Defeated by the eternity of Einstein on the Beach

I sit here at my laptop, 2 hours and 40 minutes after the start of a 4 hour and 50 minute show waving a large, white flag, head hung dejectedly, admitting defeat.

I could not sit through Einstein on the Beach.

It wasn’t for lack of a quality staging. This slick production in honour of composer Philip Glass’s 75th birthday is in the midst of a multi-city tour and has been thought out to the most minute detail and executed with the utmost precision.

My defeat also wasn’t for lack of wanting to experience one of the milestone stage works of the second half of the 20th century.

When Philip Glass and Robert Wilson unleashed Einstein on the Beach on the world in 1976, they stood theatre on its head by presenting the ultimate anti-opera that disconnected form from narrative.

This is achieved on many levels: The music features the fragments of melodies and the roots of harmony, but not their completion or resolution. Words do not connect to a larger story. The sung texts are made up of nonsense repetitions.

Lucinda Childs’ choreograhy has actors, singers and dancers move on stage in a way that does not reflect real people or natural movement.

Einstein became the violin-playing poster boy for performance artists everywhere who rejected the old not by rejecting old stories and forms, but by undermining the very foundations of how those stories were told in performance.

But what bowled over our parents and grandparents in the 1970s and early ’80s now clearly looks and feels and sounds like a curious slice of the past, as un-distant as it may be.

The piece felt especially old during a scene in which a judge launches into a diatribe about how women should be equal, and those who change the diapers should be the ones who rule the world.

Until tonight, I don’t think I had heard the expression “male chauvinist pig” since I was a little boy.

But age or changing times do not make or break a piece of theatre or opera. The good works and skilled directors find ways to connect audiences with the work, or the characters, or the  music, or the staging.

I can respect what I witnessed, but I was not able to connect.

For a simple-minded person like me, nothing beats a good story — and it can be told in novel ways.

Just ask Robert Lepage.

Einstein has no beginning. Having witnessed two hours of the show, I saw that it had no middle. So I assumed that there would be no end, either — literal or figurative.

Kudos to the team of great talents who made this revolutionary work possible. But I walked away defeated.

As I sat at the Sony Centre earlier this evening, I mused on the multiple repetition at the core of Einstein on the Beach. I can stare at a crackling fire or waves crashing on a shore for hours, finding not only a way to slip into another state of consciousness, but also feel comfort in the repetition.

But there was no comfort in Einstein.

I made a note in my programme about how music is supposed to connect us to the eternal. It’s a notion I subscribe to with all my heart.

But Einstein‘s sort of eternity is not what I had in mind.


For details on the two remaining Luminato festival performances of Einstein on the Beach at the Sony Centre, click here.

John Terauds


7 thoughts on “Defeated by the eternity of Einstein on the Beach

  1. John, John, John,

    Try again. You’ll be surprised.

    Many women and some men cheered the reference to women’s rights.

    Civil rights are still an issue.

    And the atomic bomb? Can we say Iran?

    Mr. Johnson says it all.

    A night at the Beach. It’s where everyone should be this weekend.


  2. Don’t feel bad, John. I came in contact with Glass as a singer for the first time in a series of concerts of modern music here in Belgium, with a modern music ensemble called BL!NDMAN, performing concept productions that included Music in Contrary Motion and Music in Similar Motion, both written in 1969. While some of the music we performed in the programme was interesting to me, like the Saariaho Nuits Adieux and some other pieces, the Glass stuff was just so completely inhuman, so un-lyrical, that it really bored me to death. As a singer I love music that reflects human emotion and reveals beauty to others, and Glass’s music, while interesting, really seems to me to present an intellectual idea, rather than an emotionally open sharing of the gamut of human emotion, as great art aspires to do.

    Not all music is for everyone, and while some music is historically relevant, that doesn’t necessarily translate into aesthetic longevity, or even comprehensibility. Some people worship it, but with all respect to Glass and my fellow music lovers, to my ear and mind, Glass’s pieces seem to me to be terribly dated and intellectually gimmicky. As a university student of experimental science, I remember one of my professors talking about the value of “thought experiments” that helped clarify your thinking, but were pointless to actually perform. I have the same kind of opinion about Glass’s music. Bravo for admitting that the piece doesn’t speak to you!

    And bravo on your 100,000th blog viewing milestone. There really must be a way for your enthusiastic writing on the art and culture of Toronto to continue… don’t give up!

  3. Is Thomas J. Burton on the board of Luminato or part of the communications team? I have now stopped going to things I should hear or see, for the most part. Life is now too short. I go to what may move me or for real interest in the event. New artist, new piece, mature artist with something to say, old piece,new context. I’ve heard tons of Phillip Glass…and I have other plans this weekend. So great you were able to walk away having formed a judgement for yourself and brave enough not to let guilt or duty stop you from letting us know.

  4. I kinda think you missed the boat – or is train more appropriate. The power of the piece is in it’s slow gradual shifting of sound and music, staging and movement. I loved all 4 hours and 20 minutes of this masterwork. Even today, hours later and after a good night’s sleep filled with imagery from the production, I am still moved.

    The music did connect me to the eternal – the gradual shift of life as it progresses and the reminder that it all eventually boils down to love . . . To love, to be loved, to be love-able. Listen to the words of the bus driver and hear the words of the eternal.

  5. John, its too bad you didn’t enjoy it,
    I’m still haunted by the work, after hearing it for the first time on CD 20 years ago, and this weekend, again, the beauty, intensity and power of this work overwhelmed me,….still! Its like a form of meditation on the meaning of the stars….

  6. I agree with you that EOTB is not for the faint of heart or for those who cannot dispense with the need for narrative and plot. It is less an opera, in opera’s traditional sense, and more a tableau of vignettes. This is Glass’ magnum opus of his additive style–perhaps surpassed only by Music in Twelve Parts from the 70s. His subsequent works see him becoming more “conservative” with his compositional language.

    No one said all music was easy to access–Schoenberg aptly demonstrated this.

    But EOTB stands as a seminal work that forever changed the palette of western music.

    Kudos to you that you admit it was more your inability to connect than the music.

    As for it seeming old when the dialogue spoke of women needing to be seen as equals, are really able–as a man–to say that we have arrived at equality for the sexes?


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