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Gesualdo: Rebel or Rogue? [with Audio]

On February 16, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Church, the University Musical Society presents the Tallis Scholars. This British group of about ten singers has spawned a whole industry of a cappella ensembles that aspire to sonic purity, contemplative calm, timelessness. What could the Tallis Scholars—Scholars!—possibly have to do with this season’s Pure Michigan Renegade Series, of which they are a part?

Let’s start with the gruesome facts associated with the composer at the center of the night’s program. Carlo Gesualdo (1566?–1613), the nephew of Counter Reformation enforcer Carlo Borromeo, was a prince and landholder in Venosa in southeastern Italy. Around 1588 his wife, the noblewoman Donna Maria d’Avalos, began an affair with a gentleman in the vicinity. In 1590 Gesualdo, using wooden copies of room keys he had had made, found the pair in bed together, stabbed them both, and hung their corpses in front of his castle for all to see. The story was retold repeatedly by poets of the day in a sixteenth-century equivalent of headline news.

Gesualdo, as a nobleman, was immune to prosecution, although he had plenty to fear from the relatives of his wife and her lover. He was never arrested, but he spent most of the rest of his life either on the road, investigating new musical developments, or, later on, locked up in his castle, writing music for concerts at which he himself was the audience.

The madrigals he wrote during his later years lay buried for three hundred years, but they fascinated musical modernists who unearthed them. Filled with hyper-expressive settings of texts about searing jealousy and betrayal, they seemed to push the boundaries of dissonance that was possible under the rules of Renaissance polyphony, and to anticipate music that was centuries in the future. The first performers of the madrigals, in fact, were mostly not early music specialists but the group of performers led by Robert Craft, the prominent American champion of Igor Stravinsky’s music.

Gesualdo wrote less sacred music, but the Tenebrae Reponsories (“tenebrae” means “shadows” and refers to Christian services celebrated in the days before Easter; a responsory is a setting of a text that contains an answering section) that he composed at the end of his life are among his very greatest works. In these pieces the thorny question of how Gesualdo’s life and music are related reaches an especially sharp point. Consider this setting of “O vos omnes” composed by Gesualdo in 1611, two years before his death:

“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus,” says the responsory text—”O you who walk down the road, pay attention and see whether there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” The text comes from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah and originally described the sack of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. It was repurposed for the Passion story. But it’s hard not to think of Gesualdo himself as the subject when the words “similis sicut dolor meus” are repeated in tonal regions unthinkably distant from the piece’s home base.


Was Gesualdo really a renegade as well as a murderer? Was he even a “modernist” of his time? Some would say no — his chromaticism did not lead to a new language but only explored the strangest corners of an old one. The truly new music of the first decade of the 1600s was opera, which he did not touch. Gesualdo’s music was closed up in an emotional hothouse, and one word that’s been used to describe it is Mannerist — looked at from a certain angle, the jarring contrasts in his works were musical equivalents of El Greco’s light and shade. Or perhaps his artistic counterpart was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian who painted surreal human heads made up of vegetables, plants, and even books.

Photo: Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus.

What is a renegade, anyway? Does change in the arts come from an avant-garde, or does it bubble up from below? Do musical traditions tend to shock most when they begin, or when they’re coming to an end?

Whatever your ultimate answers to these questions may be, the music of Don Carlo Gesualdo has lost none of its ability to shock as it enters its fifth century of existence. If you’ve never heard Gesualdo at all, or if you know him only through the few tortured madrigals that circulate among college singing groups, hear how the language of his last years was refracted through sacred texts in the magnificent Tenebrae Responsories, somber Holy Week thoughts from a prince whose life and music intertwined in profound ways.

America Heard Through Messiaen’s From The Canyons To The Stars

French composer Olivier Messiaen is famous for his love of nature, particularly birds and bird songs (see the video clip below to witness his passion for birdsong for yourself). His work From The Canyons To The Stars — which will be performed in Hill Auditorium this Sunday, January 29 by the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Tate — shows a much grander side of Messiaen’s wondrous admiration of the natural world. The piece was commissioned to commemorate America’s bicentennial, and Messiaen visited the United States, specifically Utah, to draw inspiration from that region’s uncommon landscapes.

