The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now presenting its 2014 edition of the Minimalist Jukebox Festival, curated by Creative Chair John Adams. I’m especially excited about the offering for Thursday, 17 April: the Rome section from the CIVIL warS, a Robert Wilson-Philip Glass collaboration. Here’s the essay I wrote for the LA Phil’s program:
Is it too far-fetched to compare Einstein on the Beach’s seismic effect with that of The Rite of Spring? At least in terms of the prospects for contemporary opera in America — in a moribund condition at the time — Einstein’s U.S. premiere in 1976 was a game-changer. And in the context of Minimalism itself, this groundbreaking collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opened up a new world of possibilities for a composer who, as Glass has often repeated, up to that point had never dreamed of writing opera.
By the time of his second collaboration with Wilson on the CIVIL warS project, Glass had taken up the “conventional” rhetoric of opera — which is to say operatically trained voices, chorus, and full orchestra — and translated this into his unique style and idiom.
Glass himself considers Einstein to be both his first opera and an end point — the culmination of a long period of experimentation in abstract, instrumental forms with what is now generally regarded as “hard-core” Minimalist processes. This inaugural collaboration with Wilson was followed by Satyagraha, his first work written for an actual opera company (Netherlands Opera). Glass then undertook Akhnaten, completing his trilogy of “portrait operas” based on iconic figures in the period when he was working on the CIVIL warS.
The work we hear on tonight’s program therefore represents another important early step in cultivating a medium on which Glass has concentrated, with incredible productivity, up until the present. It is in opera that “Glass found a medium in which he could put his newly developed language to expressive use,” as the critic Allan Kozinn observed as far back as 1986. His turn “from abstract composition to representational music” has not kept Glass from continuing to write such abstract instrumental works as symphonies, concertos, and quartets, but the collaboration with Wilson in particular left a decisive mark on Glass’s conception of Minimalist language.
This language itself, it should be noted, was in its Glassian dialect initially rooted in “representational” projects from the composer’s early Paris years, when he made pivotal encounters with Indian music and the theater of Samuel Beckett. Through these projects Glass became fascinated by theatrical and musical sensibilities that posited an alternative to Western conventions of narrative linear time and space. Glass apparently first happened upon the work of Robert Wilson via the 12-hour-long The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented in 1973.
That encounter had the effect of an epiphany. “I understood then, as I feel I have ever since, [Wilson’s] sense of theatrical time, space, and movement,” Glass has remarked. The composer once characterized the sense of time in his own music as existing outside “colloquial time,” with the result that audiences tend to perceive this music “as extended time, or loss of time, or no sense of time whatsoever.”
In Einstein Glass had his first opportunity to match his musical constructions to the vision of the maverick director from Texas. Wilson abandoned the business career intended by his father to instead take up a life in the performing arts, evolving his enormously influential brand of theater in New York City’s avant-garde downtown scene of the 1960s.
Through his idiosyncratic collages of surreal, dreamlike elements, stylized stage movement and gesture, and associative rather than plot-driven content, Wilson created a modernist counterpart to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk — only this is a “total work of art” that, unlike Wagner’s, reflects the intersecting visions of its collaborators rather than the vision of a single artist.
And, as Glass has emphasized over the years, its meaning is outside the control of the creators. Figuring out the relation of his own music to the words and images of the entire theatrical experience (or film, in the case of his collaborations with the director Godfrey Reggio) thus requires the active participation of the audience to be completed. “Early on in my work in the theater, I was encouraged to leave what I call a ‘space’ between the image and the music. In fact, it is precisely that space which is required so that members of the audience have the necessary perspective or distance to create their own individual meanings.”
Even in a cantata-like concert performance lacking the hallucinatory visuals that originally accompanied the full staged version, the Rome section (a Prologue and three scenes), affords the audience fascinating examples of this “intertextual” space, which might be contrasted to a more straightforwardly expressive “translation” of text and feelings into musical content.
The libretto prepared by Wilson and his collaborator Maita di Niscemi, for example, wasn’t intended merely to be “set” to music. Wilson had already constructed a multilayered verbal and visual text lacking only the musical layer. Glass’s contribution thus represented the final creative stage. He carpentered his score to align precisely with the timings from a pre-recorded read-through of the text as a stage play (though with the words delivered at an abnormally but operatically “true” slow pace).
