Speaking with Philip Glass is a lot like listening to his music. His conversation arrives in waves, one idea leading to the next and the next; blasts of energy, focused right now on his opera "Einstein On the Beach." Co-created with director Robert Wilson, a revival of this seminal work is touring the U.S. and Europe, the subject of huge press attention. It's a hit, as it was in 1976, when it premiered in France and sold out the Metropolitan Opera House.
The new production (presented in Berkeley, Oct. 26-28, by Cal Performances) once again unites Glass, Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs, though the composer has chosen not to perform this time around with his Philip Glass Ensemble. Standing on the sidelines has shifted his perspective, he recently told me, when I phoned Glass at his home in New York.
Q Philip, you're no longer playing in the "Einstein" band. What's that like for you?
A Great! I can actually see the whole piece. I was always in the orchestra pit, so there were things onstage I'd never seen. And now I'm looking at people -- dancers, singers -- who are more or less the age we were when we first did it in the '70s. I'd lost sight of the fact that we were in our late 20s and mid-30s, and that's what this company is. There's a kind of energy and beauty in seeing young people enjoy themselves. And let me tell you, young people today have a different kind of technique. The dancers leap higher, and the singers
And there's this other thing: I'm not so worried about the piece. Well, I never really was worried. But now I don't have to think about whether we sell tickets or about the reviews. Besides, the people who hated it are all dead. I don't mean there aren't people who won't like it, but in 1976, there were people at major papers who refused to even acknowledge the music, who said it wasn't worth their time. That kind of junk was going on.
Q I guess people didn't know what to make of it.
A A funny thing is that when we originally did the piece, we thought it was the cutting edge of contemporary theater -- music theater -- and we expected there would be a new wave of people following us. And there were people who came after us, naturally, but they didn't really follow up on what we had done. So this piece staked out a kind of territory that no one ever frequented again. I don't know why that is.
I had been writing theater music since I was 20; we were not novices at all. I was 37 or 38 when Einstein happened. But in a funny way the piece hasn't been superseded, even in a technological way. You know how you look at certain pieces and they seem to be mannerist in a certain way? It doesn't seem to be in the manner of anything else.
Q Not at all? As artists, you must have had some roots.
A We had European educations in certain ways: We knew who Brecht was. We knew Beckett; we knew the Living Theater and Peter Brook and Grotowsky. So when we came in with this piece, our roots were clear to us; we're not dropping out of the sky from some other planet! We were coming out of a tradition of experimental theater. It had a very international lineage to it, even though the music sounds very American and Bob's movement and lighting were very American.
Q I'm not totally following. You say "Einstein" isn't in the manner of anything else, but you're also saying you built on all these experimental forbears?
A We were young guys. We looked over our shoulders. We stood on the shoulders of people from the past, but then we took a big leap from their shoulders into a place where no one had been! Partly because Bob and I came to it as equals, as young men, we had complete technique in the style we worked in. We had arrived at a purity of technique and purpose; we were almost 40 years old. There was nothing naive about it, though some people might have thought it was naive. It was measured. It was a piece that knew itself, knew what it wanted to do and did it.
Q And you were emerging from a really vibrant downtown scene.
A Of course -- Meredith Monk and so many other people. We were not completely alone.
Q Yet "Einstein" separated you from the pack.
A We were propelled into big opera houses around the world; that was because there were people who put us there. We didn't even know how to get there.
Do you know about Ninon Karlweiss? She was in Europe, the agent for Peter Brook, for Grotowsky, for the Living Theater. She is the one who booked us into the opera houses of Europe. We didn't know where to go. And then through a series of events -- lots of good luck --- things happened.
Q How did the Met happen? You sold out two nights there.
A We were booked into the Met on a dark night -- two dark nights (nights when the Met wasn't performing in its hall), Sundays. It wasn't our doing. Jane Herman worked for the Met. She was their talent scout. And Jerry Robbins was a friend of Bob's; he'd been to rehearsals for "Einstein on the Beach," I think in Hamburg.
They said they were going to take us to the Met. Bob and I just laughed. If we went to the Met, we wouldn't have even known how to turn on the lights. You don't rent the Met!
It's kind of a romantic idea that two guys from SoHo rented the Met. No, these people who were older than us put us in these places.
Q I read that you kept driving a cab after "Einstein" was performed at the Met. Is that true?
