Essential Music: Canto Ostinato by Simeon ten Holt

I’ve long been a fan of minimalist music, and I’ve written a fair amount about that sub-genre here. There are some key works in minimalism: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Terry Riley’s In C (, Amazon UK) and many others. But there’s one that remains a cult work, which, while widely recorded, isn’t very well known outside of Europe.

Simeon ten Holt was a Dutch composer who died in 2012, and who composed works in “cells,” little bits that could be played freely, offering performers a great deal of latitude in the way they played his compositions.

His best known work is the 1973-1979 composition Canto Ostinato. It can be played by one or more keyboard instruments, and the composer described it as follows:

The work originates from a traditional source, it is tonal and uses functional harmonies. Although all the subdivisions have a fixed place in the course of the work and are not interchangeable, the beginning and ending do not have an absolute form-bordering significance. Cause and result, tension and relaxation – inseparable pairs of functions are used as independent entities, and as they proceed they are brought to a standstill through the repetitions. Chords or chord groups, comprised in bars or sections, disengage themselves from the melodic ties and start to lead a life of their own. Time plays an important role. The bars or sections have been given repetition signs; the number of times they are repeated is to be decided by the performers. The repetition procedure aims at creating a situation in which the musical object confirms its independence and can search for the most favourable position with respect to the light. Time becomes the space in which the musical object is going to float.

I admit that the above text is a bit wooly. ten Holt essentially used a procedure similar to that which Terry Riley used for In C. Here’s the score for In C, which was reproduced on the first recording that Riley made on Columbia records back in 1968:

Terry Riley In C full score.jpg

Performers play each section as many times as they want, as long as they stay within two or three phrases of the other musicians. So every performance is different. In C could be played in 15 minutes or it could take a couple of hours; any group of instruments and/or voices could perform it.

For Canto Ostinato, the approach is similar. Here’s a page of its score:


The performer(s) plays each cell as many times as he, she or they want, then moves on. It can take less than an hour, or it can take several hours.

All of the above is a bit technical, and gets away from the music itself. What Canto Ostinato offers is a sound world that is fascinating, entrancing, yet constantly changing.

One Dutch pianist, Jeroen van Veen, seems to be obsessed with this work. He performs it constantly, alone or with others, and has just released a box set of his recordings, Canto Ostinato XL. (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store; note that the download price is much lower than the price of the set on CD.) This set contains 12 (!!!) recordings of the work, for one piano, two, four, and a variety of other keyboard instruments. To be frank, you don’t need twelve recordings, but given that you can buy this set (by download) for roughly the price of one or two versions, it’s a bargain. The set contains mostly one-disc versions of the work – less than 80 minutes – but the version for four pianos is nearly two and a half hours. I’d say the essential versions on this set are the first three: for one piano, for two pianos, and for four pianos. The music is very different with different numbers of instruments.

But perhaps the best way to discover this work is to listen to it. Here’s a video of Canto Ostinato for four pianos, lasting a bit more than an hour and a half. Sit back and enjoy it.

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Watch a Live Performance of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach toured around the world recently, and there’s a video that’s freely available from the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet. So sit back and watch all four and a half hours of Einstein on the Beach.

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

These are the days…

Read more about Einstein on the Beach here and here.

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Music Review: November, by Dennis Johnson


Buy from: | Amazon UK | iTunes

Update: I’ve added a recent radio show about November at the bottom of this article. You should really hear November; it’s one of my favorite recordings of the year.

The musical avant-garde has created a number of very long pieces of music. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, runs for around six hours; other works by the same composer last from one to four hours. La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano runs around five to six hours. John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible runs from 20 to 70 minutes, but a performance underway in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and should take about 639 years. Other long works include Erik Satie’s Vexations, which runs somewhere around 28 hours. But the latter two works are more gimmicks than anything else; Satie’s piece is merely one minute-and-a-half piece played 840 times.

Length does not equal quality, but in the area of minimalist music – this is the minimalism of sparseness, not that of repetition, such as the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – the listener enters a sound world that moves at a different pace from the world around them. Listening to such works – Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet is an excellent example of this – forces the listener to rethink what music is and how it is heard and experienced. I like music of this type which slows me down and makes me listen differently. In many ways, November, as with many of Morton Feldman’s works, is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.

Dennis Johnson’s November is one such piece. It was composed in 1959, and, as Kyle Gann says in the liner notes to this new recording, “was glacially calm and meditative in the extreme.” Gann obtained a cassette tape from La Monte Young; “It was one of those thin, unreliable 120- minute cassettes, and the pitch wobbled badly.” He set out to transcribe the work, and eventually obtained a copy of the manuscript from the composer. But this score was far from perfect:

The manuscript score of November is a puzzle. It contains two pages of “motifs,” numbered first with Roman numerals and then switching to Arabic ones, often out of order, with many cross- outs, alternative possibilities, and self-questionings by the composer. These are followed by three further pages on which Johnson tried, with only partial success, to analyze his improvisation and arrive at a more exact notation. Little annotations among the notes, in the same handwriting of Johnson‟s letter in An Anthology, show him cogitating on paper and rather humorously arguing with himself: “maybe replace IVb with this”; “sounds better to enter with low A#”; “maybe add low E# in first chord – NO!”