Much like his Oiseaux Exotique (Exotic Birds), From the Canyons To The Stars pits a solo piano against a larger chamber ensemble complimented by an expansive percussion section. The music embodies Messiaen’s natural subjects with varying levels of transparency. There are woodwind lines that artfully reflect the bird calls Messiaen must have encountered on his travels, while wind machines and thunder sheets provide a more literal – yet, nonetheless artificial – connection to the vast landscapes featured on the composer’s journey through the American West.

To me, the piano soloist feels like a portrayal of Messiaen the traveler, at moments participating in the environment around it, but often observing at a distance and, more than once, meditating privately through extended candenzas. There are other soloists in the work, but, perhaps because Messiaen was a legendary pianist/organist, none succeed as well at illustrating the imagination of the journeying composer beholding, for the first time, the impossible beauty of locations like Bryce Canyon and Zion Park.

Throughout the work, listeners are treated to Messiaen’s impeccable sense of orchestration. He was a synesthete, which means he associated specific sounds with specific colors. Therefore, the harmonies and instrumentation of any moment in this work are most likely representations of the sounds that filled Messiaen’s heads when he took in the sandstone rock formations of western Utah. The eighth movement, in particular, is a voyage in the ensemble’s color, as static musical material progresses slowly through time, evolving ever so slightly through its instrumentation.

Any American history buff can see the symmetry in Messiaen’s participation in the nation’s bicentennial. After all, French support was crucial to our victory in the American Revolution. In the early 19th Century, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville traveled America and studied our society to produce Democracy In America, which remains a highly regarded analysis of American culture and politics. I believe Messiaen’s journey across the Atlantic is related to this tradition because many moments in From The Canyons To The Stars (the very beginning of the work, the string harmonies at the end of movement ten, etc.) sound like a distillation of the idyllic and populist music of earlier American composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.

As From The Canyons To The Stars glistens into its final silence Sunday night, I imagine you will feel, as I do, that Messiaen’s music – through his distant, personal lens – captures something very true about the grandeur and vividness of the American spirit. Though Messiaen limited his ‘fieldwork’ to Utah’s national parks, his music possesses a richly varied texture such that each movement, almost every moment of the piece is an individual experience. This manifoldness reflects the diversity of dreams we champion as Americans, and is something to celebrate and savor Sunday when the Hamburg Symphony performs this astounding composition.

[PLAYLIST] Music Inspired by Nature

On January 29, UMS will present the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, who will perform French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars). Messiaen was commissioned by Alice Tully, the New York philanthropist most widely known for her contribution to Lincoln Center, to write a piece commemorating America’s bicentennial. From the Canyons to the Stars was inspired by the natural wonder Messiaen found in the landscapes of the American West.

We put together a playlist of other music we love which was inspired by nature. Take a listen.

Nature Sounds by UMS on Grooveshark

What’s some of your favorite music inspired by nature?

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.

[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.”

[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.

RENEGADE Contest – Win Tickets!

This winter’s Pure Michigan Renegade series, a 10 week, 10 event series focusing on “renegades” examines thought-leaders and game-changers in the performing arts.

What’s a renegade to you? How do you know when a performing arts work or artist is truly game-changing, experimental or history-making?

Give us your answer in 7 words to enter to win tickets!


WHAT: UMS “What’s a Renegade?” Contest

REQUIREMENTS: Your definition of a performing arts renegade artist or work in exactly 7 words. This contest is free. Entries judged on creativity, renegade-ness.

DUE: January 12th, 12PM Noon.


1st place: Pair of tickets to your choice of concert at San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks with Michael Tilson Thomas.
2nd place
: 2 very special reserved seats to Robert Wilson & Philip Glass at the Michigan Theater as part of the Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series. Conversation led by acclaimed theater director Anne Bogart.


(1) Tweet your entry @UMSNews

(2) Add your entry as a comment on UMS’s Facebook page during the contest period. You must label your comment as a Renegade Contest entry.

(3) Add your entry as a comment in the comments section below.

Winners to be announced by January 12th, 5PM. Questions? Ask in the comments below.

Bonus Video: Renegade composer John Cage at a game show in 1960.

Thanks to everyone who entered! Our winners, selected by UMS staff, are:

1st Place
Lesley Criscenti

Bold experimentation,
freewheeling risk,
opening minds meet.

2nd Place
Elle Bigelow
Apostate creativity
Distorting the norm
Delicious tension

Check out more of our favorites here. What was your favorite 7-word renegade definition?