Introduces Minimalist Music to Mainstream Audiences Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With its triumphant premiere at the Avignon Summer Festival, the nonnarrative theatrical piece Einstein on the Beach helped to create a new and varied audience for minimalist music.

Summary of Event

The avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach was a consequence of the meeting of two people at the right time in their artistic evolution. Both Philip Glass and Robert Wilson lived in New York City in the early 1970’s, by which time Glass had developed a new musical language based on the hypnotic repetition of small groups of notes and Wilson had created such gargantuan theatrical spectacles as a twelve-hour account of the life of Joseph Stalin that forced viewers to immerse themselves in a world of striking images rather than follow a plot with a climax and resolution. After an all-night performance of the Stalin piece, Glass met Wilson, and the two men decided then and there to investigate the possibility of creating something together. Theater;opera Music;minimalism Theater;opera Music;minimalism Glass, Philip Wilson, Robert (theatrical artist) Einstein, Albert

During their initial meetings, they spent most of their time getting acquainted. Glass discovered that Wilson had been an architect and painter before he created the theatrical works that challenged audiences’ ideas of dramatic time, progression, and structure. Wilson learned that Glass, after receiving a traditional education in classical music in Baltimore and Chicago and at the Juilliard School in New York City, had rebelled against the modern music he had been taught, which he found “ugly and didactic,” and had begun to search for his own style. Glass’s search was greatly aided by his studies in Paris with influential music teacher Nadia Boulanger, Boulanger, Nadia who showed him how to handle several rhythms simultaneously.

Glass’s most important experience in Paris—indeed, the turning point in his musical life—occurred when he encountered the music of Ravi Shankar, Shankar, Ravi a skilled sitar player from India. Glass had accepted the job of transcribing Shankar’s raga improvisations into Western notation. Because all the music Glass had previously heard, from classical to modern to jazz, had been based on narrative structures—that is, on propulsive melodies and harmonies—he initially had difficulty grasping Shankar’s mode of musical thinking. He soon came to see, however, that Eastern music substitutes repetitive structures for narrative structures. For Glass, the essential difference between Eastern and Western music was that in the West, musical time is divided (from whole to half to quarter notes, for example), whereas in the East, small musical units are combined and cycles of different rhythms are constructed (similar to the wheels within wheels of clockworks).

Glass used these ideas of basic building blocks of music and rhythmic cycles in creating a unique personal style that continued to evolve. As he expected, he encountered difficulties in getting people to play his music, so he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, Philip Glass Ensemble for which, after much experimentation and effort, he was able to develop a characteristic sound, a blend of amplified keyboards, winds, and female voice. When this group first played Glass’s music, audiences were dismayed, and the popular press labeled it “trance music,” “solid-state music,” “hypnotic music,” and “minimal music”—terms that Glass disliked. He saw his work instead simply as a new musical language.

Despite Glass’s demurral, the term “minimalism” came to be used widely to describe his cyclic and meditative style. Many modern musicians at the time, who tended to espouse various dodecaphonic, atonal, and arrhythmic styles, offered Glass neither approval nor support. On the other hand, people who listened to popular music supported the new music, and this pleased Glass, as one of his motives in developing his style was to bridge the gap between classical and popular music. Another group that formed an important part of Glass’s audience was made up of artists of various genres; for example, painters of the New York school found connections between their minimalism and Glass’s. Robert Wilson, too, whose theatrical works had been characterized as analytic, reductive, and repetitive, was enchanted by Glass’s music, and so he and Glass felt that they could create a musical theater piece for which they could comfortably share artistic responsibility.

Wilson and Glass began their venture by deciding on its general thematic content. In his theatrical productions, Wilson had been fascinated by such historical figures as Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin, and he and Glass first discussed Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler, and Mahatma Gandhi as possible subjects. When they discovered that they had both been captivated by Albert Einstein since childhood, they knew they had found their subject. They recognized that they could use Einstein to explore, in music and in theater spectacle, the themes of creativity, the nuclear age, and the theory of relativity. In its original form, their work was tentatively titled Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street. Because there is only a single enigmatic reference to a beach in the libretto, some commentators have hypothesized that the title derives from Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic post-nuclear-war novel On the Beach On the Beach (Shute) (1957), an association that Glass denied.

Neither Glass nor Wilson wanted to make Einstein on the Beach a conventional opera. They had no interest in telling a story or composing arias to display the vocal talents of well-known soloists. Instead of creating music based on the text of a play, Glass derived his musical inspiration from various images around which he and Wilson organized their opera. Even the words that were sung, chanted, or spoken were used more for their sound than for their sense (indeed, Glass has said that he generally prefers that audiences not understand what is being said or sung). The texts for Einstein on the Beach were written mostly by Christopher Knowles, Knowles, Christopher a teenage boy with some neurological impairment whom Wilson had met when working with disturbed children; Wilson found the adolescent’s way of viewing the world strikingly original, calling it as visionary as Einstein’s.