Pianist R. Andrew Lee found himself interested by the piece. “My interest was first prompted by an Everest Complex, if you will. I attended Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill’s landmark performance in 2009, and I really enjoyed the piece. I had also heard Kyle talk about November’s importance and read his posts on the subject. I’d like to think these factors influenced my decision to try it in the first place, but, if I’m being really honest with myself, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”

This recording, just shy of five hours, takes up that gauntlet and offers to the listener a unique work of subtle music, built around recurring motifs that become familiar, similar to the work of Morton Feldman, yet with its own style.

You can listen to this work in many ways. Few are those who would sit in front of their stereos for five hours; you can listen to one disc at a time (it’s on four discs, or four files if you purchase it by download), you can listen to a half-hour or so, then move on, or you can put it on as you work, and shift from paying close attention to having it flow by in the background. I think all these options are fine, but the longer you listen to the music actively, the more it becomes a meditation.

Pianist Lee sums up his feelings about this work:

I do not play this piece because of an Everest Complex, nor do I play it even because of its incredible historical significance.

I play it because I love it.

And that’s as good a reason as any to listen to it.

Update: Listen to Kyle Gann discussing November, and hear excerpts, on this WNYC Spinning on Air show:

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Essential Music: Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich

Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)

I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.

The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”

This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.

I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.

Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.

Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website.

Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.

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

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.

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John Cage and Morton Feldman in Conversation, 1967

Listening to a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage today (on this new recording of his Works for violin and piano, I searched on the web for some information about Feldman and Cage, and found these very fascinating recordings of the two of them in conversation, recorded for WBAI in 1967, and available from

Interestingly, I started listening while playing Feldman’s For John Cage in the background, and this was strangely satisfying.

Here is a summary of the three conversations:

Part 1 (39:25):
This first of a three part conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York between October 18-25, 1967. The segment begins with Cage and Feldman discussing the various ways people perceive intrusion in their lives. The composers then spend some time on the occupation of the artist as “being deep in thought,” and what the goals or purposes of “being deep in thought” might be. A brief analysis of Black Mountain College follows before Cage and Feldman return to the idea of being in thought, and the role of boredom in life. The conversation ends with Cage explaining his hesitation towards taking on students.

Part 2 (49:41):
The second part of their conversation was recorded at WBAI in New York on October 24, 1967. Like the first installment, much of this conversation centers on intrusions in the life of an artist. Cage and Feldman look at how everyday tasks such as correspondence are affected by the artist’s desire to not disappoint the public once the public has recognized the artist. Cage and Feldman engage in a fairly philosophical discussion regarding the telephone, and recount some anecdotes about using the phone book. They also return to the topic of “thought” and whether there is a point in life where a person has thought enough. There is also some discussion of composing pieces with very particular challenges (e.g. a one-finger guitar piece).

Part 3 (43:48):
The third and final conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York in October 1967. Cage and Feldman’s discussion begins with Cage reading part of an article by the architect Kaufman on disposability. Cage seems fascinated by the idea that the large and small scale is becoming ever more prominent in society, while the importance of the mid-scale is dwindling. Some serious debate ensues when Cage expresses the opinion that we already have quality in the world, and what we are truly seeking is quantity. The two also touch on the role of artists in reaction to the Vietnam War, and how musicians seem frequently absent from the political dialogue. The conversation ends with Cage hypothesizing that the printing press changed the course of life activity toward material gain.

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CD Review: Morton Feldman, Piano & String Quartet

When music is at its best, it can take us places. It can transport us to other worlds. It can elicit new feelings within us, and it can change the way we see the world. Music is much more than just enjoyable sounds, if we are willing to let it enter into our inner selves. Not all music has this power. Some music is too simple, too predictable to have any effect other than to provide simple entertainment. Some music contains multitudes, is full of complexities that connect with us on a deep level. Sometimes it is a tune, one that has just the right intervals, twists and leaps on a scale, that enters into our minds at the right time, becoming memorable. Sometimes it is a texture, the way instruments interact, that reveals something profound.

