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Einstein, Again

Some of our most exciting events during the 2011-2012 season were the preview performances of Einstein on the Beach at the Power Center in January.

Widely credited as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century, Einstein on the Beach is a rarely performed and revolutionary work that launched director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass to international success when it was first produced in Avignon, France in 1976, with subsequent performances in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera. It is still recognized as one of their greatest masterpieces. This year, nearly four decades after it was first performed and 20 years since its last production, Einstein on the Beach has been reconstructed for a major international tour.

Some our staff decided to see the production again this summer at Luminato Festival. We wanted to know what it’s like to see Einstein, again.

1. What was your experience/role during the Einstein on the Beach production in Ann Arbor? Why did you decide to see the production at Luminato?

Beth Gilliland: I had the opportunity to do some “lightwalking” during the rehearsal process here in Ann Arbor. I spent many hours onstage on the spaceship, at the judges’ desk, in the courtroom, and even as Einstein – wig and all! – sitting in the “Einstein Chair” downstage right. I did get to see the entire production here in Ann Arbor, but wanted to see it again in Toronto to have a little more perspective on the show – to be more removed from the intense rehearsal process and just see it for what it is. [Ed’s Note: Beth is also our IT master at UMS!]

Jenny Graf: I manage the Ticket Office at UMS so my time (and brain) was very consumed with making sure the ticket office ran smoothly for the performances. All of the Ann Arbor performances were sold out, so that added extra stress for me. In January, I attended only the second half of the Friday preview performance. We had two other performances, but I wasn’t mentally ready to go back to one of the other performances, to sit and take it all in. However, even just seeing the second half of the production was enough to interest me. About a week later, I started regretting not seeing the whole performance. I bought a CD of Einstein and listened to it often. When the opportunity came up to see Einstein in Toronto, I jumped on it! I needed to see what I missed!

Sigal Hemy: I was an Education intern at UMS during Einstein. I wasn’t directly involved with much of the production, but I did take a few of the musicians to U-M classes. Being involved in all the build up around those classes and in the office made me really excited to see the opera in Ann Arbor. When I did see the performance here, it affected me much more than I expected. The music and the choreography were challenging, but in a way that kept me very engaged and curious. I had unanswered questions after the performance, and hoped that seeing it a second time at Luminato would let me come away with a sense of greater understanding.

2. What did you think?

BG: Interestingly enough, my mind still wandered to all the activity onstage while lightwalking – its still not possible for me to separate my personal experiences with the show from the action of merely watching the show. I guess in a certain way, everyone in the theater participates in the show at any given point – and all performances are affected by what you bring to them. Overall, though, the show has really developed – it’s much more polished – some of the music has come together beautifully with the action onstage.

JG: WOW! I was in awe. To be honest, when I heard that UMS was going to be presenting Einstein on the Beach, I was not interested in the piece. I had listened to some of the music and seen some clips and it just didn’t seem to fit my taste. I hadn’t planned on seeing the performance. In the weeks leading up to the January performances, I started getting excited about seeing Einstein. Since I thought it was more than I could handle anyway, I thought seeing just the second half would be enough to capture the experience. It only took me about a week to realize that I was wrong. I needed to see it all. June couldn’t come soon enough! I was nervous and excited to see the work in its entirety. I had decided that I was not going to leave the theater until the end unless I absolutely had to. I’m proud to say that I barely even budged in my seat because I was so captivated. It’s hard to put it into words how I felt about it. (see below) I enjoyed seeing how the production had evolved since January.

SH: The second time I saw the performance, I was able to flow with the performance, rather than being overwhelmed by the relentlessness of the work. This allowed me to take in many more of the details and assign them some sort of significance. I think in a production like Einstein, where there is so much going on, being able to anticipate anything is hugely helpful. In my case, it allowed me to catch all the detail in the lighting and in the choreography that I had missed the first time in favor of listening to the music.

3. How much did this performance stir your imagination? Overall, how strong was your emotional response to this performance?

BG: I wouldn’t say I was lost in the ‘experience’ of the show, as much as I was lost in the ‘production’ of the show, but that is likely due to my previous experience and also training in technical theater. But having seen it, you really want the people around you to enjoy it – and I found myself sometimes wanting people to pay attention to certain parts that I thought were the most brilliant, and instead there were lots of people in and out of their seats – particularly during the knee plays, which were my favorite parts. But I will say at the point after the spaceship, when the scrim depicting the atomic explosion comes in, you could hear a pin drop – it was really moving. The music and visuals had climaxed at just the right point to achieve a very emotional effect. Hair raising, chills, lump in the throat kind of effect.

Photo: The spaceship.

JG: I had a very emotional response which was incredibly unexpected. The moment it began, I started to cry. Literally every time the music changed to a new idea, I started crying again! I was shocked at this response to the work. I’ve never been so emotionally involved in a live performance. It was all so beautifully done. One of the most beautiful moments for me was during Knee Play 4. Two of the actors are laying on glass tables and moving their bodies in interesting positions. In Ann Arbor, I was captivated by the way the lighting captured beautiful images on the backdrop of the stage that reminded me of rain water running down a window. In Toronto, Beth pointed out to me that the lighting also captured images on the backdrop of the stage below the tables that looked just like the way the actors moved their bodies in the chairs during Knee Play 2! I was blown away at that attention to detail (naturally, I cried more!). When it ended, I felt really emotionally drained. I had just witnessed something truly epic. I wonder if I’ll ever get to see it again but if I don’t, the experience I had in Toronto was amazing and I am thrilled to have been able to see it!

Knee Play 4:

SH: I think part of what made Einstein so interesting was the fact that it defied all of my expectations. As an audience member, I’m used to taking a certain amount of comfort from tropes and expectations that are always fulfilled. Einstein threw all of those things out the window, forcing me to continuously ask myself what exactly was happening. There was never a moment that my imagination was not engaged. While creating that much meaning for myself was difficult at first, I found it more and more exciting as the show went on. In fact, it was that very feeling of stirred imagination that led me to see it a second time.

4. Why do you think some arts experiences “stick”? [You remember them vividly later in life] And why don’t others “stick”? Do you think Einstein is sticky?

BG: Einstein is definitely “sticky” for me – maybe mostly due to experiencing it in Ann Arbor first – but also because it really is a “one-of-a-kind” event. Often in shows I’ve seen there are particular pieces of it that stick with you – for me a lot of them are technical aspects – or its a particular performance by a specific actor/actress/musician/dancer in the production. Its the shows that leave me feeling physically overcome at the end – emotionally drained – that I find stay with me the longest. The ones where you can’t even leave your seat when the production is over, because you’ve been that transported. And when you do finally come out of it, you find the nearest person and talk their ear off about what just happened. Einstein will probably stick with me for a long time, because of the emotional response to working on the production here in Ann Arbor, more so than the act of watching the show itself. But I certainly hope others had that same type of experience in the audience!

