Work in Progress: An Oral History of Philip Glass

CLOSE: The collaboration with [Robert] Wilson marked the beginning of [Glass’ many] collaborations. This is the first time that he began to work with choreographers, and work with singers. Wilson contributed most of the visual stuff, although I think Phil did as well, and it rewrote opera as we knew it. He was using cheap, tinny electric pianos—the cheaper the better, the tinnier the better. He doesn’t like to be called “minimalist,” but they were extremely reductive in nature, those pieces. You know, ABCDEFG 12345678910 were the lyrics, and that sort of minimal, non-traditional opera dialogue—if you ever saw the libretto for one of Phil’s operas, it’s hilarious. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Steve Reich was doing a lot of stuff with tape loops, so things would go in and out of phase, because they were tape loops overlaid on top of each other. But [Glass] taught his musicians to go in and out of phase by actually counting, which is very, very different. But what happened was, he got overtones, and out of the overtones he got fugue-like complexity, six or seven notes. That was an amazing breakthrough for music, I think.

CHILDS: During the first run of Einstein on the Beach, I was on stage for about three hours. I did my own solo in the first act and then I was onstage for a great deal of the second and third acts. The audience would leave and come back. They couldn’t sit that long. They just needed to get up and get some air and come back. In the original version, which is about five hours, the five “Knee Plays,” which I performed with Sheryl Sutton, tended to be a time when people felt, Oh, this is a break. But that became less and less the case, especially when we did the revivals in ’84 and ’92. In fact, in ’92, with the slightly shorter version, which is more like three and half hours, people didn’t move at all.

JASPER MCGRUDER (Actor and performer in Einstein on the Beach): Einstein on the Beach really just filled you in a very quiet and subtle kind of way which lent itself to the beauty of love, and finding it and touching it and really letting it embrace you. There’s a sense memory that comes with those musical moments. I think that the performers and the audience go home with the same thing. Because, time-wise, it’s unlike a lot of other works. And to sit there for five, six hours, it is quite a ride and you are very full after it—it really is an experience. It’s unlike a lot of artistic ventures out there and it is seminal and very unique in that way. It really is creating a whole new world for people.

CLOSE: As contributors to Einstein on the Beach, we got box seats to watch the thing, and it was an absolutely amazing experience. Remember Sesame Street in the early years? Mr. Hooper’s Store was part of Sesame Street, and I was in a box with Mr. Hooper, which was pretty funny, because he said to his wife, who had dragged him there—he said, “What is this shit? Are you fucking kidding me? Do I have to sit and listen to this?” And he got up and left. I did get an autograph from Mr. Hooper to give to my daughter.

Right after the premiere, which attracted a great deal of attention but no money, [Glass] was driving his cab, and an elderly patrician lady climbs into the backseat of his cab, and she was reading his cab license. She saw his name, and she said, “Young man, do you know you have the same name as the composer?” And Phil didn’t even tell her.

RIESMAN: I remember very vividly, still in the ’70s, doing a piece called Dance in Torino, Italy, and the reaction to the second movement, which is very severe—just a solo organ, a solo dancer, the same thing going on and on. There was a near riot in the audience behind me and I got scared to the point where I had one of the sound guys come and just stand next to me during that movement. There were the detractors and the enthusiasts each shouting at each other trying to drown each other out. The detractors shouting, “Basta! Basta!” meaning “enough” in Italian, and the other ones shouting “Bravi! Bravi!” meaning “great.” We were doing something radical, and that’s the kind of reaction you would expect.

CHILDS: Dance was controversial. The dance audience was really quite shocked. We had wanted to involve a visual artist because we wanted it to be a collaboration on a similar scale to Einstein. Philip had the idea to talk to Sol LeWitt. Sol was a friend of Philip’s, and Philip felt that Sol was someone who took interest in different artists and different art forms, not just his own. Immediately Sol said, “I’m not interested in making something traditional. Making a drop that you dance in front of makes absolutely no sense to me, because what you’re doing is visually very complex anyway, and I don’t want to add to that or just put something arbitrarily there for the sake of having decor.” That’s how we came up with the idea that the decor could be the dancers and that the dancers could be on film. Dance is the only time Sol ever did this kind of film or a piece for theater.

Above Photography: Theo Audenaerd/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux, Ted Thai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

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POSTED May 1, 2012 9:55AM IN FEATURES Comments (2) TAGS: , , , , , , , , ,