In the past 10 days I’ve seen three performances that were simultaneously spectacular and enervating — Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach at LA Opera; Robert Wilson delivering John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing at UCLA; and Brian Wilson in concert last night with some of the Beach Boys and with Jeff Beck.
All three of these are going to inform my thinking for a while, in a number of ways. Because all three of them balanced performance elements of the highest level with stretches of tedium that leave me asking, “Is that intentional?”
I haven’t fully synthesized my thoughts about this yet, but here’s the condensed version:
Einstein on the Beach is a masterpiece. The stage images, often featuring performers moving ever so slightly, when matched with the repetitive, minimalist music of Philip Glass, frequently left me in a trance. I was enveloped with this music and with the visuals. When I wasn’t in a euphoric or trance state, i.e., when I was able to reassert my intellect, I started thinking about things, such as: ”What does this mean? When will something happen? And is this why Rich Roesberg once told me the only music he can’t listen to is Philip Glass?” I was so expectant of something happening — and lots did, in sometimes astonishingly small ways — that the intermissionless 4.5-hour opera went by without my ever thinking I needed to run to the bathroom.
Lecture on Nothing includes the infamous section where a piece of spoken word is repeated 13 times. The piece is a “lecture” composed on a complex time signature — words “performed” as music — but I have to admit feeling like the woman at the first reading of it who said she couldn’t stand it any more and ran out. At the same time, the silences and pauses were somehow breathtaking — because our lives are so often filled with clutter (of noise, of sound, of music, of language, of advertising) that its absence is startling. Wilson also brought a level of staging to it, in his trademark minutely observed motions, that increased my hyperawareness.
The show last night at the Greek Theatre left me wondering again if Brian Wilson isn’t a counterprogramming genius. The last time I saw him (sans the Beach Boys name) was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007. For that show, he had a laughably bad would-be symphonic-choir band open for him; honest to God, our entire section was beside ourselves with laughter and mocking. After that, Wilson seemed like a genius, even though he had all the affect of that guy we’ve all seen at one point or another, on a subway or a bus or a street corner, whose mouth moves wrong and whose body isn’t in sync with whatever his mind thinks is going on. Last night, he put in an exceptional first set, performing much of Pet Sounds, and with Al Jardine in tow, to the incredible delight of everyone in the venue. Astounding doesn’t begin to convey the feeling of hearing that music performed so well by two of the guys who produced it almost 50 years ago. After a few more Beach Boys songs, including a wonderful rendition of Sail On Sailor, Jeff Beck and his band were given the stage for a 45-minute set. In my analysis of these three events, the set by Beck and company would be the purposely tedious section that renders a specific counter-response (in this case, further enhancing Brian Wilson’s reputation and the impact of his performance). Forty-five minutes of noodling around on a guitar, no matter how self-indulgently, doesn’t constitute a concert or, at least, not one I want to see. I now understand how my wife felt the last time she gamely accompanied me to a concert by King Crimson — except they actually have songs. As I said to my companion last night, the only thing Jeff Beck needs is a singer, and some songs.
I’ve got two more concerts this year — Thomas Dolby, and Police, both in November — and I’m hoping to get to that Magritte show this week in New York. The “mystery of the ordinary,” indeed.