Einstein on the Beach
Opera in four acts by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson
Concept: Susanne Kennedy, Markus Selg
Premiere: 4.6.2022 Theater Basel
Musical director: André de Ridder
What can (musical) theatre be today? In their first joint opera production, Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg create a post-humanist total work of art about space and time. With their uncompromising aesthetics and characteristic theatre vocabulary, they negotiate fundamental issues of perception and blur the boundaries between humans and machines, reality and simulation.
- 3 h 35 min; The audience may leave the auditorium for individual breaks and is allowed to move around onstage freely.
- In English with German surtitles
A hyper-artificial world between future vision, computer game and psychedelic rapture encounters “Einstein on the Beach”, the 20th century masterpiece by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. Inspired by the unconventional genius Albert Einstein, who once relativized time, Glass and Wilson created the opera “Einstein on the Beach”, revolutionising the worlds of theatre and music in 1976.
Kennedy and Selg take on this hypnotic tableau which unfolds without a linear narrative, but with propelling music and enigmatic verses, creating a walk-in musical theatre installation that merges ritual, theatre and visual arts. On the continually revolving stage, a new kind of community converges whose ritual movement vocabulary makes them appear to live according to their own, mysterious rules. Repetitive patterns of music, dance and in the set, which is based on 3D-modelling and video design, evoke a formal spirituality. They render time tangible as a sensory phenomenon and transfer the piece into today’s lived simultaneity. While this world of complete aesthetic autonomy thereby creates a presence in which past and future grow indistinct, the audience is invited to enter the stage and thus to become part of this reality. Spectators can move around the stalls freely and make individual decisions as to how they would like to experience this piece with all its acoustic and visual levels.
For the first time, the two special ensembles Basler Madrigalisten and the Ensemble Phœnix Basel can be seen together in an opera production.
André de Ridder, Jürg Henneberger(1.7.2022) Musical direction
Susanne Kennedy, Markus Selg Concept
Susanne Kennedy Direction
Markus Selg Stage design
Teresa Vergho Costume design
Cornelius Hunziker Lighting design
Richard Alexander Voice Montage, sound design
Andi Toma (Mouse on Mars) Remix “Building”
Rodrik Biersteker, Markus Selg Video
Meret Kündig Dramaturgy
Ixchel Mendoza Hernández Choreography
Suzan Boogaerdt, Tarren Johnson, Frank Willens, Tommy Cattin, Dominic Santia, Ixchel Mendoza Hernández Performance/Dance
Diamanda Dramm Solo violin
Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir Solo soprano
Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir, Emily Dilewski Solo soprano
Nadja Catania, Sonja Koppelhuber, Sarah Pagin (1. & 2.7.2022) Solo alto
Raphael Immoos Vocal coach
Viviane Hasler, Anna Miklashevich, Viola Molnàr Soprano
Schoschana Kobelt, Leslie Leon, Barbara Schingnitz Alto
Daniel Issa, Patrick Siegrist, Christopher Wattam Tenor
Tiago Mota, Breno Quinderé, Othmar Sturm Bass
Ensemble Phœnix Basel
Christoph Bösch, Josef Feichter Flute
Toshiko Sakakibara Bass clarinet
Raphael Camenisch, Sascha Armbruster Saxophone
Ludovic van Hellemont, Samuel Wettstein Electric organ
by Markus Selg
It’s important to realise, when you interact with others, that everybody in a sense is you in a different timeline … (Joscha Bach)
Art and theatre are able to provide a space for euphoria and uncertainty in the face of such a realisation. An experience space in which we can test out, within a community, the equally liberating yet painful transformations in our image of humanity. A protected space where all manner of identities might emerge and then vanish again. From its very outset, theatre has embodied a sphere of continual change, providing the ideal place for the metamorphosis now taking place. It is a laboratory for an experimental fusion with the technologies that surround us. A node within the network of our nervous systems connected by the internet. A place where hyper-connectivity can be experienced as much as the shared celebration of absolute silence or the absence of any input whatsoever. As a counter to the concomitant nervous restlessness, we learn once again to connect with beings and networks that exist in time cycles more sedate than ours. Planets, trees, fungi, viruses. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” (Octavia E. Butler)
The stage as a ritualistic architecture for a community, a system for the collective dream. A place where the countless centres of reality that emerged following the loss of universally shared reality can be bundled into a spectrum and made palpable as experiences in all their diversity. The application of the complementarity principle of quantum physics, according to which seemingly contradictory and mutually exclusive modes of description complement one another, can contribute to more mutual understanding and a healing process within all the fragmentation. The archaic theatre machinery (dea ex machina), now expanded to the digital space, gives the most diverse protagonists – human, non-human, biological and synthetic intelligences – the opportunity to perform together. Physical constraints can be lifted and the ability to navigate between worlds made fluid. With its walk-on stage, theatre can simultaneously offer a sense of collective immersion coupled with the physical presence in the space itself. Computer and live role-playing games, clubs and retreats offer kindred arrangements, and their networking can create a system in which the glow of our complex cosmos is able to shine – with the participants as actors at its very centre. A platform that approximates the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk more than any art form hitherto. This cosmic stage will be the setting in which we perform our algorithmic rituals as we celebrate life in all its mysteriousness.