American composer Philip Glass.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Glass and Wilson structured Einstein on the Beach into four acts, nine scenes, and five “knee plays.” The knee plays serve as prologue, interludes separating the acts, and epilogue (the word “knee” was Glass and Wilson’s way of characterizing these elements’ joining function). Using the scenes and the timings for them as a base, Glass shaped and colored each scene musically by linking harmonies to rhythms. He scored the opera for solo violinist, the instruments of the Philip Glass Ensemble, and mostly untrained voices (a few texts required a trained singer). Although he eschewed the traditional opera orchestra, he chose a single violinist because Einstein was widely known to be an amateur violin player, and Glass and Wilson situated the Einstein character between the music ensemble and the singers and dancers. Glass found the music, which he wrote during the spring, summer, and fall of 1975, surprisingly easy to compose. The music was clearly related to his preoperatic instrumental compositions, especially the music accompanying the dances and other stage activities. What was new was how he used sung, chanted, and spoken words, numbers, and phrases that sometimes complemented and at other times mocked the rhythmic structure of the music.

By November of 1975, Glass had completed the score and helped Wilson to assemble a cast. The main problem left was financing. Glass and Wilson did not think that Einstein on the Beach would find support from any American opera company. Fortunately, France’s new minister of culture wanted a challenging work for the Avignon Festival, and Glass and Wilson’s opera, with its unusual subject, structure, and approach, suited his desires. Glass and Wilson’s agent in Europe was also able to book a tour of Einstein on the Beach starting in Paris and continuing through theaters in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Before 1976, the festival at Avignon had occasionally sponsored avant-garde works, and in the summer of 1976 reports about Einstein on the Beach attracted young audience members from all over Europe. As Glass and Wilson gathered their musicians, singers, and dancers together at Avignon for a final few weeks of rehearsal, a mood of intense energy and expectation saturated the company.

At the work’s premiere on July 25, 1976, the audience encountered a radically new theatrical presentation and music. The opera began with two women sitting at tables in the front of the stage, counting aloud while their fingers performed a slow ballet. Like the other cast members, they were dressed in the Einstein costume—short-sleeved white shirts, baggy pants with suspenders, and sneakers. During the course of the opera, the audience witnessed many other elements drawn from the great scientist’s life and work, including a train (an image Einstein often used in “thought experiments” to explain his special theory of relativity). Most members of the premiere audience were probably unaware of some associations; Wilson, for example, had made the stage furniture out of plumbing pipes because he had read Einstein’s remark that, if he had his life to live over again, he would have been a plumber. Between the early image of the train and the late image of a futuristic spaceship, various events occurred on the stage—a trial, a prison scene, and dances. After the curtain, on which was written “E = mc2 ,” the opera concluded with an epilogue in which the two female players who initiated the work talked of love on a park bench while a backstage chorus chanted numbers. Gradually, the words and music ceased.

The Avignon premiere of Einstein on the Beach generated a wide spectrum of opinion, from acclaim to condemnation. Glass and Wilson expected controversy, as they viewed their work as a piece for the audience to complete for themselves. They could not predict how audiences would interpret the opera, so the only thing they could do was present their subject as clearly as possible. Many of those audience members who had expected a traditional opera were either shocked or outraged. The highly amplified music sounded more like a rock band than a traditional opera orchestra. Even the singing was not operatic; Glass had used what he called “naïve voices.” Those audience members who had expected a narrative account of Einstein’s life were also surprised, although Glass and Wilson had tried to make clear beforehand their intent of presenting their artistic vision of Einstein rather than Einstein himself.

Despite the negative responses of some, many audience members, especially those drawn from the European student population, found Einstein on the Beach beautiful, stimulating, and entrancing. Indeed, large numbers of them became “Einstein groupies,” traveling to many of the other performances that Glass’s company gave throughout Europe.


At the opening, Wilson and Glass had been so caught up in the performance of Einstein on the Beach that they paid little attention to the reaction of the audience, but it soon became clear to them and to everyone else that their theatrical piece was the event of the festival. All the remaining performances rapidly sold out, and so eager were people to see the opera that they found ingenious ways of sneaking into the theater. This is not to say that everyone found the opera praiseworthy. Critics from the established musical avant-garde felt that Glass’s repetitive music was boring and that Einstein’s accomplishments required music of greater variety, development, and expressiveness. Others, including listeners more comfortable with traditional Western classical music, found Glass’s music uneventful and bizarre and Wilson’s staging plodding and obscure. Glass himself noticed a strong dualism in audience reactions—outrage or delight, with few temperate opinions.

