Hydrogen Jukebox
A Music / Theater Piece
Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Allen Ginsberg
The Philip Glass Ensemble
Martin Goldray, conductor


Nonesuch 79286-2


1. from Iron Horse 6:40
2. Jahweh and Allah Battle 3:40
3. from Iron Horse 2:54
4. To P. O. 3:42
5. from Crossing Nation; Over Denver Again; Going to Chicago
and To Poe: Over the Planet, Air Albany-Baltimore 5:42
6. from Wichita Vortex Sutra 7:45

7. from Howl Part II 5:56
8. from Cabin in the Rockies 4:23
9. from Nagasaki Days (Numbers in Red Notebook) 0:40
10. Aunt Rose 4:58
11. from The Green Automobile 6:00
12. from N. S. A. Dope Calypso 5:51
13. from Nagasaki Days (Everybody’s Fantasy) 4:56
14. Ayers Rock/Uluru Song and “Throw out the Yellow Journalists…” 4:08
15. Father Death Blues (from Don’t Grow Old) 5:12


In 1988, I accepted an invitation from Tom Bird of the Viet Nam Veteran Theater to perform at a benefit for the company. I happened to run into Allen Ginsberg at St. Mark’s bookshop in New York and asked him if he would perform with me. We were in the poetry section, and he grabbed a book from the shelf and pointed out Wichita Vortex Sutra. The poem, written in 1966 and reflecting the anti-war mood of the times, seemed highly appropriate for the occasion. I composed a piano piece to accompany Allen’s reading, which took place at the Schubert Theater on Broadway.

Allen and I so thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration that we soon began talking about expanding our performance into an evening-length music-theater work. It was right after the 1988 presidential election, and neither Bush nor Dukakis seemed to talk about anything that was going on. I remember saying to Allen, if these guys aren’t going to talk about the issues then we should.

By the spring of 1989 we had invited designer Jerome Sirlin to join us in a series of meetings, mainly in Allen’s East Village apartment, in which we picked through his collected works to find a coherent “libretto.” Jerome began a series of drawings that would eventually form the sets and drops. Later on we were joined by director-choreographer Ann Carlson, who began discussing with us the staging of the work.

By this time we had arrived at a scenario based on eighteen poems. Together they formed a “portrait” of America, at least in our eyes, that covered the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It also ranged in content from highly personal poems of Allen’s to his reflection on social issues: the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, Eastern philosophy, environmental awareness — all issues that seemed “counter-cultural” in their day. Now, in the late ’80s, they seemed to have become more “mainstream” and yet, because of the power of Allen’s poetry, still with their youthful energy intact. Ann chose to stage the work by using the six vocal parts to represent six archetypal American characters — a waitress, a policewoman, a businessman, a priest, a mechanic and a cheerleader.

In the past when I addressed social issues in music theater works I often used unfamiliar — even obscure— languages: Sanskrit for Satyagraha, ancient Egyptian for Akhnaten, Latin for the CIVIL warS, or just numbers and syllables in Einstein on the Beach. With Jukebox I was working with a vernacular language that we all know. For this purpose nothing could be better than Allen’s poetry, because he is inventing a poetic language from the sounds and rhythms all around us — an American language that is logical, sensual, at times abstract and always expressive. Bringing music and language together can have a most powerful effect, literally joining the senses in a way that only opera can do.

For me there are two considerations in setting text to music. There are the words themselves, which need to be set in the most natural way. With Allen’s poetry I was most intent on respecting the music that was already in the words. Then there is the musical environment into which the words are set. In the poem Aunt Rose, for example, I used a 5/8 rhythm — a kind of lopsided rhythm— 1-2, 1-2-3. I heard the rhythm from the description of her toot: it’s a picture of someone who walks with a limp. That’s the only specific relation of the music to the words. A portrait in music need not be a complete portrait. If you have some indication, we as listeners will fill in the rest.

The American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia hosted a series of performances early in the Spring of 1990, and the premiere of the finished work took place at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of the same year. The small music ensemble of keyboards, winds and percussion with the six singers made for a music-theater ensemble which, along with Martin Goldray, the original music director, was able to tour the U.S. the following season.

Taking this piece on tour completed something important. Allen and I have traveled around this country a lot. The piece is about that, and taking this on the road was in a way taking it back to the places where it was born. We’ve taken it to many different cities, and people recognize it — perhaps they see themselves in the portrait.

— Philip Glass

Philip Glass and I visited India at different times and were influenced by Indian music, philosophy and meditation forms -particularly Buddhist, since we’re both Buddhist practitioners. So we’re moved to make a work that penetrates many psychological worlds at once, quite a large audience.

Ultimately, the motif of Hydrogen Jukebox, the underpinning, the secret message, secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium.

So this “melodrama” is a millennial survey of what’s up-what’s on our minds, what’s the pertinent American and Planet News. Constructing the drama, we had the idea of the decline of empire, or Fall of America as “empire,” and even perhaps the loss of the planet over the next few hundred years. We made a list of things we wanted to cover — Philip and I and Jerome Serlin the scenerist— common questions. There was of course Buddhism, meditation, sex, sexual revolution — in my case awareness of homosexuality and Gay lib. There was the notion of corruption in politics, the corruption of empire at the top. There are the themes of art, travel, East-meets-West and ecology, which is on everyone’s mind. And war, of course, Peace, Pacifism.

The title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from a verse in the poem Howl: “…listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox…” It signifies a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization’s military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, reminder of apocalypse.

