Prepping Einstein for the Dissection Table

Wow. WOW.


As you can infer, I am holding in my hands a copy of the score to Einstein on the Beach. I can hardly put it down. I ordered it from Chester Music, and it just came in the mail. I had come to think I would never own such a thing, because for so long Philip Glass had refused to release the music written for his ensemble, since performing it was how he made his money. But it’s finally available, and next semester I’m teaching an analysis class based on minimalism and its offshoots. So before I committed to the course, I searched around to see what minimalist scores I could get, and I found more by Glass and Terry Riley than I had thought would be available.

It’s not that I consider Einstein that great a piece – or at least consistently great – but it was crucially important in my development. The opera premiered on my 21st birthday (I wasn’t there), and I bought the Tomato recording about a year later, sometime in 1977-78. It was my first year of grad school, I had put my undergrad years behind me, and I was ready to embark on something new. You know what a deep impact new music encountered at that age can have. I never liked all of Einstein, was even irritated by some of it, but I wore that 4-record set down to slick vinyl wafers, trying to capture every process. What impressed me most was the difficult rhythmic patterns that Glass’s technique made available – and, trying to play through the keyboard parts in the score, they seem even more brain-twisting than I realized – and also the chromatic voice-leading among his harmonies. The “Bed” scene instilled in me a new conception of harmony that I use to this day. As I’ve reported before, years ago I had the opportunity to interview Phil in public, and told him that I was still trying to compose the “Bed” scene from Einstein. He replied, “So am I.”

So I think it’s only recently that a course in the analysis of minimalism has really become viable. I did receive a score of Dennis Johnson’s groundbreaking piano piece November, by the way, and with that, the score to The Well-Tuned Piano, the Boosey and Hawkes Steve Reich scores, Riley’s early string quartet pieces available from his web site, and what Phil Glass has now released, I think I can cover the early part of the movement. (Maybe we’ll try to dissect some Charlemagne Palestine by ear; he was pretty elusive when I quizzed him about scores.) Of course, some early minimalism is too transparent to be analyzed in any conventional sense. I’m not going to hand out the score to Music in Fifths to pore over a pattern that can be easily grasped in a minute or two. At the Music and Minimalism Conference in Wales last August, William Lake presented a thorough analysis of Riley’s In C, but making a larger statement about the work than the obvious one required more analytical prestidigitation than I can expect of my undergrads.

But I do think there are secrets of rhythm to be teased out from Einstein, a clear structure to be charted in Music for 18 Musicians and Octet, and afterward we’ll move on to some Phill Niblock frequency charts, John Adams’s Phrygian Gates, Duckworth’s Blue Rhythms, Lois Vierk’s Go Guitars, John Luther Adams’s Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, Peter Garland’s Jornada del Muerto, and so on. Student enthusiasm has already been apparent. And this will all help me toward not only the book I’m writing, but the minimalism conference I’m directing with David MacIntire next year.

And by the way, Einstein: not a dynamic marking in the entire score.

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  1. says

    I’d love to see more of these early minimalist works made available. Einstein was a critical work for me; I was not a fan of minimalism until I listened to the radio premiere of the Tomato Records set on WKCR-FM (it reached my home in NJ, barely) and was blown away by the work. I still have that old LP set and am amazed I haven’t worn out the vinyl myself.

    It’s great that these works are coming out in score form, and hope to see many more coming down the pike.

  2. says

    You probably already know this, but Bob Fink’s book _Repeating Ourselves_ has a lengthy analysis of M18, which focuses heavily on the places where Reich breaks the system he established. Basically, the opening chord cycle is supposed to be a sort of blueprint for the large scale harmonic structure of the whole piece, but there are certain cases where Reich instead uses the “wrong” chord–Fink presents this analysis as a way of illustrating how Reich is thinking teleologically. (Which is in turn part of my reason for arguing that M18 is a sort of bridge between Minimalism proper and Postminimalism.) I believe Fink also analyzes Octet, but I don’t have the book in front of me to check.
    What sort of analysis are you planning on doing for a piece like the Young String Trio, assuming you’ll be covering it?
    KG replies: I know about the Fink analysis because you told me about it, and I’m including the piece because of it. This blog would be a sorry investment if it didn’t attract so much expert opinion.
    Don’t know about the String Trio yet. I’m leery of including something 12-tone just because there’s so much else to do, but it might be worth looking into for temporal factors.

  3. says

    “And by the way, Einstein: not a dynamic marking in the entire score.”
    I think since Einstein (and many other PG compositions) are composed for a core group of familiar musicians there is less need to fill out a score with dynamic instructions. This is especially true since Philip performs in his own ensemble, which enables him to steer the direction of the music. When I recently played EOB @ Carnegie Hall, there were tons of things that were not in the score that had been just worked out over the years between the musicians in the group. For instance, in Spaceship there are atleast 10 different tempo changes which you have to just feel immediately. It shifts from section to section.
    There are lots of examples like this throughout the score.
    KG replies: Then I guess Chester Music better make sure they only sell his scores to his core musicians.

  4. Juhani Nuorvala says

    Kyle, could you look at Fig 64/66 on page 213. Here the famous five-chord theme is presented in a shortened, 4-bar version. Look at both organ parts, right hand. Now, is the E natural a mistake? Surely it should be F (an octave doubling in an F minor chord)? But the E is where the D# of the last chord resolves, so with the E the first chord would be an interesting bitonal combination, and an early example of such in Glass’s work. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t really tell from the Tomato recording if the organs play the E or not – the sound is so thick at this point. I don’t have the later recording. What do you think?
    KG replies: Hi Juhani, nice to hear from you. Well, as an amateur musicologist I’m flummoxed and have no idea. But as a composer I rather like the voice-leading that the E provides, and see it as a somewhat clever solution to having left out the intervening chord. It looks right to me, or at least reasonable.

  5. John Richardson says

    Hi Kyle,
    Following up from Juhani’s comment, I don’t have access to a copy of the score to Einstein, but on the basis of what I’ve seen of later Glass scores (Satyagraha, Akhnaten, Koyaanisqatsi, The Voyage, Orphee, La Belle et la Bete etc) my guess is that your interpretation is correct: the E natural is not a mistake. I think it offers an insight into the way he was thinking at the time. One of the speakers at the Bangor minimalism conference talked about harmonic slippage and he had a point. But I also think a spatial metaphor that came up when I interviewed him in the early 90s might be relevant: he told me he was thinking about bitonality in terms of the kinds of optical illusions found in drawings by people like MC Escher. In musicological research, the idea of tonal perspective comes up here and there – Noami Cumming, who wrote an important article on Reich’s Different Trains, discusses the subject in her book The Sonic Self. My own view is that there isn’t a great deal of difference from a theoretical or perceptual standpoint whether one is discussing harmonic ambiguity or polytonality – the principles are the same. The degree to which you smooth over the dissonances is what sets the two approaches apart. Here I think Glass left some of the “cracks” exposed in a way that anticipates later works. Music theory types might not like this way of thinking but it makes sense to me, and I believe it did to PG as well …