JG: Yes, I do think that Einstein is “sticky.” In the past few months, I have seen several UMS productions that drew my mind back to Einstein. Einstein on the Beach makes me want to slow the world down and “savor” moments more than I do. I’m not sure what makes it stick. It’s a piece that you know is from the 1970s and you can tell it’s from the 1970s yet it feels so modern at the same time. I think that the timeless qualities are part of what might make it sticky.

SH: I think that a performance sticks out in your mind when something about it is different. It could be anything from your personal circumstances on the day of the performance to the quality of the performance itself, but I think something needs to happen to prevent it from blending in with any other similar experience. In this way, Einstein is so different from any other classical performance that, for me, every single detail sticks out vividly.

5. How much did you feel a sense of connection to others in the audience?

BG: I also took the opportunity to step out in the lobby in Toronto during the performance (I watched the entire show in Ann Arbor). I was shocked at how many people were just mingling outside, some were reading, chatting, walking – it was a whole other performance just in the lobby! Fascinating opportunity to people watch, and imagine what they were thinking about the show. I didn’t talk to anyone directly, but I do remember the woman next to me in the audience would often just gasp, and say “Beautiful! Beautiful!” Most people seemed to be into it.

JG: I don’t think I really felt a direct connection with others in the audience. But I do like the notion that we shared an experience of witnessing something powerful. After the performance, many people stood outside the theater, perhaps not wanting to let go of the experience. I know that’s how I felt!

6. What questions do you still have about the production or for the directors or performers?

BG: The show is constructed in such a way that allows the audience to drift and meditate on other things outside the production, whether it be through the music or visuals or otherwise. With all the rehearsals and performances, I wonder if the performers ever get lost in the show itself – if they ever have that opportunity – or if it is too strict/technical of a performance to allow for those moments. While the experience of being in the show is I’m sure fantastic, do they feel like they’ve missed the opportunity to experience the production as so many others do? I’m also curious as to what the production is like from Jasper’s young perspective (The Boy — a child actor in the production).

JG: I wonder what the production would be like if Robert Wilson and Philip Glass weren’t directly involved in the remounting of Einstein on the Beach. Would it have the same magic if the creators weren’t putting their stamp of approval on the work? Lastly, is there going to be a new CD out of this remounting? If so, I’ll definitely add it to my collection!

Did you see Einstein in Ann Arbor, or another performance that’s”sticks” in your mind long after? What do you think makes some live performance experiences more”sticky” than others?

Human Beauty: Wayne McGregor’s Movement Research

Photo: from AtaXia.

There is a long tradition of work fascinated by difference: last month’s Einstein on the Beach, is based on the writings of Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet, and collaborator of Robert Wilson. In AtaXia, a sci-art dance he created in 2004 by Wayne McGregor, disability and bodily difference emerge as formal movement principles, and create a new attention to different ways of being in space.

McGregor choreographed AtaXia after an eight-month research fellowship at the experimental psychology department at Cambridge. Merging scientific research and movement research, he based the dance on the disorder named by its title. McGregor, a group of neuroscientists, Sarah Seddon Jenner who has an ataxic movement disorder, and Random Dance’s troupe of well-trained, professional dancers all worked together to choreograph a dance based on a medical condition which disrupts movement, and overloads nerves.

And it is not just the bodies that play with disruption, starts, stops, overload: AtaXia’s stage has a mirroring backdrop, multiplying the movements and bodies on stage. The bodies flash in costumes shot through with fiber-optics, lighting up movements and speed. In the patterns of the dance, an arm’s arc gets arrested, thrashes, hacks at the air.

Curiosity and both scientific and artistic research shaped the creation of the piece. Jenner describes her interaction with the company:

I came back for a 135 minute question and answer session with the company, during which we covered many of the things they had learned in the research context, as well as working through some of their own observations about movement, dysfunction, and how bodies cope with impairment.

The whole piece really started to make sense to me, though, after a rehearsal I did with the company during which one of the dancers (Leila Dalio) and I worked through some choreographic exercises.

The whole company, including Wayne, was in the room, but they all appeared to be working intently on their own material. I was concentrating on lasting three hours without a) forgetting my movements; b) injuring Leila by leaning on her too much; and c) falling over. So, I didn’t realize until I saw the finished dance how carefully I’d been observed.

Some examples of ways I move that made it into the finished piece. I scoot on my backside along the floor rather than stand to move from one place to another. I touch people and things not so much to bear weight as to help orient myself relative to them. As I get tired, I lean on others for support and more often than not, I get that support.

In her discussion with me, Jenner mentions that her contact with the dancers taught her important information as she continues to adjust to living with ataxia: the information reflected back to her by the trained bodies of dancers, well-used to picking up unusual movement information and structuring it. Through these translatory processes, Jenner’s embodiment echoes back to her across the image of the dancers on stage – a new image of her own movement quality emerges for her.

Jenner shared with me her emotions about experiencing her movement mirrored back to her. Mainstream aesthetics see disability so often only as a tragedy, as something to be overcome (and this attitude is easily internalized). In this collaborative research process, her condition became the source of exciting movement patterns, of intriguing human difference.

PK: What did YOU learn about your own movement by watching the dancers in the performance? Did anything surprise you? What and why?

SSJ: There are specific gestures in AtaXia that are typical of those with neurological impairments that I despise catching myself make, and I surprised myself with how negative and judgmental I feel about them. (Specifically, jerky arm gestures and the tendency to hold the arm close to the body, fully flexed at wrist and elbow). One dancer explained that the shame and hostility I associate with those movements are learned social responses and that they are not intrinsic to the movement. It was all I could do not to snap back, “I hate them anyway.” I find that now that I’ve seen them performed, the sting has gone out of those gestures and I don’t even mind seeing them in the mirror.

Some critics call Wayne McGregor’s choreographies distant, or cool. As I give myself to his intricate spectacles, I remember the empowering effects of movement research on Jenner, and enjoy the play with the movement differences our world has to offer.

Editor’s Note: Wayne McGregor and Random Dance come to Ann Arbor to perform Far on February 19, 2012.

Space is Flexible. Time Warps.

Lots of talk at Saturday Morning Physics on who Einstein is/was and what he represents.

