Christopher Pratt (cpratt) wrote,
Christopher Pratt

Day 3

Day 03. A song that makes you happy

Bear with me for a bit here, as this one is a little bit tricky to explain. I'll begin by pointing out that I have a real love for movies that aren't in a hurry: I love the opening sequence of Syndromes and a Century for example, which either ends or begins (I can't remember) with a shot looking out over rice fields outside of a rural Thai hospital. I love The Limey, which contains long shots of Terence Stamp sitting in economy class on a flight from Los Angeles to London. I love Last Days, which contains an absolutely wonderful shot in which a Kurt Cobain-like character stumbles out of frame and all you're left with is a shot of the countryside for what feels like a good long minute.

One of the few things that I absolutely want to do before I die is to see a production of the Robert Wilson - Philip Glass collaboration Einstein on the Beach. Way back when, when I was in junior high school, I once spent a very, very long summer road trip to Warren, Ohio listening to the same three or four cassette tapes on endless repeat, one of which was a tape of Kraftwerk's Computerwelt. When we finally got to Warren to stay with my Mom's sister's family for a while, there wasn't much to do except watch MTV, which led to a fascination with the Talking Heads song Burning Down the House. This in turn led to one more tape being added to the mix, a copy of Speaking in Tongues.

Much later on, I was lucky to have parents who would indulge me in not only an allowance, but also occasional record purchases. My modus operandi was generally to start with a song or band I liked and which was easy to find on MTV or even KJOY, the local radio status (e.g. Soft Cell, Art of Noise, Talking Heads) and then branch out from there in hopes of finding something related that was (to me) more interesting. For example, I liked Depeche Mode, but found that Mark Stewart and Maffia were pretty interesting too (via the on-U Sound remix of People Are People that sounded absolutely nothing like the original). I liked Soft Cell, but was more fascinated by Marc Almond's solo albums, which led to buying albums by Foetus, Coil, The The, and even Throbbing Gristle, Virgin Prunes, and Psychic TV (Dave Ball's solo album has Genesis P-Orridge on a couple of tracks, for example). Thanks to mainstay pop hits of the early 1980s like Tainted Love, I indirectly found myself listening to music that would never, ever have been played on the radio - and I really should thank my parents again for being generous enough with my allowance to make that all possible. Similarly, if it weren't for the import buyers at Tower Records, I never would have heard half the stuff I did back then.

Anyhow: I'm here to talk about Robert Wilson. Thanks to a summer's worth of Speaking In Tongues in 1983, I eventually found myself buying a copy of The Knee Plays, David Byrne's music for a Robert Wilson piece originally envisioned as a long opera for the 1984 Olympics in LA. And thanks once again to generous, indulgent parents, I found myself in Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on October 25, 1986 to witness a live performance of The Knee Plays.

I was smitten. I knew the music, but had never seen a Robert Wilson anything before. It rocked my teen-aged world like nothing before: slow, deliberate movements, spare staging, very cool, don't really know how to describe it. (I've since seen the workshop of Monsters of Grace with Dan at Royce Hall, UCLA, and his production of Leonce und Lena at the Berliner Ensemble, but sadly that's all I've seen so far. It isn't easy to happen across one of his productions.)

Flash forward a few years: I'm working at CompUSA, making a little bit of money, and I eventually save up the cash for the 4 CD set of Einstein on the Beach, the notorious/famous really long Philip Glass score for a Robert Wilson opera. In short, it sucks. I feel bad: it just cost me a ridiculous sum of money at the time - maybe forty bucks, used - and it's just not that interesting. Bummer. However, a year or so later, in 1993, I was kinda sorta dating a radiologist (who probably earned more money in five minutes than I did at an entire day at work at CompUSA) who thought nothing of buying me a copy of the new recording of EotB. [Addendum: EotB was first recorded in the 1970s in a severely abridged version necessitated by the LP format; it was re-recorded about 15 years later for CD, which meant it regained a lot its length. It also used better synthesizers, which led to a richer overall feel; it's also very important that it's longer because the length of the piece is part of what makes it so effective. Fun quote here from someone that attended the Uraufführung in New York: "As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored - very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. I was first irritated and then angry that I'd been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving. Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental."]

This is the movement that makes me happy:

Important note: the visuals here are some random pictures from some random YouTube user. It's better not to watch them. Instead, try to understand where this piece slots in to the overall experience of watching Einstein on the Beach. First off, the work is five hours long. There are no intermissions. There isn't a plot. Pieces tend to be very, very long, often very, very busy (lots and lots of Glassian repetitions of basic phrases). Instead of sung text, you get solfége, which is singing the names of the notes you're singing instead of actual words. Presumably, something awesome is happening on the stage because it's Robert Wilson, but I have no idea; I've never seen it.

Anyhow, you have to imagine that you've already been sitting in your uncomfortable seat at the Met for about four hours at this point before this song comes up. You've watched extremely long violin solos played by someone dressed as Albert Einstein. You've listened to texts written by, ahem, people with learning disabilities that don't make sense. You've watched things move on stage at a glacially slow pace. Finally, oh yes, finally, this song comes up.

Building is one of those simple titles that can of course be read several ways. It helps to know that the overall structure of the opera goes like this:

Knee / Train / Trial / Knee / Dance / Night Train / Knee / Trial / Prison / Dance / Knee / Building / Bed / Spaceship / Knee

"Knee" in this context is the same as Byrne's "Knee Plays": a short segment linking into something else. The point is that, well, I'm not sure. All I know is that after you've been listening and watching for four hours, it's time for a truly momentous, transcendent experience, which is exactly what I get from this piece. In this recorded version, it's about ten minutes long, but it could just as easily have been longer in the performed version. It's deceptively simple: organ, choir, tenor sax. In a sense, all it is is a vehicle for an incredible tenor sax solo with a massed choir adding color behind a driving, fast organ part. That's really it. And it's amazing. More importantly, if you've just listened to three hours' worth of the work that precedes it, the final five or ten seconds, in which the overall theme of the entire opera is stated (a run of five notes*, repeated four times), it really does effect a sort of jouissance which is so incredibly pleasurable that it brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

If you're a fan of this kind of thing - long songs with a buildup to a exuberant release at the end - then you might also enjoy Frank Zappa's The Purple Lagoon (off of Läther), Pavement's Blue Hawaiian or XTC's What In The World? (both of which have miraculous guitar solos), or even Kraftwerk's Computerliebe (which is a bit of a downer, but has something of the same feel about it).

* F D♭ A B E, apparently.

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