Morton Feldman’s music has that second characteristic: it is often about texture, about interaction, about a fabric that is woven by the music. His melodies are sparse, and they build up over time, notably through repetition. They become familiar, until, at each appearance, we greet them like acquaintances. Throughout Piano and String Quartet, one of his last works – it was composed in 1985; Feldman died in 1987 – a simple arpeggio, which is the first thing one hears in the piece, becomes a repeating rhythmic motif which is repeated over and over with different chords. This arpeggio could recall Satie’s piano music. Each time we hear this arpeggio, it is another brick in the huge edifice that is the 80-minute work. And that’s not long for Feldman; some of his late works last three, even six hours. At times, it is the piano that plays the arpeggio; at times the string quartet. Its actual form – the spaces between the notes – varies over time, and the time signatures of the work vary as well, almost imperceptibly shifting from one to another for brief periods.

At other times, the string quartet comes to the front, playing slightly dissonant chords, with just enough bite to be chromatic, in a rhythm like that of our breath. Yet that arpeggio is still there, in the background, deconstructed, as the piano comes and goes, its own rhythmic structure altered slightly from its first appearances. The six notes of the arpeggio seem to by trying out all the possibilities that the piano could play with these pulsing strings.

Feldman’s music is that of gradual change. It could be called minimalist, though “minimalism” is generally considered to be music that has stricter, more rigid repetitions, notably based on regular, sustained rhythm. Feldman’s music is not like that; there is no rigidity. In his later works, there is an almost mystical feeling, as though the music is trying to touch eternity through its silences, its amorphous rhythms, and its sparse sounds. It also challenges the listener: at 80 minutes, Piano and String Quartet demands a great deal of attention. His String Quartet II, at around six hours, is essentially beyond attention. But the investment one makes in listening to a work like this is paid off by the discovery of something new, something hidden, something inside the listener that has been waiting to be exposed to the light.

A work like this is not for everyone. If your preferred type of music is, say, Mozart or Haydn, then Feldman’s music is the antithesis of the lively, strictly organized music of the classical period. If you find twelve-tone music attractive, Feldman’s melodic approach may be too diatonic. While he uses chromaticism, it is not extreme, and is, in some ways, attenuated by the slowness of the music.

In the liner-notes to this work, composer David Lang says, “This is music without a tune. This is music without a traditional sense of harmonic motion. [...] This is music that is intensely repetitive but completely unpredictable.” Feldman created unique sound-worlds unlike those of any other composer. They require listeners who are prepared to make a commitment over time, but also to adopt a musical approach that is beyond conventional rules and habits. In stripping music to its degré zéro, Feldman brought listeners face to face with themselves, with their expectations of what music could be.

So this recording – how does it fare? There are a few recordings of this work, notably one by Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet, released in 1993. As to be expected with music of this type, there is little latitude for performers to “interpret” the music, but Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet provide an impeccable performance, with a crystalline sound from beginning to end. Their recording is a bit louder than the Takahashi/Kronos recording, but just a bit. The score is entirely in ppp, and this music is meant to be listened at a very low volume.

While I say there aren’t that many differences between the two recordings, I also feel that the world needs more recordings of Feldman’s music, if only so that more people can chance upon it and discover this composer’s realms. As such, kudos to Bridge Records for recording this, but also for having released several other Feldman works, notably such long works as for Christian Wolff, Crippled Symmetry and for Philip Guston, all multi-disc releases.

Feldman’s music is an acquired taste, but if you have never listened to it, this work is an excellent place to start. If you do know his music, and don’t have this work, then you should. Period.

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR.

This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.

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Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach

Note: I originally wrote this post in October, 2007, and having an urge to listen to Einstein on the Beach today, I decided to update it and tweak it a bit.

Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach is one of the seminal works of minimalist music. (This genre of music is characterized by repetitive motives and rhythmic structures.) Described as the “first in a Glass Trilogy of operas about men who changed the world through the power of their ideas,” Einstein, first performed in 1976 with staging by Robert Wilson, was so full of new ideas that it rocked the music world. The combination of spoken parts and singing, the tight integration of set design and dance, and the use of minimalist music in such a large scale work, mark Einstein as one of the defining works of minimalist music. Whether you like minimalism or not – and I can understand those who find it boring, even though I don’t – it is hard to deny the importance of this work.

An extensive quote from the notes to the Nonesuch recording, while slightly hubristic, gives a summary of its importance. “It is the first, longest, and most famous of the composer’s operas, yet it is in almost every way unrepresentative of them. Einstein was, by design, a glorious “one-shot” – a work that invented its context, form and language, and then explored them so exhaustively that further development would have been redundant. But, by its own radical example, Einstein prepared the way – it gave permission – for much of what has happened in music theater since its premiere.”

In 1984, I was fortunate to see the revival of the work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York, and was marked by the audacity of the music and the staging. Ten years later, when Nonesuch released a “new” recording of the work, I bought it immediately. (The original, and shorter, Sony recording, originally issued on Tomato records (which I actually still have somewhere on LPs) was later re-released on CD.) Unfortunately, neither of these are available on CD any more, though you can purchase them by download. It’s quite a shame that this opera is out of print on CD.