Composer Philip Glass: “As I worked on Einstein on the Beach, I began to see Einstein as a poet.” (Interestingly, Glass sees himself as “kind of a failed scientist.” He admits he wanted to be three things as a kid: musician, scientist, dancer. Of the three, he became just one.) Glass also notes that Einstein was the first scientist to become a celebrity.

Physicist Sean Carroll, of the California Institute of Technology: Einstein’s theories changed the definition of time. They taught us that “everybody’s watch reads personally.”

Theoretical physicist Michael S. Turner, of the University of Chicago: “Einstein changed the way we think about something that was very basic—space and time.” Turner teaches a course on Einstein and relativity. The gist of the course, Turner says, can be summed up in two sentences: “Space is flexible.” “Time warps.”

On those last two sentences, here’s UM’s Martin Walsh, a theater professor at the Residential College, on the time-warping experience of watching Einstein on the Beach at the Power Center on Friday night:

Inside Einstein on the Beach: Guest Blog by Lindsay Kesselman

Editor’s Note: Lindsay Kesselman will sing with the Phillip Glass Ensemble for the duration of the 2012-2013 international tour of Einstein on the Beach. She’ll also be guest blogging on umsLOBBY.

Photo: At rehearsal with Robert Wilson. Photo by: Einstein Assistant Director Ann-Christin Rommen.

Excitement is brewing this week in Ann Arbor and seems about ready to burst.  Einstein on the Beach is officially beginning again, for the first time in twenty years, and after much anticipation….today.  All of our preview performances this weekend are sold out, and we’ve been told that people are coming from 30 different states to see what we have created.  The thought is thrilling, humbling, and sobering all at once.

After spending these last two weeks in intensive technical rehearsals, we are becoming the people we’ve read about, seen in photographs, and admired in videos from previous productions of this miraculous piece.  You can recognize us by our crisply pressed white shirts, tell-tale black suspenders, indispensable converse shoes, and unmistakably whitened faces.  And we now know first-hand what to expect from the legendary Robert Wilson’s lighting rehearsals.

Each day we spend approximately 12 hours at the theater, in full costume and make-up, and though our hours are long and grueling, our amazing stage crew works seemingly non-stop, arriving before us and leaving after us, to ensure smooth rehearsals the following day.  We are so grateful for them and absolutely couldn’t do anything without them.

The last two weeks have been spent going over every moment in every scene with a fine-toothed comb, so that Bob could light every hand, face, prop, and set piece with remarkable precision, artistry, and eye for detail.  The lighting for this opera is breathtakingly beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen or could possibly imagine.  There are so many moments I wish I could see from the audiences’ perspective!

The process of working with Bob has been completely awe-inspiring, and I feel the power he exudes every time he enters a room. He is a director whose vision is perfectly clear at all times, and the passion and dedication he brings to his work transforms everyone around him.

In these rehearsals we have learned to think as a group, rely on each other, trust ourselves, and discover hidden reserves of energy we didn’t know existed.  We have learned and memorized the music, we have embraced the new style of movement and commanding attention on the stage, and we are ready to accept the torch and make this piece our own in the coming days, weeks, and months.

In moments when we have not been needed on stage, we could be found obsessively chanting numbers, reviewing memory with our dozens of flash cards, inspecting our make-up in hopes of one day being able to re-create the beautiful work done by Luc and Cory, and stuffing our faces with the (much-appreciated) food and drink provided by UMS to keep our strength up during these long days.

Today we assume the responsibility and utter joy of becoming the new Einstein cast, and it is our honor to share this remarkable work with you.  I am personally so grateful that our journey begins here and cannot wait for you to see what we’ve been up to!

How to produce Einstein on the Beach

Photo: Section of a drop in Einstein on the Beach.

Mel Brooks’s “Producers” they’re not. “No way we’ll become become rich on this,” Linda Brumbach said yesterday at UM’s B-School in a 90-minute public conversation about the ins and outs of producing Einstein on the Beach. Brumbach is the head of Pomegranate Arts, the tiny production company that’s taken on the near-impossible task of bringing Einstein to the stage here in A2 and in 10 other venues around the world. The tour ends in Hong Kong in March 2013, and Brumbach says she’ll consider it an artistic success if “Bob, Phil, and Lucinda get the piece they want.” That’s Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs, the artists who gave birth to the monumental opera in 1976 and have seen only two revivals since then.

After yesterday’s session, I understand why. The 1976 premiere of Einstein cost $750,000, and Wilson had to put huge chunks of that sum on his American Express card and then plead with Amex to waive interest charges. Glass had to sell the score to offset costs.

This week’s production costs a staggering $2.5 million—and that doesn’t include touring expenses. UMS President Ken Fischer said that for UMS to make money on this, “we’d have to charge $500 a ticket, and we’re not about to do that.” “I don’t think anyone can actually make money on Einstein on the Beach,” Brumbach added.

Why the exorbitant price? Consider:

• The model for Einstein’s sets costs as much as $90,000
• It takes three freight containers to ship the production
• Props include 600 pounds of dry ice
• Costumes include 30 pairs of converse high-tops
• Tech rehearsals require three solid weeks at the Power Center (the other day, Wilson spent 14 hours lighting just one scene)
• Load-in at each new venue takes three days
• Contracts for touring venues contain a 26-page technical rider
• European venues are operating in euros
• 35 press agents are needed to promote the opera worldwide
• In A2, the production requires 65 company members and 35 local stagehands

For Brumbach, the dream of producing Einstein is 12 years in the making. She first set out to revive the opera in the early 2000s, but 9/11 and its aftermath halted those plans. In 2007, it looked as though New York City Opera would partner with Pomegranate to stage the work, but the opera company’s budget was slashed and the season cancelled. A promised Paris production went nowhere. It wasn’t until UMS’s Michael Kondziolka said to Brumbach a year or two ago, “We’ll do it,” that she saw a way.

UMS is one of seven co-commissioners—three in the U.S., one in Canada, the rest overseas, and all of them “friends,” says Brumbach—who’ve gone in with Pomegranate to make this week’s historic preview performances (and subsequent tour) happen.

They’re still teching inside the Power Center as I write. One last drop is being repainted in Detroit and will be delivered to the theater at 2 pm Friday. There’s more than an element of brinksmanship to all of this. I wouldn’t want to be in Brumbach’s shoes just now, but I’m quite eager to witness her dream-come-true this weekend.

Not Quite-Live-Blogging Robert Wilson and Philip Glass Conversation at the Michigan Theatre

Editor’s Note: Last night’s Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series featured a conversation with Einstein on the Beach co-creators Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. Anne Bogart, acclaimed theater director, moderated the conversation. Leslie Stainton blogs about the event below.

