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Thoughts on Einstein…(by Andrew Sterman) ESSAY

Einstein at Carnegie….

For me, the answer to the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall always is the E train.   I take it from 23rd street, near where I live, to 53rd and 7th, climb up the long steps, then walk up 7th Avenue to the stage door on 56th street.  You never feel like you’ve practiced enough in life, so for me, the subway is a welcome practicality.  There’s also the private enjoyment of using the subway to go to a place so special.  You sit on the train, holding your instrument cases, look around at everyone and realize that they would be knocked out to know that you’re on your way to perform Einstein on the Beach at Carnegie Hall.  Who knows what other wonderful things everyone else is going off to do?

Among New York musicians, it’s well understood that while a good concert is always good to be a part of, the same concert is more special at Carnegie.  There’s something about the room, something combining the acoustics and the lineage history of what has gone on there.  Simply put, it’s the place where even the world’s greatest performers make certain they pull out their very best, very deepest performances.

When the booking came in that we were to do Einstein On The Beach there, I was pleased, but as it came closer, I think the whole Ensemble began to think of it as a very special performance.  First of all, it was a one off—we had no opportunity to break it in and come up to speed with it.  Second, it hadn’t been performed in 15 years.  Third, it’s monstrously difficult for absolutely everyone involved.  And of course, it was Carnegie Hall, where even the most world-traveled or even blasé musicians feel humble and thrilled to be presenting what they do.

I had been very lucky; when I joined Philip’s Ensemble in ‘91/’92, it was shortly before the ’92 tour of Einstein.  (Lisa Bielawa joined the PGE at the same time, incidentally.)  I was therefore able to learn the piece, tour with it to Europe, Japan, Australia and Brooklyn, as well as do the Nonesuch recording.  On my very first tour with the PGE, we did the mixed concert repertoire and two performances of Music In 12 Parts, and shortly after being part of the new Einstein recording, I was able to be part of the re-recording of 12 Parts.  So I felt I had a perfect introduction to real membership in the Ensemble, by going deeply into those two crucially important pieces.  With EOB (and two performances of Music In 12 Parts) coming up in 2007, however, I felt that I had the opportunity to perform at a much higher level than I had in ’92; after all, those years have been tremendously transformative for me and I’m not the same player I was then. 

Although I had joined the PGE for a Spring tour of Spain/Portugal in ’92, I didn’t truly ‘join’ the group until half-way through that tour.  During a performance of Music In 12 Parts, in Oporto, Portugal, I believe, something happened on the stage.  The music is, to be understated, rather demanding.  The difficulties are in correctly locating your own part’s metric patterns within the overall complexity, and in sustaining the necessary mental and physical endurance through the full length of the piece.  With one slip of one’s concentration, you can miss a change.  Particularly in your first performances of 12 Parts, it can be difficult to find your way back to the figure if you miss the beginning of it, and this leads to a bit of tension which adds enormously to the mental strain as well as the formidable challenge of physically playing difficult music for four hours or more with virtually no rests.

But in that concert in Oporto, as I was concentrating as if for life and death, playing through rising shoulder strain, and overall hanging on for survival, all of a sudden something clicked in the group, and I felt as if we were floating.  I could feel each finger racing over the keys of my flute as if they were touching drums, and I could hear each other player’s ‘drums’ with total clarity.  The synchronization of seven people to that level felt ecstatic.  It was like a village drumming circle, but drumming with pitches within a tremendously complex and beautifully evolving metric world.  At that moment, I joined the PGE in my heart.  I remember vividly, while playing, looking over at Philip and thinking that this guy created this, this experience, with such a radically pared-down musical language—how incredible!  I felt a huge urge to invite the audience up onto the stage to feel it the way we were feeling it.  “You’ve got to come up here, you’ve got to sit in the middle of this, it’s unbelievable!”  After the concert, no one particularly said anything, but instead of splintering off, the Ensemble had a late dinner together.  Nothing needed to be said, but we wanted to say nothing together.

In the years since, I’ve gotten to know the music a great deal more deeply, of course, and to experience the continuing evolution of Philip’s use of his language.  It seemed for a while that Phil was not interested in revisiting his earlier music, which is very understandable.  It is repertoire at this point, obviously, and Phil is the last person in the world to look backward.  But in the last year or so he seems interested in his older work in a new way.  This year, we did two complete performances of Music In 12 Parts.  The second, in London, followed the current touring piece, The Book Of Longing; an early and a recent piece on consecutive nights at the Barbican Center, both sold out.

The 12 Parts performance in London was particularly focused and intense.  The next morning Philip grabbed my arm in the hotel restaurant and said that he sat up very late revisiting compositional choices that he had made while writing 12 Parts.  The performance had something original in it, and it had brought all those memories to the surface.  Those choices are done, and while there were many other ways he could have gone with this idea or another, he remembered the feeling from before the piece was set.

