Does the scale of the vision match that of the myth? This hallowed piece, premiering in Avignon in 1976 before moving onto the Met, an enormous brick in the vaulting trajectories of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs, becoming a touchstone of the performance avant garde: this thing carrying the baggage of a hundred thousand nods in hipster conversations, curatorial notes and essays, scene bibles and pamphlety journals, a referential mass that it hauls onto the Barbican stage. Does something like this allow itself to be seen? Or does it hide behind the haloed couch of its own aura? Can it peek out from the sprawling mausoleum of consecration? What do we see from our relativised perspective? Is the cat dead or alive?
“Almost as a metaphor (almost, but not entirely)”.
So wrote Bakhtin upon taking Einstein’s theory of relativity for his rendering of time inside the art work, and Einstein works this at even further a playful distance. As a man with a rigid arm scrawls invisible equations, routinely, while behind him a redshirted doppelganger makes more intricate arabesques in his shadow. Einstein, we might surmise, was relative to Gallileo. A humble clerk, it might say, is relatively positioned to a genius scientist. A paper plane falls from a great height from a child’s hand, its papery mass makes a small and awkward flight against the backdrop of a steam engine’s full plume. There is something fragile being made here in the face of the boiling currents of modernity, and something lonely as the grey-haired man plays ferociously technical violin on a small chair front of stage.
More broadly, as modernity and the advances in experimental measurement of the speed of light brought about Einstein’s revisions to relativity, this move of the New York avant garde contained within in the promise of advance. And just as Einstein’s thought was paradigmatic, this reconstitution of the operatic form and the gesamtkunstwerk, hovering beyond the edges of modernism, might view itself blazing the trail. And yet this is all conjectural, for a piece which does not look to “say” anything in as much as it looks to draw the spectator into its pristinely miasmic sense of time and space. With a ruthless control of mass and space, an utter control of suspension and drop, movement and stasis; an astonishing level of technical demand on its performers, and with a tugging unification of sound and vision, Einstein seals you into its world.
For five hours it feels as if you’ve being trapped inside an atomic clock the size of Shell Max House in Brobdingnag. There is a certain clockwork certainness to the ways in which the vast objects (trains, courtrooms, camper vans) move at Wilson’s glacial pace. There is pregnant stasis, as if you are clinging to the giant minute hand as it builds beneath you towards its next jerk forward, and the rush of alteration as it does, when time has moved irrevocably. This can be as small and pronounced a move as the court stenographers all presenting their brown paper lunch bags at once; or as large as the shifts into Lucinda Childs’ routines, where dancers in white like human doves, suspended in the continual gut-joy of take-off, spiral around a geometric dove cot. And yet constant motion feels the same as stasis, and for long periods it is the accumulation over serious duration that has what’s in front of your eyes alter as imperceptibly as it does definitely.
And while you are forced to give into its rhythms, as it relentlessly sucks the air from the outside world and reconfigures your nervous system along its own autonomic lines, it is not, as John Rockwell called the piece in his New York Times review of the 1976 premiere: “timeless … not just an artefact of its era”. The strange hymns to industry, as if factories were suspended from clouds, date firmly. As does a sense of the runaway momentum of civilisation, that in the obdurate advance of systems we are all compelled by blind forces, all chewed up in the machine – a relative wide-eyedness that feels much like the residue of 60s activism and the New Left. A Strangelovian tableau which crosses a climbing wall with a nuclear control centre if it was conceived by Fritz Lang, coupled with a slightly underwhelming nod to the atomic bomb, marks its cold war origins.
Perhaps it is impossible not to be human and moved as a vast halogen strip-light rotates slowly on its axis, before enacting a painstaking ascension into the Gods as the empty soft-lit chair remains mortally alone beneath. And some things come fresh: the “knee plays” that intersperse the enormous tableaux, find the constant low-stim note of a post-Fordist labour environment. Two seated women click invisible mice, wearing headsets and garbling ad jingles like psychosis, while their bodies remain eerily controlled. Affective labour is stylised and made grotesque – the fixed grin on the court stenographer’s face is over time more and more hideous. The rhythms of high modernity are beautifully parsed, as the speed reader, with mechanical-smooth shakes of the head, ritualistically scans the upheld book. In the bodies Wilson and Childs owe something to Laban, recognising in him the modern times of certain regimentation, but here that disciplined body is ambivalently fetishized, and spread across institutional settings. It climbs inside bureaucracy and 20th century feelings of speed, atomisation and massness. Things that are with us, and yet somehow now feel at a remove.
