Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Counting Glass; Bed from Einstein on the Beach

Musical counting is occasionally on the surface of the sound in Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass. This clip opens with numbers as text:



Numbers and calculations fill the sketches at [0:26].

"There was no need to tell a story," said director Robert Wilson [0:47], "we already knew a story. How this man who was a pacifist also contributed to the splitting of the atom."

Instead of narrative the opera presents movements and images, constructions and processes. "Structurally," said Glass, "the piece is, I think, self-revealing." He was referring to his work named "Strung Out" when he wrote that sentence in liner notes, but he could just as easily been talking about the music from Einstein on the Beach.

The most beautiful and poised section of "Einstein" is Act IV Scene 2, called Bed. It depicts Einstein laying in bed at night wondering if his inventiveness will lead to absolute destruction. There are no words in this scene, only non-verbal singing.

The movement uses four chords that loop in continual cycles: F Minor, E-flat Major, C Major, and D Major. Motion down a whole step from F minor to E-flat major is balanced by the rising whole-step motion from C major to D major, and the falling minor third between E-flat and C is mirrored by the rising minor third progression from D major to F minor as the progression regenerates.

The bass changes from C during the F minor chord, to G during the E-flat and C major harmonies, and is silent during the D major chord. The frictions of the triads against the bass and the lightness in texture of the final chord adds considerably to the impact of this musical idea.



The progression of four chords cycles through twice, then Glass adds beats to either the 1st and 3rd chords or to the 2nd and 4th chords in the progression. This "self-revealing" structure is hard to anticipate, but the length of the progression grows steadily throughout the movement. Each chord change is grouped in square brackets in the following diagram:

[4+3] [4] [4+3] [4]
[4+3] [4] [4+3] [4]

(Timing 0:17)
[4+3+2] [4] [4+3+2] [4]
[4+3+2] [4] [4+3+2] [4]

(Timing 0:37)
[4+3+2] [4+3] [4+3+2] [4+3]
[4+3+2] [4+3] [4+3+2] [4+3]

(Timing 1:02: the only time all groups are equal)
[4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2]
[4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2]

(Timing 1:30: change involving alteration and addition)
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2]
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2]

(Timing 2:06)
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2]
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2]

(Timing 2:45: Adding inside the sequence instead of at the end)
[4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2]
[4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+3..3..3..3...fade out]

My trusty LP recording of Einstein includes five additional double cycles of chord progression that continue to grow--this recording has been edited. Einstein on the turntable trumps Einstein on the web.

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