Photo: Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

3:45 pm*

I have to ask someone to move over a seat so that there’s room for my two friends and me. The place is jammed, top to bottom. Balcony, orchestra. There’s a sound guy behind me, and a videographer up front, and dozens of people are milling about in the aisles. You’d think the Golden Globes were taking place.

*Times are approximate

 4:15 pm

After a round of introductions, director Anne Bogart, who’ll moderate the conversation, takes the podium. She tells us A2 is the place to be this coming week, because we’ll get a window into the “extraordinary trajectory of this production.” She reminds us that since its inception in 1976 and its last iteration in 1992, “our lives have become faster and faster.” Einstein, she notes, “changes the time signature”—a suggestion I find beguiling.

 4:20 pm

We see documentary video footage of Glass and Wilson, with snippets of the original 1976 production. Either Glass or Wilson—I can’t remember which—describes Einstein as “the god of our time.” I wonder if that holds for the 21st century?

 4:30 pm

Wilson and Glass take the stage to rapturous applause. Bogart mentions the ovation. “We haven’t done anything yet,” Glass mumbles. Laughter. Surely I’m not the only one thinking, “Oh, but you have.”

 4:35 pm

Wilson describes the early stages of Einstein’s development. He and Glass shared a “common sense of time and space,” he remembers. They agreed on a common megastructure and a total time length. Each man followed the same structure but filled it in different ways. This is a theme Wilson will repeat throughout today’s conversation: Form—whether of something as big as an opera or as minute as an actor’s gesture—is less important than how it is filled. Appearances to the contrary, the form of Einstein is “very classical, very formal,” Wilson says, and something we should all recognize—theme and variation.

 4:40 pm

Glass observes that every time they’ve produced Einstein—in 1976, 1984, and 1992—they’ve drawn huge numbers of young audience members. Judging from the crowd in the Michigan, it’s still true.

 4:50 pm

There’s talk of how radical it was in 1976 to produce an abstract work like this in a conventional setting like the Metropolitan Opera House—at a time when lofts and street theater were the rage. (Wilson remembers thinking, “What’s wrong with illusion?”) He and Glass had to rent the Met for a day in order to put on Einstein that day. “We didn’t actually have the money,” Glass interjects. Because of the opera’s five-hour duration, without intermission, the Met bars made a killing. I’m reminded that the Power Center can’t sell booze, which seems a pity.

 5:00 pm

Wilson urges audiences to come and go during Einstein the way they would in a park. “It’s always going on, something is always happening.” This way, there’s “not so much difference between art and living. If you want to sit for five hours, that’s OK. If you leave in the second act and come back in the fourth, you’re not lost. It’s not like Shakespeare.” Much laughter.

Glass adds, “The audience completes the work. The piece by itself doesn’t work.”

 5:10 pm

On process, both Wilson and Glass caution against knowing too much when you embark on a project. Glass: “If I know what I’m doing, then I don’t have anything to do.” Wilson: “As I got older, I learned that if I pre-decide, I often waste time, instead of going in with no idea. Let the beast talk to you instead of you talking to it.” Both say the starting point of a piece doesn’t matter. The process itself becomes the content.

 5:15 pm

Glass gets a laugh when he recalls how John Cage once chided him: “Philip, too many notes.”

 5:20 pm

Performer and choreographer Lucinda Childs joins the conversation. Bogart speaks of how riveting Childs’s performance in Einstein was when Bogart first saw it in 1976 and again in, I think, 1992. Bogart’s referring to the moment when Childs spends 20 mintues crossing the stage back and forth on a diagonal. For years Bogart wondered why she couldn’t take her eyes off Childs, what Childs had to teach her about the arts of acting and directing. The answer—proposed here by Wilson—seems to be that as an actress, Childs filled every single moment. He talks of the “sheer stamina” the production demands of actors, which is matched, he adds, by the stamina of watching it.

 5:25 pm

Wilson unlocks something for me when he speaks of the difficulty some critics have with Einstein because it’s abstract. We can accept works by Jackson Pollock as abstract, Wilson explains, but not something we call “opera” or “theater.” Nor do conservatories or theater schools tend to include the term “abstraction” in their curricular vocabularies. Wilson says abstraction is liberating for him. This seems critical to understanding what we’re about to see onstage this week.

 5:30 pm

Questions from the audience. Long lines form in both aisles. The first questioner wants to know why the opera has such short runs whenever it’s produced. Money, Glass answers. Wilson claims the same production will cost 3-4 times more to mount in New York City than in Paris. A stagehand at Carnegie Hall, he adds, makes more money than Obama.

Someone asks for advice for young artists. “Keep working,” Wilson urges. He’s not being facetious.

A stage-design student wants to know how to meld set, costume, and lighting design. Wilson notes that in conventional opera staging, sets often distract from sound, and vice versa. The question designers and directors should ask, he believes, is “How can what I am seeing make me hear better? Can I create something onstage that makes me hear the music better than I do when my eyes are closed?”

 5:40 pm

In response to a long-winded and confusing question about novels and language, Wilson is more than generous. He speaks of his work with autistic children, of the difficulties that ensue when actors inject their own emotions and feelings into texts rather than letting the texts speak and audiences decipher their meaning for themselves. He says it’s “OK to get lost” when you’re reading a complicated novel or listening to a Shakespeare sonnet (or, we can infer, watching something like Einstein). “TV has changed our way of thinking. Do you understand? Do you get it?” TV is forever asking that, forever explaining. Wilson: “It’s OK to get lost.”

 5:42 pm

The visual space in Einstein is organized in three very traditional ways, we learn. Portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Bogart mentions the influence, as well, of vaudeville, and Wilson agrees, noting that Chaplin and Keaton are both inspirations.

 5:45 pm

The session ends with an exchange that must warm the hearts of many in the crowd. An audience member asks why Wilson and Glass chose to reconstruct the show here in A2. Glass cites the financial practicalities of mounting a huge production like this in a noncommercial theater and mentions the educational benefits for both audience and cast, crew, and Glass and Wilson themselves.

But Wilson delivers the money quote. Ann Arbor, he says quietly, “is one of the cultural strongholds of this country.”

With that, Bogart ends the discussion and sends us out into the cold. The sun has set, the sky is a pale lavender, and the street lights are glittering. The place feels even brighter than it did two hours ago, in full daylight.

Whose Einstein? (Who’s Einstein?)