Having decided the topics, we then found texts that covered them, and put a mosaic or tapestry together. So the drama is interlinked, hooked together thematically, though it’s not a “linear” story. Maybe more like a slow motion video. We began with heart prophesy of the Fall of America on a train, introducing the notion of Travel, and War, sung to “Who is the enemy, year after year,” what’s going on, how come all the bombs, “what’s the picture decade after decade” — whether from Vietnam or Granada or Panama, Iraq or what’ll be next, Peru? Nicaragua? take your choice. Then we focus on one big central war -Jahweh and Allah battle- the Middle East.

Following that, a switcheroo to interior reverie, going back to the subjective, we find ourselves in India, a theme of meditative subjectivity, here a fragment from Calcutta, a little personal scene, Peter Orlovsky’s birthday in 1962 age 29. Then traveling East to West, returning to America, surveying planetary ecological damage from a plane, or it might be post-nuclear wreckage. We move from San Francisco through Denver through Chicago, back to the East Coast. Shifting to the center of America -Wichita Vortex Sutra- we make a unilateral declaration of the end of the war, a duet between myself and Philip that ends Part One. We used the poem’s central passage: I’m driving through the middle of Kansas talking to myself, saying, If the President can send troops over there and declare war on Indo-China, I can undeclare it. He doesn’t have any legal right — Congress never passed a formal declaration of war— and I don’t have any legal right. It’s simply up to us to assert our different direction of will, or different visions of the universe. My poetic visions are gonna outlast him, I thought, so “I here declare the end of the war.”

Part Two begins centering in on Moloch, Part II of Howl: the hyper-industrialized, hyper-technological Moloch consumes the planet, everyone’s thwarted desensitized or robotized by the inanimate conditioning hypnosis machine we’ve built around us. Then some statistics: the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and a few other hokey numbers.

Having presented the problem, we present the medicine — several haikus, written on meditation retreat in the Rocky Mountains it so happens. Haiku perception in calm and peace with a very sweet aria, with a singer sitting on a Zen zafu and zabutan, in meditative posture.

We return to family, to Aunt Rose, staged with photographs of my family, Aunt Rose, Aunt Honey, my mother and father and myself in Woodstock 1936. Then the Gay lib theme, The Green Automobile, back across America, looking for love, the lover behind the poem — in this case actually, Neal Cassady, now quite well-known as the inspiration for Kerouac’s On the Road Hero, as well as Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus driver.

The climax of Part Two, National Security Agency Dope Calypso interleaved with the poem Violence, names the co-actors in U.S. government intelligence “off the shelf operations drawing on cocaine and marijuana smuggling to fund Contra arms. All the information’s “real,” taken straight from the papers of record and Senator Kerry’s Subcommittee investigating government involvement with dope pushing simultaneous with the fraudulent so-called war on Drugs. During that scene a flag is projected backstage with smoke coming out of it, while all these celestial dummy politicians dance madly.

After all the noise and wild wisdom and political statement comes the post-nuclear moment — a series of codas which ends the opera. First, Everybody’s Fantasy: skeletons holding hands trying to get across the stage after the nuke blast. Then a return to primordial civilization in the Central Australian Desert, using the single verse form of the Aboriginal songmen, singing during a nuclear winter, snow coming down. The last song, Buddhist-American threnody or Hymn, Father Death Blues, written on the death of my father, philosophic reconciliation and peace, emotionally very calm, in six-part harmony a capella, quite sublime actually, as the finale. So that’s the melodrama.

— Allen Ginsberg


Music by Phillip Glass. Libretto by Allen Ginsberg. Production Design by Jerome Sirlin. Martin Goldray, conductor.

Martin Goldray, keyboards. Carol Wincenc, flute. Frank Cassara, percussion. James Pugliese, percussion. Richard Beck, tenor saxophone on “Song #7”.

Vocal Ensemble: Elizabeth Futral, soprano; Michele Eaton, soprano; Mary Ann Hart, mezzo-soprano; Richard Fracker, tenor; Gregory Purnhagen, baritone; Nathiel Watson, baritone; Allen Ginsberg, narrator. Phillip Glass, piano.

Song #1: Purnhagen, Ginsberg. Song #2: Vocal ensemble, Ginsberg. Song #3: Futral, Hart, Fracker, Purnhagen, Watson, Ginsberg. Song #4: Fracker, Futral. Song #5: Vocal ensemble. Song #6: Ginsberg; Philip Glass, piano. Song #7: Vocal ensemble, Watson, Ginsberg. Song #8: Futral. Song #9: Ginsberg. Song #10: Fracker, Vocal ensemble (women). Song #11: Vocal ensemble. Song #12: Vocal ensemble. Song #13: Vocal ensemble. Song #14: Vocal ensemble, Futral, Fracker, Hart, Watson, Ginsberg. Song #15: Vocal ensemble.

Produced by Kurt Munkacsi and Michael Riesman for Euphoria Productions. Ltd., NYC. Recorded 1992-1993 at The Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Engineers: Laura Fried, Anne Pope. Assistants: Dante de Sole, Skoti Elliott, James Law. Mixed at The Looking Glass Studios by Michael Riesman. Synthesizer programming by Miles Green and Martin Goldray.

Design by James Victore Design Works. Cover photograph: Sante Fe, New Mexico 1955/56, © Robert Frank.

Music commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gilliam in memory of Jeffrey E. Gilliam. Hydrogen Jukebox was commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA and the American Music Theater Festival. Stage Production by Top Shows, Inc.— Jedediah Wheeler, Producer.

All works contained in the libretto are from Allen Ginsberg Collected Poems, 1947-1980. Copyright © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Except: Song #12, N.S.A. Dope Calypso. Copyright © 1990 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted with permission. Song #14, final verse, from White Shroud: Poems 198o-1985 by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright © 1986 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

© 1990 Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc. (ASCAP). © 1993 Nonesuch Records.