Jumping forward a few months to the Einstein performance last week at Carnegie, again I was chatting with Philip, this time onstage, while Michael was directing the soundcheck for the chorus.  He was saying that there were a lot of people who were upset that he didn’t repeat the type of piece EOB is in his next writing.  They had an experience with Einstein, and they wanted it again.  He said that while he was writing EOB, he had no intention of writing it again.  There was never an idea to do that.  As he put it, writing 12 Parts and Einstein was the act of putting together the tool kit, and after that it was putting the tools to use.  Sure, the tools develop, they continually take on new edges, but the fundamental language creation was largely complete.  We started talking about the difference between 12 Parts and EOB, which for me is the introduction of harmony as a renewed or refreshed musical element, in a very controlled way.  Although some may feel from the outside that EOB is harmonically monotonous, in fact it’s not at all that way.  Twelve Parts is the culmination of radically paring down the elements of conventional music, while finding other methods of forward motion and development.  While Part 12 itself has that great shift of harmony between C minor and A major (then more), overall, 12 Parts is a demonstration of how beautiful music can be while staying harmonically still, among other things.  In Einstein, however, there is the introduction, into that world of active metrics and harmonic stillness, of harmonic change.  So on the stage of Carnegie, while mikes were being tested and adjusted, Philip started explaining how he planned the harmonic structure of EOB.  Some sections have one chord, some two, some three, up to Spaceship and the end of Train, which have seven chords.  This, combined with the use of chorus and violin, and the enormous collaborative magic with Bob Wilson, is the essential evolution of EOB from 12 Parts.

Of course there was no staging from the EOB opera at Carnegie; hopefully we will do a full production in ‘09 with the NY City Opera.  But it is important to mention something here.  While Music In 12 Parts is a study in controlling the elements (while it is a compelling human thing to play the piece and to hear it performed, there is virtually no room for personalizing your part), in EOB there is this profoundly open acceptance of contributions from Wilson, from Lucinda Childs.  The work fits together perfectly, but there isn’t that normal thing of ‘this happens when that happens, and when we’re doing this, please mirror it with that.’  The work is juxtaposed, and Philip’s tolerance for juxtaposed reality is enormous.  That in itself is an artistic statement.  I found it amusing how reviewers and some bloggers were paying so much attention to which speeches from EOB were included in the concert version and which omitted.  It probably was best the way Philip and Michael worked it out, but honestly it wasn’t that important.  To put too much on it is somehow to miss the conceptual reality of EOB altogether.  This openness to juxtaposition is, of course, the explanation as to why there is a tenor saxophone improvisation on top of Building in EOB.  Philip isn’t an improviser per se, but he has deep respect for the masters of that world.  He has told me many times of hearing Coltrane, Rollins, McLean etc, in person (I never got to hear Coltrane personally, due to his early death and my relatively late birth- we overlapped only by a handful of years- but I have heard Rollins and Jackie McLean countless times. [Incidentally, the first time I heard Sonny Rollins was at Carnegie, when I was 13 or 14 years old—amazing and unforgettable concert, with Sonny roaming the stage, playing alone, tasting the great acoustics in different spots of the stage while he played such beautiful stuff.]  Listen to Philip’s Saxophone CD to hear his tribute to those guys, in Phil’s own language, of course.)  A friend asked me if I was nervous to play an improvisation to a sold out Carnegie crowd, on top of the insanely fast shifting-ostinato keyboard parts of Building, and that kind of surprised me.  There is so much to handle in EOB in my written part, there is no time for thinking ahead.  In any case, once the music begins, I don’t ever feel nervous.  When it was time to play Building, I just played what seemed right, in the moment, with the keyboards and the beautiful choral chords.  Since the keyboards were racing at top speed, it felt right for me to begin with chant-like melodies, based on the way my breath felt.  The ostinato is very ‘steady-state’, so I wanted to go up and down in intensity and speed.  The saxophone can’t connect lines without breathing, so I wanted to celebrate that rather than hide it.  Einstein, like 12 Parts, requires great precision, so I wanted to explore the depths of looseness while sustaining the focused intensity required by the evening as a whole.  It just seemed like the right thing to do, the right way to juxtapose my personal musical world with Philip’s.   

Back to talking with Phil during the sound check.  His next opera after EOB was Satyagraha (coming to the Met this Spring, as most are aware).  He was telling me how some people were really disappointed with it, with how different it is from Einstein.  Again, he told me that he never had the idea to stay put in the EOB language.  Twelve Parts and Einstein were works of building huge structures from highly disciplined and intensely lean methods.  It is not required to remain forever that lean.  I told Philip that for me Satyagraha shows a huge new factor, that of using the PG language for the purpose of painting very precise and powerful ‘images’ of specific human states of being.  This is, of course, what makes Philip so successful a film composer, which is certainly not what he originally aimed at accomplishing.  It accomplished itself, essentially, based on what first turned up in Satyagraha. Philip thought that was a bit interesting, and agreed with it.

With that, Michael called us to take our places and go through a few of the difficult transitions for the concert that evening.  Once everyone could hear well and the transitions felt good, Michael waived us out.  No sense tiring voices and arms prematurely.  If that meant that some of the internal changes, terribly intricate and precise, never actually got rehearsed, all the better.  After all, on one level it’s the live-wire of requisite concentration traveling off the stage that produces the thrills of a great Einstein On The Beach performance.

Andrew Sterman’s latest CD, released on our Orange Mountain Music label, is now available. 
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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Einstein…(by Andrew Sterman) ESSAY”

  1. The only time I don’t like living in Southern California is when I realize that EOB has not and most likely never will play here. I heard the Tomato recording for the first time in 1979 or 1980 on KPFK-FM and I thought it was the most exciting and unusual music I’d ever heard. Almost thirty years later I still feel that way.
    If anybody from Orange Mountain Music is reading this, is there any remote possibility that the Carnegie Hall performance was recorded and could be released on CD?
    Thanks for a beautifully written piece. It was the next best thing to being there.

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