La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Experience versus Meaning: Einstein On The Beach Deciphered

Photos: (top l.) Einstein On The Beach creative team Glass, Childs and Wilson receiving applause at the conclusion of the Roundtable
(top r.) Stage director Robert Wilson answering audience question
(second from top) Composer Philip Glass
(l.) Choreographer Lucinda Childs
(b.) Moderator/Luminato Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt
Photo credit: Joseph So

by Joseph So

How should one appreciate a work of art?  Should we strive to understand what it's all about, to uncover its meaning, or should we just experience it, appreciate it for what it is, without attempting to understand it? To be sure, it is only human nature for audience members to try to discover the meaning behind a creative work, and relate it to their own world. From the perspective of the creative team of Einstein (composer Philip Glass, stage director Robert Wilson, choreographer Lucinda Childs), gathered last evening at the Baillie Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario for a roundtable discussion of their seminal work Einstein On The Beach, it's not necessary to understand but very necessary to experience what is being presented. At one point, stage director Robert Wilson recounted an anecdote that Picasso once said - and I am paraphrasing here - that when we listen to a bird sing, we don't ask what it's singing about, we just appreciate its beauty.  That perhaps sums up beautifully the position of Glass and Wilson in regards to Einstein On The Beach, and likely the rest of the artistic output of these two artists.  

Wilson's story of course brings to mind immediately Siegfried trying to understand the Forest Bird's song, which he eventually is able to do after tasting the Dragon's blood. This knowledge leads him to find Brunnhilde asleep on the rock...see, even heroes from Nordic legends look for meaning - but I digress!  I understand (pun-intended) where Wilson is coming from, and to a degree I agree with him.  Sometimes we just try to analyze too darned much - we should just enjoy the ride.  This I fully intended to do on Friday when I attend the opening of Einstein On The Beach. Personally I love the musical language of Glass; it has a hypnotic effect on me and when coupled with a story the likes of Satyagraha, I find it immensely moving. One of my very best experiences in the opera house was a San Francisco Opera production of Satyagraha in the mid 1980's. The combination of the incredible story of Ghandi, the touching production, and the mesmerizing music brought me to tears near the end of the opera. 

If I may allow myself a bit of analysis, I feel that meaning is very important, but it should come from each individual audience member and not dictated or imposed by the creators (composers, producers, directors, performers). It should come from within the receiver. An audience member is perfectly capable of processing a message, discarding what is not relevant and come up with something meaningful to him/her. For example, I love contemporary operas, or contemporary take on old works. But I take issue with some stage directors who impose his/her concept on me - in these productions, there's no room for alternate explanations, no possibility of parallel realities, it's his/her way or the highway.  I have real problems with that.  That's why I love Robert Carsen's Orfeo - a modern take where the baroque trappings are stripped away and what we get is the emotional core of the work.  We are allowed to freely interpret and perceive what we see.  I was deeply moved by the performance I saw a year ago at the COC.  I hope I will have a similar experience tomorrow.

Einstein On The Beach,  Sony Centre, Friday June 8 and Saturday June 9, 6 p.m., Sunday June 10 3 p.m. 



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