Philip Glass’s score is a sublime drag, exquisite and nagging. It retains something of that pop feel that marked him out from more serious-minded contemporary minimalists. At points it resembles every theme tune from every 1970s soap opera gathered into one repeating moment. At others it abandons its culled media landscape forms, to become like Messiaen playing frantically in a cathedral that is dropping through a wormhole.
Glass was introduced to non-western music through working with Ravi Shankar on a film. It was here he learned that rhythmic structure might marry with harmonic structure, a vision that comes to full fruition here in the incredible delicacy with which the rapid staccato of the electronic keys play shoal-like in the wash of sound, and the rounded lows of organs move to propel the waves as they break haltingly. Where in Western music “we divide time”, he wrote, “as if you were to take a length of time and slice it in the way you slice a loaf. In Indian music (and all the non-Western music with which I’m familiar), you take small units, or ‘beats’ and string them together to make up larger time-values.” While the Beatles maintained cordial relations with their accountants, Glass was concentrating on the abacus, pulling it apart and stringing it across the room, so that the beads might de-align in the breeze, and the modulated slackness in the string might provide giddying loops.
Because as much as Glass’ music deliberately alienates the close listener, favouring a meditative and structural ear, the ability to scale-in to where the level of detail is almost giddying is crucial to its oddly depthless sense of depth. As is common with minimalism, the smallest of structural changes cohere over time, the beats work like nano-bots to present a changed object without the process of change. It’s music to think systems by, evolutionary in its constant restless mutation. But there is always this be-lab-coated flirting, an invitation to take out the microscope, any time and any place. Consequently the same passage can be at once a shimmering plane and atoms knitted in solid state; both gut-tauteningly euphoric and quietly contemplative. The music not only refuses to resolve in any conventional structural way (as New York Times music critic Bernard Holland put it, “no coda, no slowing down, no stretto, no summing up”), it is adamantly ambivalent about its listener’s approach. Like a glowing meteorite embedded in the ground, it burns with a phosphorescent strangeness that can only resolve into a question mark. Prismatic and opaque as the glowing box the child holds on the scaffold.
Scale was evident in its US premiere at the New York Met in 1976, the culmination of a European tour beginning in Avignon. The opera is heralded for having a “downtown” sensibility, coming from the milieu of SoHo artists, sculptors, poets and performers of that era who have variously made their marks on history. These hyperpoints of light took a Gulliverian journey to the uptown production values of the opera house, where a triple crew worked through the night to set-up the piece. For that production they took out a full page advert in the New York Times, white with a message in the centre, handlettered in small type “tickets $2 to $2000.” In a material nod to the miscegenation of the two scenes, these seats were placed side by side. It is a story of consecration, of a gamble by the establishment on brilliant outsiders – that would lose money, the Met production incurred a loss of $100,000 and Glass was soon back to the day job driving a cab – and yet would help turn the principle figures into the icons they are today.
So Einstein throws down a challenge – who would be daring enough to renew this gesture? Who would be diligent enough in their ambition to add pages to the history of performance? The music is perhaps a key. In the past Wilson has worked with Tom Waits, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. That more recently he chosen Rufus Wainwright, a sonically unadventurous artist with few pretensions to the cutting edge, is perhaps testament to the generational necessity Einstein now invokes. For all the brilliance and awe, as the clocked whirled, and the time crept by, there hovered the distinct feeling that we didn’t want to be waiting another forty years to see something of this magnitude, in which skill and temerity are duelling with such ambition. As the robotic refrain goes, timeless but not, “these are the days my friend. These. are. the. days.”