Music Notes: Einstein on the Beach, The 1984 Recording (Update)

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As Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is currently undergoing a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I’m reminded of when I saw it there in 1984, the second series of performances after its initial run in 1976. This 4 1/2 hour “opera” is a combination of music, dance and visuals, and was truly unforgettable. Over the years, I’ve collected the different recordings of the work.

First was the 1978 Tomato Records set, Later released on CBS Masterworks, then Sony. At 160 minutes, this was greatly reduced from the full work. Later, in 1993, a Nonesuch recording, on CD, was 190 minutes long, still a lot shorter than the entire work.

But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. The first, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of “highlights” of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute “complete” recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.

The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it’s a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.

I’m certainly looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it’s not too “smooth,” that the years between the first productions and the present haven’t led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.

(See also an older article, Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach.)

Update: I received the “highlights” disc and watched the documentary today. If you care at all about Einstein on the Beach, you simply must see the documentary, with interviews with Glass and Wilson, and extensive footage of the 1984 production.

4 replies
  1. Peter Lederer says:

    The September 17 issue of The New Yorker has a great profile of Robert Wilson and the early days of Einstein on the Beach. [A couple of weeks after two well-reviewed performances at the Met] Glass was back driving a cab, and Wilson was in Europe giving lectures and selling furniture to earn some money….!

  2. Jake Trake says:

    Wilson was a prolific writer with hits in the 70s and 80s such as The Illuminatus! Trilogy, The Cosmic Trigger series and Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy

  3. Tom Geller says:

    That documentary deeply influenced me. I watched it when it came out (I was 16) and kicked myself that I hadn’t snuck away from my parents’ house in Northern Westchester to see the production at the BAM.

    Two or three years ago, I actually bought the documentary on VHSdirectly from the (small) distributor for something like $50. IIRC, they contacted me to make sure I wasn’t buying it for public viewing. Maybe they were guarding it jealously because this deal was already in the works?


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