While I have listened to it several times over the years, it languished on my shelves until a recent query on a classical music newsgroup reminded me that I hadn’t listened to it in several years. So, how does Einstein stand up after all this time? Does it still sound as important? Does it sound dated? Einstein is clearly a product of the 1970s, both musically (Glass’s music has evolved since then, but not to the point of rupture) and culturally (there are many cultural references to the times). The work consists of the following:

1. Knee 1 8:04
2. Train 1 21:25
3. Trial 1: Entrance 5:42
4. Trial 1: “Mr. Bojangles” 16:29
5. Trial 1: “All Men Are Equal” 4:30
6. Knee 2 6:07
1. Dance 1 15:53
2. Night train 20:09
3. Knee 3 6:30
4. Trial 2/Prison: “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” 12:17
5. Trial 2/Prison: Ensemble 6:38
6. Trial 2/Prison: “I Feel The Earth Move” 4:09
1. Dance 2 19:58
2. Knee 4 7:05
3. Building 10:21
4. Bed: Cadenza 1:53
5. Bed: Prelude 4:23
6. Bed: Aria 8:12
7. Spaceship 12:51
8. Knee 5 8:04

As you can see above, there are several long sections, which provide the “meat” of the work – ranging from ten to twenty minutes, or grouped into scenes lasting about twenty minutes each – and there are also what Glass and Wilson called knee plays, “brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes,” with spoken text containing numbers, solfege syllables and poems. These five knee plays provide musical anchors for the work, using the same motives throughout, and the other long sections the “meat” of the narrative.

Some of the sections, such as the first long part, Train 1, or the later Dance 1, are raucous examples of Glass’s signature style, replete with organ and fast rhythmic motives, while others, such as the knee plays, the Entrance movement, and Mr. Bojangles, are more subtle and relaxed. Others, such as Night Train, fit somewhere in the middle. Throughout the work, there is a tension between the speed and intensity of the different sections, providing enough variety – within the relatively strict framework of minimalism – to keep the listener interested. (Though one loses all of the visual effects, which, as I recall, were quite striking; enough so to keep me interested throughout the nearly five-hour performance.) This said, the faster movements seem to me to be the weakest sections of the work, at least musically. They seem to belong to a different era of Glass’s music–similar, for example, to his Music in Twelve Parts, in their “radical minimalism”.

Glass’s music is gradual, but not in the same way as, say, Steve Reich, the other major minimalist composer of the period. Glass seems to focus more, at least in Einstein, on atmosphere, whereas Reich’s music is more about process. One of the most emblematic sections, “Mr. Bojangles”, which features a speaker reciting what may be seen as simply a nonsense text, a chorus, and obligato violin, and what could pass for a minimalist continuo, is a modern version of a Bach cantata. Musically, this section is one of the strongest in the entire work. Visually, if my memory serves, it was also stunning, and I seem to recall that the violinist was sitting on-stage as he performed his part. (And the seductive melodies and motives of that obligato violin return throughout the work, providing coherence, and beautiful music.)

There is no plot to this opera, and it is not even entirely about Einstein. The music, while fitting together, could be listened to separately. In fact, as the notes to this recording point out, “some of the music in Einstein had been originally written for a long series of concert pieces.” For those who cannot sit through the 3:20 of the entire work, there is therefore nothing wrong in listening to it in bits and pieces. After all, this is not an opera in the usual sense of the word. It is more like a series of set-pieces that fit together because of their similarity, motives and atmosphere.

To respond to one of the questions I asked above, Is it dated?, I must answer emphatically that it is not. Minimalism has been integrated into much modern music, both “classical” and electronic music, as well as other genres. Glass and Reich can both be seen as groundbreaking precursors, and, while Einstein may have shocked the first people who saw it performed in July, 1976, at the Festival d’Avignon, little of its music or staging would be seen as unorthodox today. Musically, a few of the sections may sound a bit clichéd, but, for the most part, this music has aged well, and, after nearly thirty years, belongs to the canon of classical music.

While some of this music will annoy anyone who feels that minimalism is not “real” music, other sections of the work are brilliant examples of musical atmosphere and structure. I am pleased to have brought this work back into my listening rotation, even though I won’t be listening to the work in its entirety each time – I’ll listen to a handful of sections, perhaps, or one disc at a time. (With iTunes or an iPod, making a playlist of my favorite sections would be interesting as well.) But I would also like to see a DVD of a performance of Einstein. I don’t know whether any of the performances were filmed, but, if not, it certainly is time for a revival in order to do so. Much more so than many classical operas, this work depends greatly on its visuals and staging, and the time is right for it to come back into the zeitgeist.

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