For a concept that underpins much of life as we know it—including, science historian Peter Galison reminded listeners yesterday, GPS and satellite technology—Einstein’s theory of relativity is hard to grasp, at least for this non-physicist. At yesterday’s Institute for the Humanities lecture in Rackham Amphitheatre, Galison laid out both background and context for Einstein’s radical rethinking of time as a relative rather than an absolute phenomenon. Galison revisited some of the myriad way scientists had grappled with the mysteries of time pre-Einstein, including a subterranean Center of Pneumatic Time in late-19th-century Paris, which literally attempted to pump time through the city, leading one poet to complain that the constant pulses of air he was experiencing had sapped his creativity.

Time zones, telegraphed time, Paris vs. Greenwich time, time signals, coordinating clocks at the train station just outside Einstein’s house in Bern: all of these set the stage for the 1905 theory that changed existence as we know it and led, among so much else, to the nuclear age. Galison notes that as early as 1921, Einstein had wormed his way into the minds and work of artists like Hannah Hoch and William Carlos Williams, who saw the then-42-year-old physicist as the emblem of a new modernity. (Galison also played a 1931 recording of Rudy Vallee singing “As Time Goes By,” whose original first stanzas, excluded from Casablanca, pay tribute to Einstein.)

Philip Glass says that as he and Robert Wilson were developing Einstein on the Beach, Wilson remarked that he liked Einstein as a character “because everybody knows who he is.” Glass adds, “In a sense we didn’t need to tell an Einstein story because everyone who eventually saw our Einstein brought their own story with them. … The point about Einstein was clearly not what it ‘meant’ but that it was meaningful as generally experienced by the people who saw it.”

After hearing Galison’s talk yesterday—parts of which I’ll admit sailed right past me—it dawned on me that by sitting through a five-hour production exploring these ideas, by hearing Glass and Wilson speak this Sunday, by attending next week’s Saturday Morning Physics session with Glass, I may finally make some headway toward understanding Einstein’s famous theory—and if not understanding it, at least paying closer attention to the questions it seems to raise. Such as:

• How does Einstein’s theory play out in daily life? How and when and where am I aware of time lengthening or collapsing, and to what effect?
• What happens to time inside a theater? Inside this theater, during a five-hour, non-narrative work with repetitive sequences of image and sound?
• To what extent do I confuse the measurement of time—the clock on my wrist or computer screen, the litany of appointments on my calendar—with actual time? What’s the difference?
• Does technology shorten or lengthen our lives? If, for example, pilots who routinely fly around the world age more slowly than the rest of us, what happens to space travelers? To tweeters? To people who Skype?
• Is it at all possible to move backward in time?

All Einstein Coverage Round Up

Inside Einstein

Lindsay Kesselman, member of Philip Glass Ensemble, guest blogs for umsLobby.
Q&A with Lindsay
Anatomy of Auditioning for Einstein on the Beach
Inside the Einstein on the Beach Rehearsal Experience
On the day of the first preview performance of Einstein on the Beach

Learn More

Einstein as a Cultural Figure – Interview with Physicists
UMS Night School: Einstein on the Beach
Video 50 – Robert Wilson’s video exhibit at UMMA
Three Trucks, 28 Crew Members, 37 Performers: Einstein on the Beach Load-in at the Power Center
UMS on Film Series – Film screenings in conjunction with Pure Michigan Renegade
Not Quite-Live-Blogging Robert Wilson and Philip Glass Conversation at the Michigan Theatre
How to Produce Einstein on the Beach – Producers Talk


RENEGADE Contest – What’s a ‘renegade’ in 7 words


Featuring the original creative team, in which Philip Glass remembers the first night of Einstein, Robert Wilson sits next to Arthur Miller, and Lucinda Childs recollects the “Supermarket Speech.”

The technical challenges of producing an epic-scale work like Einstein, featuring UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka and UMS Technical Director Jeff Beyersdorf.




[VIDEO] Producing Einstein on the Beach

UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka and UMS Technical Director Jeff Beyersdorf discuss the technical challenges of producing an epic-scale work like Einstein on the Beach.

Part of Pure Michigan Renegade.

The 2012 production of Einstein on the Beach was commissioned by: University Musical Society of the University of Michigan; BAM; the Barbican, London; Cal Performances University of California, Berkeley; Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity; De Nederlandse Opera/The Amsterdam Music Theatre; Opéra et Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Rousillon. Produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc.

UMS Night School Report – Einstein on the Beach

Image: Samuel Maverick.

On the topic of “maverick,” one of the words being used to describe the artists on offer in the Renegade series, I learned at yesterday’s first UMS “Night School” session that its primary meaning is an “unbranded calf or yearling.” The term comes from one Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), an American rancher who refused to brand his own calves so that he could claim any unbranded calf he found as his own. Needless to say, he wasn’t a popular guy in his neighborhood. More broadly, the word “maverick” refers to something—a calf, for instance, or maybe a composer—that lacks any markings of ownership. I suppose that’s what John McCain had in mind in four years ago, but I’m glad UMS is reclaiming the word for us in something like its original context, and I’m intrigued to think of artists like Robert Wilson and Olivier Messiaen (whose From the Canyons to the Stars is next up in the Renegade series) as stubborn ranchers who flat-out won’t, or can’t, brand their work.

Lots of talk at last night’s class—attended by more than 70 people—about what to expect at next week’s Einstein on the Beach. Instructor Mark Clague went over what EoB is (an opera with poetic texts, recitative, an orchestra pit, and a mythic hero) and is not (Aida). Of particular note are the work’s five-hour length and non-narrative structure, and the attendant challenges for audience members. If I leave to go to the bathroom, how will I know what I’ve missed? people wanted to know. Just how repetitive is it? I caught up with Dennis Carter, head usher for UMS, who came to last night’s class to prepare himself for next week’s event.

Inspired? What do you think it means to be a “renegade”?

Einstein as a Cultural Figure – Interview with Physicists

On Saturday, January 21, Einstein on the Beach composer Philip Glass will join a panel of special guests to ponder the cultural significance of Albert Einstein at Saturday Morning Physics. We asked guests Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist from the California Institute of Technology who has been featured on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, and Michael Turner, a University of Chicago cosmology scholar who co-authored The Early Universe, a few questions.

UMS Lobby: This winter we’re presenting a series which focuses on performing arts “renegades” and examines thought-leaders, game-changers, and history-makers in the performing arts. Could you talk a bit about what it means to be a “renegade” in the sciences?