All of this was meanwhile intended as the part of a still larger whole titled the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, to be performed in Los Angeles to celebrate the international spirit of the Olympics held here in 1984. Wilson began with a characteristically elliptical take on the American Civil War — in particular, Matthew Brady’s haunting contemporary photographs — and imagined a world historical juxtaposition of images and associations from antiquity to the Space Age. These riff on themes of war and peace, nation and family, civil and internalized struggle and enlightenment.
The peculiar typography of the title draws attention to a “struggle” between upper and lowercase letters as well as to the plurality of this phenomenon. “Civil Wars” also happens to be the customary translation of one of Julius Caesar’s writings. The subtitle quotes from Carl Sandburg’s canonical biography of Abraham Lincoln, for whom Wilson devised an unforgettable visual of a figure who is eventuality “struck down” (a singer suspended in a 16-foot-high harness, draped with a long black coat and sporting a stovepipe hat).
Never lacking for ambition, Wilson intended to stage a day-long ceremonial opera featuring composers, writers, and performers from around the world. Glass was one of several composers invited to contribute music for a different section of the vast five-act opus. The sections which were completed took their names from the locations of their separate premieres: hence the Rome section, envisioned as the final, fifth act of the CIVIL warS, was independently commissioned and staged (in March 1984) by the Opera di Roma. Glass also wrote the music for the Cologne section (scenes from Acts 1, 3, and 4), while David Byrne created connective pieces to link the scenes, known as The Knee Plays or the Minneapolis section.
At the last minute, the LA Olympic Arts Festival pulled the plug and canceled its plans to fund the complete staging. One of the commentators in Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s 2006 documentary Absolute Wilson observes that the director has since regarded this decision as the single greatest disappointment of his career. The Rome section, like the others, was thus left as a torso that has been occasionally performed on its own.
There is no story to synopsize. Wilson and di Nascemi’s libretto is largely a collage, an assemblage of texts from letters of the American Civil War period, ancient tragedies by Seneca for the Roman connection (in the original Latin and translated into Italian), and stream-of-consciousness word poems by Wilson himself, recited by a male and a female narrator. (On the Nonesuch recording, these parts are taken by Wilson and Laurie Anderson.)
It is for you, gentle listener, to generate what you will from the text’s recombination of historical, iconic, symbolic, and seemingly “automatic” elements. Figures we expect to see from the American Civil War — Abraham and Mary Lincoln and Robert F. Lee (who reappear in Glass’s more recent 2007 work for San Francisco Opera, Appomattox) share this dreamscape with the (French-born) leader of the Italian Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Hercules and Alcmene (the hero’s mother), and mythic Hopi characters, the “Earth Mother” and “Snow Owl.”
Glass’s very first notes, an ominously descending bass, happen to echo a similar gesture at the beginning of Einstein. But the original commission by Rome Opera — in the land where opera was born — led Glass to reflect on the power of the human voice itself and its central role in this medium. Whereas Einstein had featured relatively little singing, the Rome score is cast for huge, dramatically projected voices, with especially demanding high parts for the soprano and tenor soloists.
At the same time, Glass resorts to a Wagnerian sweep of orchestral sonorousness over which these voices float, as well as recurrent motivic ideas such as the brief trumpet call pervading the Prologue. Oscillation between major and minor provides the fulcrum for Glass’s idiosyncratic slant on tonality. The orchestral writing features primary-color effects, with fresh twists on conventional instrumental “imagery” such as military brass and drums or the floating arpeggios of bel canto accompaniment.
Indigenously American congregational hymn singing also informs some of the choral writing (Scene B), and elsewhere references to nineteenth-century Romanticism (Verdi and Tchaikovsky) color the choral and solo parts as well as the orchestral interludes. Creating a panorama of alternately turbulent and elegiac soundscapes, Glass recontextualizes familiar imagery in a way that’s reminiscent of Wilson’s process. Musically, the result is akin to the opera’s mingling of history and myth, of artifact and dream.
(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.
Filed under: American music, directors, essay, opera, Philip Glass