The first brushstrokes applied to the walls of this cave of our own making herald a future that will grow out of our visions, even if in our wildest dreams we are unable to imagine its real nature. When people in the future download our visions into the caves of their minds, somewhere in the timeless, infinite fractal of the universe they may wonder at the importance we attached to the stories that played out in our heads. But nonetheless they will recognise the throbbing of our heartbeat as the pattern of life within it.
This text is an excerpt from Markus Selg’s essay “Mind in the Cave”, first appeared in Die Deutsche Bühne under the title “Aus der Höhle der Zukunft” (“From the Cave in the Future”) in May 2021.
What you see is what you see
Dramaturg Meret Kündig on Philip Glass’s anti-opera “Einstein on the Beach”
It was not a work that needed an explanation. And we never tried to provide one. (Philip Glass)
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. (Albert Einstein)
It’s hard to say what “Einstein on the Beach ”is about. It’s certainly not about a beach, and it’s only about Einstein in the broadest possible sense, with the play breaking with opera in the same way as Albert Einstein broke with traditional physics. It is divided into acts and scenes with titles such as “Train”, “Trial” and “Spaceship”. There is singing and music. Yet “Einstein on the Beach”is an anti-opera. Its break with the aesthetics of conventional opera is due primarily to the fact that it eschews a traditional linear narrative. Its principle is that of association, and audience members are invited to give free rein to their imagination.
Philip Glass and theatrical producer Robert Wilson created the work together, and it premiered in Avignon in 1976. The original production, which featured dream-like scenes, texts, dance and music all merging into a “Gesamtkunstwerk” has since been performed all over the world and is today considered an avant-garde classic. And yet, to date, there have only been a handful of new directorial interpretations, including Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg’s music theatre installation at Theater Basel.
Most of the spoken texts are by the autistic poet Christopher Knowles, with whom Robert Wilson had worked within a therapy framework. Knowles, who had little or no knowledge of Einstein, engaged with the subject matter by association, creating nonsensical speech mosaics with pronounced rhythmic patterns and multiple repetitions. The performers in the original production also contributed spoken texts that they came up with in rehearsal and were similarly based on word associations. The texts sung by the chorus and the soloists are even more radically devoid of meaning. They consist of numbers and tone syllables (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) sung at the corresponding pitches; in other words, they have no meaning other than the syllables themselves. The work concept establishing itself here was shaped by American minimal art; it was key to the self-understanding of minimal music, which was in fact frequently performed in art galleries. Glass’s music eludes hierarchically ordered deep structures, dramatic development and semantic meaning. Or, as minimalist artist Frank Stella once put it: “What you see is what you see”.
Wilson’s original production does contain a number of references to Einstein’s life and theories, for example a violinist in the guise of the famous physicist (indeed, Einstein was passionate about playing the violin in his spare time). The scene titles themselves also hint at various references: ‘Train’, for example, is reminiscent of Einstein’s thought experiment illustrating the special theory of relativity. ‘Bed’ could be an image for Einstein’s visionary thoughts, which supposedly often came to him in his sleep. ‘Trial’ points to the question of the ethical responsibility of science, just as the title of the opera can also be interpreted as an allusion to Neville Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel “On the Beach”. Yet these references remain very sketchy. Choosing to dispense with unambiguous clarity, the piece allows a stream of associations to emerge about the relativity of time and space. It is not about a rational understanding, but about the experience of a state.
American minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass set themselves apart from the European avant-garde and, in particular, the serial music that dominated Europe at that time. The latter was based on complex mathematical number sequences and aimed more at an intellectual reception. Minimal music countered this growing complexity with a radical simplicity, the intent of which was to enable a profound, sensory experience. Dramatic linear development gave way to a new understanding of time and space, with form replaced by process.
Minimal music was shaped to a large extent by non-European influences, especially Indian, African and Indonesian music and their spiritual practices. Glass himself was in close contact with the musicians Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, both of whom taught him the foundations of Indian music. Pop music, too, left its mark, and so it comes as no surprise that minimal music would go on to influence the evolution of certain techno genres, too.
Glass’s compositions are characterised by stable harmonic structures and, in particular, the principle of repetitive musical phrases and building blocks.
Musical patterns are repeated multiple times with minimal changes, for example through the addition of a single note, thereby transforming almost imperceptibly and seemingly ad infinitum. The sense of a stable metre is suspended, with time itself appearing to deform, as in Einstein’s thinking. The music begins to float, triggering trance-like meditative states in the listener, amplified by the sustained duration of the piece. John Cage described the experience in these words: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on. Eventually one discovers it’s not boring, but very interesting.”