Sean Carroll: Being a renegade is very easy — being a successful renegade is very hard.  In science, there are things we are quite sure are true; things that we believe are very likely to be true; and things we’re just guessing about.  A successful renegade has to accept what is really true, while throwing out just those things that we mistakenly believe are true. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Lobby: How did Albert Einstein fit into this idea of ‘renegade’?

SC: Einstein was in many ways a renegade, able to discard precious beliefs that other physicists held on to; but he was also a true expert, who understood the established physics of his time as well as anyone. He had strong philosophical intuitions about how the world works, which can be a curse as well as a blessing. When the world really does line up with your intuitions, you can see further than anybody; when it doesn’t, you can find yourself wandering down a blind alley. Einstein experienced both alternatives in his career.

Michael Turner: I think it is harder to be a renegade in the hard sciences (I don’t like using the word renegade), particularly theoretical physics, since our rules are well-defined:  our goal is to describe reality with mathematics, and if we are lucky to use these mathematics to make predictions about the physical world in regimes we have yet to experience.  Nonetheless, there is still room for creativity and game changers, Einstein was certainly one of them.  (There is an analogy here to chess, where there are fixed rules, but creativity plays a big role.  I know less about music, but there are rules and there are rule-changers.)  Our game changers cause us to look at the physical world in a different way, still with equations, and by doing so to achieve a deeper understanding and to predict things that haven’t been discovered yet.  In Einstein’s case, he changed how we describe space, time and gravity — and of course he played a key role in helping to formulate quantum mechanics.  Einstein did so in such a fundamental way that is possible to summarize his contributions in one sentence:  He taught us that time warps, space is flexible and god plays dice!  But he did so with equations — and his equations reduce to the old equations — Newton’s and Galileo’s — in physical situations where things move slowly and gravity is not strong.  His general relativity predicts new phenomena including black holes, gravitational waves and repulsive, but it also reduces to Newton’s theory in more familiar realms (e.g., our solar system).  Creativity in the world of science is constrained by what we already know and what we can learn about the physical world.  I think constrained creativity is actually much more challenging and produces more interesting results.

Lobby: How has the concept of “renegade” evolved since Einstein’s time?

MT: Physics in particular and science in general has always attracted interesting characters (notice I am refusing to use the word renegade) — Dirac, Schroedinger, Feynman, Hawking to mention but a few.  Thinking Different (to borrow from Steve Jobs) is often the key to a new insight or formulation.  All of our game changers have had in common the ability to look at what we know and view it (or formulate it) in a new way or to ask a new question.  Because science basically tells us what our place in the Universe and the rules that we have to follow, the thought leaders often attract the public’s attention.  Few have achieved the stature of Einstein (Time’s Man of the Century if I remember correctly).   For Einstein, there was a convergence of big paradigm shift, interesting character, and fundamental change in the center of science, with the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics, a shift from 200+ years of British domination to Europe.  Then of course, Einstein helped to lead the exodus of European scientists to the US which resulted in our dominance of science over the past half century.  To return to your original question, I am not sure renegade has evolved much.

SC: It is arguably more difficult to become a successful renegade now than during Einstein’s time. We know more, for one thing, but we also have a larger and more competitive scientific workplace. There is tremendous pressure on young people to produce productive work very quickly, which is very difficult if you want to buck the prevailing trends. True genius nevertheless usually wins out.

Lobby: In your view, is there an intersection between “renegades” in the humanities and the sciences? If not, what’s different? If yes, what is it?

SC: I think there is a difference, because science has a greater background of established wisdom that must be incorporated rather than overthrown. This acts as a constraint on useful forms one’s rebellion might take; Einstein invented a theory of gravity that supplanted that of Isaac Newton, but his theory had to reduce to Newton’s in an appropriate regime. So the arts and humanities have greater freedom, which can be both good and bad. Sometimes constraints are useful.

MT: I think the common theme that game changers in any creative endeavor is the ability to comprehend and understand what has come before and then re-imagine it, view it in a new way and from that to go to somewhere new.  I like the way Charlie Parker put it:  first you learn your sax, then you learn your music, then you just play.  (Reverse the order and you just have noise.)

Lobby: Sean, as someone interested in a unified theory of time, have you gained any insights about what it means to look at such unifying questions, and especially to question such fundamental experiences as the arrow of time?

SC: Time is an interesting case, because it’s a familiar everyday concept as well as a central object in our scientific theories. As a result, even many professional physicists find it very difficult to look at how time works in its own right, without being affected by the way it is manifested in our personal experience. I have found it very useful to look at the problem from different perspectives as possible.

Lobby: Michael, As someone who focuses on the earliest moments of the universe’s creation, have you gained any insights about moments of creation or creativity in general?

MT: My experience is that moments of creativity are always unplanned and usually a surprise.  They usually follow a struggle to comprehend and confusion; then pop!  A new insight.

Lobby: Why were you interested in pursuing this area of research?

MT: What is wonderful about science is the diversity of ways you can contribute and how the different ways attract different people.  I am a big picture guy.  I like to try to understand the grand scheme.  Cosmology and the birth of the Universe is a natural for me.  Others, like to be able to understand every little detail how how something works — e.g., how stars evolve and explode and produce the chemical elements we are made of.  Both the big picture and the small details are fascinating and important — and breakthroughs come from both.

SC: I became interested in cosmology at a very young age, about ten years old. It wasn’t until graduate school that I came to understand the connection between cosmology and the arrow of time.  Once I did, I thought that this was an area that deserved more attention from working cosmologists. That’s still true!

Lobby:  Michael, In one of your lectures, you discuss the “beautiful ideas” in physics, and the way most such “beautiful ideas” are not often the right ones.  In fact, there is a grave yard of beautiful ideas murdered by “ugly facts” in theoretical physics. How do you think Einstein’s theories and cultural impact fit within this framework?

MT: Mathematicians and theoretical physicists are both motivated by beauty and simplicity.  In physics, I believe we are motivated largely by experience:  For some odd reason the rules that govern the Universe seem to be very simple and elegant, and thus we often use simplicity and beauty as a guide when exploring the unknown.  But, unlike mathematics where beauty can be enough, in physics nature gets the last word:  we are after all trying to find the mathematics that describes our universe, not an imaginary one more beautiful and interesting one.  The most beautiful theory of cosmology was Fred Hoyle’s steady state model — but it was so simple and predictive that it was “murdered” almost instantly by hard experimental facts.  Electroweak theory — the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces which won Weinberg, Salam and Glashow a Nobel Prize — was viewed by many theoretical physicists as so inelegant that it couldn’t be correct (it is and we slowly learned to appreciate its beauty as well as look for the “grander” theory that encompasses it).

Lobby: What are some other culturally significant figures who inspire your work?