As the opera toured Europe, news of the excitement it was causing reached the United States. The well-known choreographer Jerome Robbins, Robbins, Jerome who saw the opera in Paris, was instrumental in convincing New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to book the work. When the American premiere of Einstein on the Beach took place there on November 21, 1976, the audience response was divided, as it had been in Europe. Many found the new work exhilarating, whereas others, in shock and rage, stormed out of the theater—only to be met by hordes of young people outside the Met who were eager to take their places.

Critical reactions to Einstein on the Beach were more analytic than the audience responses. Some critics interpreted the opera as a mantra designed to lull the audience into a meditative state. John Rockwell Rockwell, John of The New York Times described the postnarrative theatrical work as a mixture of “mathematical clarity and mystical allure.” Andrew Porter, Porter, Andrew writing in The New Yorker, characterized Glass’s score as “incantatory,” although he admitted that the music’s “needle-in-groove” nature might cause the mind to wander.

Despite the great success of Einstein on the Beach, Glass and Wilson were left with a debt of about $90,000, and Glass was forced to return to making his living as a taxi driver. To raise money to retire what they called the “Einstein Debt,” Wilson held exhibitions and sold drawings, and Glass performed with his ensemble and sold the original score of Einstein on the Beach to a private collector.

Einstein on the Beach caused problems for its creators, but it created opportunities for them as well. As a result of the work’s success, Glass received a Rockefeller Foundation grant of $30,000 a year for three years. With this financial support, he was able to complete another opera, Satyagraha, Satyagraha (Glass) which premiered in Rotterdam in 1980. Another Glass portrait opera, Akhnaten, Akhnaten (Glass) about a revolutionary Egyptian pharaoh, premiered in Stuttgart in 1984. Both Satyagraha and Akhnaten used themes from Einstein on the Beach, so these three minimalist operas—Glass’s trilogy—possess a certain cohesiveness both musically and thematically.

As a result of the popularity of these operas, Glass acquired the largest audience of any living composer of serious music. With the many productions of his theatrical works, Glass had to decide how they should be presented. In 1984, he completed a video documentation of the revival of Einstein on the Beach presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He saw this video record as one way of guiding future productions, even though he realized that other directors would reinterpret his operas.

In the years after its first presentation, Einstein on the Beach came to be recognized as a landmark in contemporary music and theater. Many critics still regard it as Glass’s most significant work. Glass’s minimalist music, first given a wide hearing through Einstein on the Beach, has influenced composers all over the world. This minimalist style and Glass’s use of highly amplified electronic instruments have influenced such rock artists as David Bowie and Brian Eno and such rock groups as Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. Glass has approved of these developments, as one of his goals has been to diminish the distance between “serious” music and popular music. He has noted that he sees himself primarily as a composer of liberation, freeing both himself and his listeners. Others may have a more jaundiced view of his contributions, but little doubt exists that many composers and listeners of both serious and popular music owe much to his creations. Theater;opera Music;minimalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Antokoletz, Elliott. Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992. Organized in two sections, the first of which deals with the reaction against nineteenth century Romanticism during the first four decades of the twentieth century and the second of which analyzes the musical styles that developed after World War II. Glass’s work is discussed in a chapter titled “Chance, Improvisation, Open Form, and Minimalism.” Presents many musical examples, and each chapter ends with a list of suggested readings. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fink, Robert. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Examines the connections between minimal music and American society and culture. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glass, Philip. Music by Philip Glass. Edited by Robert T. Jones. Rev. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. Autobiography presents Glass’s view of his evolution from a child prodigy on the flute to a world-famous composer. Presents insightful discussion of his teachers, his work with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, and the composition of his operatic trilogy. Includes the librettos of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten. Features photographs, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamm, Charles. Music in the New World. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Treats American music not simply as an imitation of what was happening in Europe but in terms of achievements that can serve as a model for composers in other countries. Discusses Glass’s work in a chapter on the American avant-garde. Copiously illustrated with musical examples and pictures. Includes bibliography, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kingman, Daniel. American Music: A Panorama. 2d concise ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson, 2003. Gives the novice reader with an interest in American music a clear and systematic presentation of its evolution from the colonial period to the early twenty-first century. Includes annotated reading lists, lists of recordings for listening projects, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mertens, Wim. American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Translated by J. Hautekiet. New York: Alexander Broude, 1983. Brief account of American minimalism emphasizes the basic aesthetic interconnections among the minimalists and their roots in African and Asian music. Also shows how certain avant-garde composers contributed to the evolution of some American minimalists. Includes illustrations and brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockwell, John. All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Contains twenty essays, each of which centers on an American composer. Neither a chronological survey nor a systematic guide, this work tries to communicate the great diversity of contemporary American classical music. Chapter on Philip Glass presents good critical commentary. Includes bibliography, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001. Survey of twentieth century music aimed primarily at the specialist but appropriate also for the informed nonspecialist with substantial knowledge of music history and theory. Includes illustrations, individual chapter bibliographies, and index.

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Categories: History