A You sound incredulous. It absolutely was true. I continued driving for another year at least -- no, two years. I finally got out of the cab when I was 41 years old, through a commission from the Netherlands Opera to write "Satyagraha."
Look, a gazillion people in New York work in restaurants and cabs. Don't be surprised; this is America. Artists aren't supported by the society.
Q Tell me about the professionalizing of this new "Einstein" production: the lighting, the music, the performance, generally. A lot of upgrades?
A It sounds and looks better than it ever did. The original people were fantastic; you can never forget the amazing work they did -- for that company and those singers, it was an incredible thing they did. It was amazing. They brought it to the stage with their energy and talent. But there wasn't much polish in the original production.
Q What about the lighting in the new production? Bob Wilson has said that lighting is the most important aspect of theater.
A And when I first saw the new lighting, I thought, "This is what Bob always intended." But then I thought, "No, no; he probably didn't think of this either, not back then."
Q What about the performance by your ensemble -- now versus what it sounded like in the old days?
A We kind of just played the music in '76. And if you listen to the recording from '84, it's really gotten pretty good. A lot had happened in the years between. We had played parts of the music continuously since '76. And what's happened is that the performance practice of the music has became established.
Q This time around, when you're sitting in the audience or backstage, do you ever want to jump in?
A Oh yeah! I was the keyboard player for the "Night Train." And every time it gets to the "Night Train," my fingers start to move.
But look, the music now is in the hands of people who are doing 30 or 40 performances with this production. It's in very good hands. Why should I get involved? It would be an act of indulgence and half-baked vanity to jump in and play it now.
Q "Einstein" has never been so famous as it is now; there's so much press coverage. So many stories about the opera have taken on a sort of legendary status -- like your losing $90,000 at the Met in '76. John Rockwell told that story in his New York Times piece a few weeks ago.
A He continues the myth of the rental. That's not what happened. The $90,000 that we lost, we lost in Europe. We didn't lose it in New York. In Europe we lost about $3,000 a night. And when Ninon Karlweiss went over it with us and told us what had happened, she said, "Some day you will thank me. It will make your careers."
Q She was right.
A She was absolutely right. Bob went back to Europe and was working in the theater. I got my next commission for "Satyagraha." It separated us from -- well, not really. I don't want to use that word "separate." Like I said, we were part of a community of people who were working in theater in New York, wonderfully talented people -- dancers like Trisha Brown, and many others. We got to be better known than them. But we were not desert flowers with no one around us. We were part of a community of theater, part of the dance world.
Q OK, but still, it made your careers?
A Oh, come on! It took me a couple more of years of driving, my day job -- actually a night job; I drove the cab at night. But "Satyagraha" was a direct result of having done "Einstein" in the Netherlands. It's just that it took two years for the money to come through, so I had to keep working.
Q Will "Einstein" live on without you and Bob?
A Part of the idea was to set a performance standard for the piece, and now the whole thing has been filmed -- this production. We had felt that would have to be done in order to present the piece in the future. So now, in principle, I think it can be done.
Bob said it's time to hand the piece over to the next generation. But what's going to happen? We don't know.
Q You're not sure it's going to live beyond you?
A Well, I don't see why not. It happened with "Threepenny Opera." Why shouldn't it happen with us?
Q It's become commonplace for people to describe "Einstein" in really big terms: "mythic," "path-breaking." You must feel proud.
A Pride is not something -- let's say I'm very happy with it. But being proud of it? I really think of it in many ways. There's no question that Bob and I made major contributions to the piece. But when you work in the theater, you become aware of how many people are involved and how important all of them are: all the dancers, all the actors, the crew, the lighting people. The theater is collaborative in a very profound and persuasive way. So I'm proud of something that will be remembered and turned out to have some quality.
But look, if I had had this idea by myself, living in the East Village, it wouldn't have gone anywhere. It took people like Jerry Robbins and Ninon Karlweiss, people who are gone now, people who stepped in on our behalf, many people who made this happen. It could easily never have happened. Many things don't happen.
It was met in a joyful way by people, and they wanted it to succeed and they helped us, immeasurably.
'Einstein on the Beach'
By composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson
When: Oct. 26-28
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Tickets: Sold out (dynamic pricing, initially $30-$200); check with the box office for last-minute ticket returns, 510-642-9988