SC: I’m inspired by anyone who thinks deeply and clearly about how the world works.  Galileo is an obvious hero, but for me it goes back to Lucretius, a poet and philosopher from ancient Rome. He was a naturalist and an atomist, who worked hard to understand the world in terms of matter obeying the laws of nature.  We’re still working to finish his project.

Sean Carroll is a physicist and author.  He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993, and is now on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology, where his research focuses on fundamental physics and cosmology.  Carroll is the author of “From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time,” and “Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity.”  He has written for Scientific American, New Scientist, The Wall Street Journal, and is a columnist for Discover magazine.  He blogs at Cosmic Variance, and has been featured on television shows such as The Colbert Report, National Geographic’s Known Universe, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.

–Michael S. Turner is a theoretical astrophysicist and the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.  He is also Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at Chicago, which he helped to establish. Turner was elected to the Presidential-line of the American Physical Society in 2010 and will serve as its President in 2013.

Inspired? What do you think it means to be a “renegade”?


Three Trucks, 28 Crew Members, 37 Performers: Einstein on the Beach Load-in at the Power Center

Photo: A moment on the train from Einstein on the Beach.

Inside the Power Center 14 days before the opening of Einstein on the Beach, it’s not immediately clear that this is, “hands down, the biggest show ever” to hit this auditorium, as UMS programming manager Mark Jacobson told me shortly before we entered the theater. But after an hour or so of listening to production manager Will Knapp talk about the challenges of mounting the giant opera here in Ann Arbor, I began to see what Jacobson meant.

Knapp met with around 30 UM stage management and design students on Friday in the first class of a semester-long course on stage production taught by Gary Decker of the UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance and other faculty. Collectively, the students brought a decent amount of expertise to the session, so there was lots of technical talk about things like trap doors, cyclorama lights, tracks, cues, headsets, and so on.

(“Is it hard to focus when you’re calling a show that’s five hours long?” one student wanted to know. “It kind of is,” Knapp said, and mentioned that, among other things, the opera’s three stage managers have to coordinate toilet breaks.)

Decker, who teaches theater production classes, told the students that scenery for the show arrived in Ann Arbor in two 53-foot trailers on the day after Christmas and had to be “shoehorned” into the Power Center—whose stage area is small as opera houses go—with “literally inches to spare.” It’s taken some 40 crew members, both local and touring, to load in Einstein’s sets, costumes, and props, and hang and focus lights. The lighting for the cyclorama alone is so complex crews need to devote an entire day to installing it.

The cast, who spent all of December rehearsing Einstein, arrived this Sunday, January 8. Final rehearsals start today, with mornings devoted to technical issues—setting light and sound levels, timing cues, perfecting scene shifts—and afternoons and evenings to a rigorous runthrough of the opera, in full makeup and costumes, under director Robert Wilson’s exacting eye.

An Auteur at Work

Knapp has worked with Wilson off and on for two decades and describes him as more of an auteur than a conventionally collaborative stage director. “It’s all him. Everybody is a helper. You really are an extension of his fingers.” An architect before he turned to theater, Wilson typically begins work on a production by sitting with an empty stage, Knapp said. “He treats it like an empty canvas. He creates pictures and then tries to animate them. He’s not trying to reinforce a narrative but to make interesting pictures for himself. This is the start of his process.”

Wilson makes sketches on copy paper, often in charcoal. It’s a rudimentary way of communicating with his production team “but also very specific,” Knapp went on, with particular attention to spatial rhythm and proportion. Eventually real drawings emerge, and then a model—components of which Knapp hauled from boxes on Friday and spread out on a table for the students to inspect: a meticulously built miniature clock, a train, a multi-story gray space machine.

Knapp also showed the students the 130-page “project book” he and others use to make sure each production of Einstein adheres to Wilson’s fastidious vision. The book includes directions on things like the angle with which a given character should gaze at the floor and the precise distance a character should maintain between her right arm and the back of the chair on which she’s sitting.

“Bob doesn’t collaborate,” Knapp said. “He is the author, the costume, light, set designer. The best way to work with someone like him is to listen really hard and do exactly what he says.”

The payoff should be apparent on January 20, when Einstein opens its three-preview-performance run in Ann Arbor, the kick-off to a 30-performance tour that will take the massive opera to France, Italy, London, the Netherlands, Toronto, New York, and possibly Hong Kong.

What might Wilson demand once he gets to the Power Center this week? The first thing Knapp expects this acknowledged wizard of light to do is to examine every single light in the theater—there are hundreds of them, plus a whopping 3,000 light bulbs spattered across the surface of the towering space machine. Knapp suspects Wilson will also ask for at least one drop to be repainted.

Says Decker, who’s seen a number of Wilson pieces, “I’m looking forward to Robert Wilson.” He adds with a grin, “But it’s going to be tough sledding to get to opening night.”

Inside Einstein on the Beach: Guest Blog by Lindsay Kesselman

Editor’s Note: Lindsay Kesselman will sing with the Phillip Glass Ensemble for the duration of the 2012-2013 international tour of Einstein on the Beach. She’ll also be guest blogging on umsLOBBY. Einstein on the Beach is part of Pure Michigan Renegade.

For those of us in the chorus, the anticipation has been building for six months.  Six months of waiting, imagining, preparing, and eagerly counting down.  Now, on December 27th, it is crazy to think that the anticipation is over and we are already  completely immersed in Einstein, having just finished three weeks of rehearsal in New York.

For so long, this project existed on a distant horizon, one it seemed we would never reach….for months now friends near and far have been asking, “So…how’s Einstein going?” …eager for details about the music, the people, the challenges, and I have had to respond, “Oh…actually, we haven’t started yet.”  Now, and in the blink of an eye, we are well underway, having learned all of the music, all of the original staging, and even having begun to memorize much of the material.  Where did the time go?

The last three weeks are a blur of long, satisfying days, approximately 90 hours of rehearsal, of becoming familiar with and beginning to master our music, learning to move in completely foreign and fascinating ways, and finally: being able to imagine what it will feel like to sing this show from start to finish.

To say that it is a challenge is a HUGE understatement.  The piece makes physical, vocal, and mental demands which are completely unique and which are definitely creating new standards for us as artists, performers, and people.  We sing faster, more continuously, and more rhythmically than we ever have before, all while moving in incredibly intricate, stylized, and intentional ways, and the mental focus we need to maintain for four-and-a-half hours (the duration of the performance) is truly staggering. Every night in New York we left rehearsal feeling drained, mentally and physically, without an ounce more energy to give.  And…it felt fantastic.

