweaty they are. This show is a marathon for them, too. The audience applauds at the end of the dance.

10:10: Oooh, that super-low vibrating bass I’ve come to love, and then a big solo from Einstein on the violin. I can tell that Glass spent a lot of time listening to the Bach Sonatas and Partitas: This kind of theme-and-variation is pleasantly old-fashioned, in a way. More applause, and then another mass exodus.

10:??: Just the automaton chorus, in the pit, and Einstein. It’s just lovely. They’re alternating between that lyrical church-y theme and something angrier, with Einstein busy playing arpeggios. Without the organ and the other instruments, the chorus sounds more recognizably human. I’m staring into their faces. I like this almost as much as the dance. The couple crawls over me to get back to their seats. The woman has a water bottle. I want to steal it.

10:who-the-hell-cares?: The chorus have toothbrushes! They are brushing their teeth! They turn to the audience and stick out their tongues! Everyone laughs and applauds.

??:??: There’s a person in a tall brick tower, tapping her fingers on the windowsill. A saxophone starts playing a sultry line like nothing we’ve heard so far. Oh! The saxophonist is standing in the pit, stage right. I can see him! One automaton enters, rapidly shaking her head at a book she’s holding open in her hands. Other automatons walk in from stage right, carrying themselves rather more like regular people this time. The little boy has a skateboard. That saxophone is really going wild; this must be improvised. It sounds so free over the metronomic organ accompaniment. In fact, it sounds out of place — like the sexy love theme from a 1980s B-movie romance. Now they’re all lined up across the stage with their backs to us, pointing up at the sky. Is she really shaking her head at the book, or is she just reading really, really fast, like Data from “Star Trek”? Why are they all looking up at that tower? The saxophone is going crazy. I’m suddenly nervous. Something bad is going to happen.

–:–: Black, empty stage. The big white bar is lying horizontally on the ground. What’s this? Some fabulous new organ lick — drones on the bottom, with fast moving notes on the top. Sounds like any of the great organ preludes. You can really tell that, even if he rejected it all later, Glass studied counterpoint. I keep coming back to Bach. Does it really sound like Bach, or is it just that it’s an organ? I LOVE this. Oh! The white bar is lifting up on the left side. How long has it been doing that? When it reaches an angle of about thirty degrees, the man from the couple to my left sneezes twice, in time with the music. The left end of the big white bar continues its ascent. It is blinding but I can’t keep my eyes off it. It finally reaches vertical.

–:–: Down in the pit, one of the chorus girls — the one who liked the conch — starts singing into the microphone, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah.” Her voice is lower, richer than I expected. She’s looking up at the balcony behind me. Has the conductor moved up there? One of the organ notes sounds out of tune. Is that possible? Do electric organs go out of tune? Has the Philip Glass Ensemble been using the same ones since the 1960s? The white bar of light starts rising upward. We are transfixed. When the light is gone and the girl stops singing, the audience whoops like she’d sung a Puccini aria.

!!:!!: OH MY! All the automatons are at work on this giant, three-level matrix of bright lights. They’re scurrying all around, plugging this in here, that in there. With their backs to us, they all look the same in those white shirts and suspenders. There is a clock rising out of hell, with green smoke. Oh, the clock is in a glass casket! The little boy is inside! It’s moving up, up, up, vertically, with his hands clasped in prayer! Here comes another glass casket, from stage right, with a woman inside, moving across the stage horizontally! The music is so busy I can’t think! The coffins are going to collide! No, whew, one is actually behind the other. The slim gal from the first train scene is marching back and forth again, only this time, there’s also someone next to her with flashlights doing that land-a-plane dance. Einstein is here but not playing. Organ organ organ, loud loud loud. The voices seem to be coming from everywhere — from behind me. Is some of the chorus up in the balcony? Einstein starts his scale-exercise thing again. I finally notice that the musicians — saxophonist, organist, the whole lot of ‘em — are in the big matrix thing, too. Someone is saying something about tickets.

–:–: Okay, the curtain is down and Einstein is out front. He’s playing alone. No, the organ is doubling his line. No, there are organ sounds coming out of his violin. I can’t tell anymore! Behind him, a small white rocket is slowly making its way up, travelling diagonally across the stage at a 45-degree angle. It reminds me of the little boy’s paper airplane, but it might be a missile. It’s being pulled on a wire, so its movements are all herky-jerky, not smooth.

–:–: Curtain goes back up! The lights are bright! The automatons have made the lights in the matrix into bright interlocking circles! The guy with flashlights for hands turns out to be red beard, from the train! He seems to have a red eye. He scares me. His movements are getting increasingly frantic. The music is louder and faster than ever — all the instruments and all the voices are going full blast — and it’s all built around the five-note progression that’s now tattooed onto my brain. I can’t breathe! Everything from the whole show is now happening here, all at once! Bojangles and all! The pair of women emerge from beneath two plastic domes, crawling out of the sewers like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A diagram of an atom bomb descends from above. It’s sheer fabric so we can still see the scene behind it. My palms are sweaty. The man to my right puts his hands over his ears. I want to tell him he’s missing the point.

–:–: I am not at all sure what happened. Our good friends, those two tall ladies, are now on their hands and knees stage right, all alone. Someone walks in carrying a park bench, and they sit on it. The organ is playing the la-sol-do pattern that we heard when we first walked in (and then a gazillion times since), but now it strikes me as funereal. Are we supposed to think the world ended or something? Nuclear holocaust, blah blah blah? But then Bojangles girl starts her Bojangles speech: “If you see those baggy pants…” Something is coming from stage left! Is it the train again? No — it’s a bus! A big blue bus, with a nattily dressed driver and everything! He’s wearing a hat. The chorus and the violin start up their lyrical church-y theme. The bus driver starts talking about the end of day and the beginning of night and how we all need to hear a good story and the good story is about love. Love? Suddenly this all seems very Beckett — has the whole show been about these two girls waiting for a bus? The bus driver is talking about two lovers sitting on a park bench with their bodies touching each other. Are the two girls lovers? They’re on a park bench, but their bodies aren’t touching each other. The bus driver says that the lovers kiss and talk about how much they love each other. The girls do no such thing. The bus driver is so nice it makes me want to cry. He’s nice like how people are nice when they tell you someone you love has died. Has the world ended and all that’s left is these girls and the park bench and the bus? Or is that all there ever was?

11:25: Curtain calls. I am standing on numb legs and clapping. The woman to my left says, “You’ve been taking notes the whole time.” I smile. She and her husband push past me to get out before the actors have left the stage. I scowl with my eyes but my mouth is still smiling.

11:30: On the way out of the hall, I run into my cousin. I didn’t know he was coming but I am not surprised to see him. We are both speechless. My eyes feel wide.


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