There are a few singers in the chorus, as well as instrumentalists, stage managers, and sound specialists, who were part of the 1992 tour (and earlier productions) of this piece.  Throughout our rehearsals, these members of the chorus shared memories with us about their past Einstein life (or lives).  From spending hours in rehearsal holding uncomfortable positions while Robert Wilson got the lighting just right, to audiences cheering in Japan and throwing tomatoes in Barcelona, we heard countless stories and began to understand the enormity of this piece re-constructed now, and what a huge impact this experience will have on all of our lives.

The first day that Dan, our front-of-house mixer, sat in on rehearsals with us, he was moved to tears while hearing this music again after such a long absence.  Our producers from Pomegranate Arts came to rehearsal regularly after long days at the office where they had been working on all of the many details for our tour, just to bask in the singing, the dance, the acting. They have been dreaming of this revival for the last 12 years, and FINALLY it is coming to fruition. Seeing these reactions, we felt even more determination to do this piece justice.  For Dan, for Pomegranate Arts, for Lucinda, Robert, and Philip, for all of the people who have loved this piece for a long time, and for those lucky new fans who will be intrigued for the first time.

It is a huge responsibility, and one we are taking very seriously.  All of us, singers, dancers, and actors alike, are pushing ourselves to the limit.  Even when our directors are satisfied and pleased with our progress for the day, we keep pushing, insisting we can do better- sing more perfectly in tune, make rhythmic changes more seamlessly, and memorize more quickly.

I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by such warm, friendly, diligent, fun-loving and extraordinarily talented group of people.  We are having a blast and becoming a family, and it will be a privilege to spend the next year and a half traveling the world and singing this piece with them.  Next stop: Ann Arbor, where we will meet Robert Wilson, rehearse for 3 more weeks in the Power Center, and bring Einstein on the Beach to the Midwest!

Have a question for Lindsay, or curious about something to do with Einstein on the Beach? Use the hashtag #askeinstein on Twitter or comment below.

[VIDEO] Einstein on the Beach – Original Creative Team

This winter UMS is presenting a 10-week, 10-event ‘renegade’ series focusing on thought-leaders and game-changers in the performing arts.

The opera Einstein on the Beach opens the series. Widely credited as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century, Einstein launched director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass to international success when it was first produced in Avignon, France in 1976.

In this video, featuring the original creative team, Philip Glass remembers the first night of Einstein, Robert Wilson sits next to Arthur Miller, and Lucinda Childs recollects the “Supermarket Speech.”

Part of Pure Michigan Renegade.

The 2012 production of Einstein on the Beach was commissioned by: University Musical Society of the University of Michigan; BAM; the Barbican, London; Cal Performances University of California, Berkeley; Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity; De Nederlandse Opera/The Amsterdam Music Theatre; Opéra et Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Rousillon. Produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc.

Robert Wilson: Video 50

Robert Wilson fans will have much to do in Ann Arbor this winter.

UMS is presenting preview performances of Einstein on the Beach, an opera by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, January 20-22. Absolute Wilson, a film which chronicles the epic life, times, and creative genius of theater director Robert Wilson, will be screened on January 9. The film screening is free.

Photo: Robert Wilson. “Video 50,” 1978. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

In conjunction, UMMA’s Video 50 curates Robert Wilson’s “smaller-scale” experiments in video. Guest Curator Ruth Keffer describes the exhibit:

Video 50 consists of a randomly arranged set of 30-second “episodes”; counting occasional repeats and alternate versions, the 50 pieces of the title number nearly 100. Some of these episodes are static to the point of resembling still-lifes; others are self-contained vignettes that begin and end—or seem to end; any narrative resolution is teasingly withheld. With its use of early video techniques and the highly stylized, fashion-world look of its actors, Video 50 seems dated, but the way in which Wilson wields his domestic-gothic vocabulary is classic surrealism: everyday objects and settings made mysterious or comical or alien by their bizarre juxtaposition to one another, and by an equally nonsensical and cheerfully manipulative score of music and sound effects.

Read the full article in UMMA Magazine.


Why Renegade? with Time-Warping Powers

Photo: Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

There was much to mull over at last Monday night’s roundtable discussion of the Renegade series. Panelists talked of the series as a 10-week, 10-performance “journey,” an “adventure.” They described it as a conceptual frame “for exploring how artists create innovative work.” (If the series does nothing else, I hope it gives us a new vocabulary for talking about “innovation,” that tired phrase.) Danny Herwitz of the UM Institute for the Humanities made a compelling case for a uniquely American brand of “renegade,” invoking figures as disparate as Whitman and Aaron Copland, Emerson and Clint Eastwood, John Cage and John Wayne. “In America a renegade is someone who refuses the templates of convention,” Herwitz said, and issued something of a challenge when he suggested the series might allow us to imagine the country’s future at a time when many of us have lost faith in that future. “To remember the voices of these composers”—Cage, Copland, Philip Glass—“is to remember something about the experiment in which we were born.”

But more than anything I came away from the discussion thinking about time. Maybe it’s because I’m into my fifties and ever more keenly aware I’m on the short end of the lifespan stick. I think of the old woman in Emily Mann’s play Annulla who says, “Everything has gone by so fast.” Maybe it’s the world we inhabit, this cacophany of blogs and tweets and video clips, information coming at you so fast you can barely skate the surface. Increasingly I find myself wanting silence and space, the ability to make a connection that doesn’t involve an electronic gadget.

In his marvelous book Einstein’s Dreams, the novelist and physicist Alan Lightman writes of the ways that time bends experience—a phenomenon we came to understand with particular clarity in the last century, thanks in large part to Einstein himself. Lightman describes how time moves “in fits and starts,” how it “struggles forward” when one is rushing a sick child to the hospital and “darts across the field of vision” when one is eating a good meal with close friends “or lying in the arms of a secret lover.”

It is this sense of time as somehow malleable—and also manipulable—that marks many of the works in the Renegade series, most obviously, perhaps, Einstein on the Beach, which UMS’s Michael Kondziolka described on Monday as a “durational experience. If you give yourself over to it, you feel as if you’ve walked through the looking glass.”

Time, said Danny Herwitz, “is fundamental to a lot of these Renegade artists. They at once speed everything up and slow it down. They’re trying to put you in a different frame of reference.” And more provocatively: “There is a way in which [these artists] rescue one from the frame of modern life.”

May it be so.

Having decried technology, I’ll now use it, with apologies, to let you hear another panelist, musicologist Mark Clague of the UM School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, share his thoughts on time and the Renegade series.