Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review of Einstein on the Beach

Composer Philip Glass and the director Robert Wilson this year have been on a revival tour of their 1976 avant-garde opera “Einstein on the beach”. It was performed in the Bay Area at the Zellerbach Auditorium in UC Berkeley in front of a packed audience on Sunday October 25.

The opera is four and a half hours long with no intermissions. Audience members are allowed to take breaks on their own. Even with breaks not much is missed. But I decided to experience every second of the performance.

The opera consists nine acts and five knee plays. Glass defines a "Knee Play" as an interlude between acts and as "the 'knee' referring to the joining function that humans' anatomical knees perform".

In this review I will spare the reader the logistics on the synopsis of the various acts and mostly describe the essence of the performance.  

Einstein on the Beach is a very puzzling and cryptic opera. All the performers are adorned in the same clothes. They continuously mutter the same strange nonsensical phrases. The dancers repetitively perform the same dance sequences. There is a sense of blinding continuity, which immediately casts a spell on the audience. No effort should be induced into understanding the opera. It mimics life with its absurdities and conundrums.
The performance should be taken as a personal journey-to be enjoyed full heartedly.

The music by Glass lets the mind wander and sway. The performance is like hashish. It causes a feverish delirium where immediately afterwards one starts hallucinating. As per Dr.Oliver Sacks, from N.Y.U School of Medicine, in older times hallucinations were regarded as gifts from the gods and were considered to have a positive and comforting role. I did see and hear my loved ones. I also saw the stage being lifted and the performers floating around the auditorium.

In Heideggerian terms this opera can be symbolized as the study of ‘philosophy’. A useless task with no expectations whatsoever yet a very strong real force. Just like philosophy, the opera pushes the audience to the very edge. With no indication of where to go from there. It cannot be properly questioned nor can it be fully understood. Yet it has something to do with us. It understands us.

The stage continuously buzzes with activity, people, nuclear blasts, images, scientific theories, trains, buses. But in the end everything disappears and there remain just two.  

Two on a bench talking about love. Glass is trying to describe the duality of life. As the mythical character Tomte explains to the philosopher in Strindberg’s play The Black Glove:

And highest in the chain at the very top
You find duality, for it was not good for man to be alone
And so came man and woman forth
And the duality of nature was confirmed.

One feels a euphoric jubilation at the end of the opera. And then there is the craving for more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Literature Under the Fog

While the financial sectors of the United States are being flooded with the occupy movement protestors, the literary sector here in San Francisco last week was seized by a stream of authors, word nerds, poets, bibliophiles, and performers. They had all gathered for Litquake-a coming out party of San Francisco’s literary communaut√©. The festival was originally started back in 1999 with only twenty three writers and three hundred people in attendance gathered around Golden Gate Park. Now in its 12th year, the festival included a week of festivities with an astonishing 850+ authors. Noteworthy participants included Jennifer Egan, James Ellroy, Jeffery Eugenides, Mary Roach,Thomas McGuane, Karen Russell and Deepak Chopra. The festival hosted readings from academy award winners, poet laureates, booker prize winners, new york times bestsellers, university professors, celebrity talk show hosts, fishermen, cab drivers, anarchist maniacs, sex workers and what not. 
This year the festival was also the most international with authors from Ireland, Sweden, Norway, and Mexico and included a broadest spectrum of literary entertainment. The events encompassed author interviews, narratives from women prisons, evening of stories of redemption, a discussion on the quest for the ephemeral, feast of food writing, readings on addiction and recovery, indie publishing, impressionist comedy, science fiction in the real world, stormy night of scandinavian crime fiction, poetry readings on houseboats, intersection of medicine and literature, memoirs of musicians and pro wrestlers etc. Hence there was literally something for everyone. Another great thing about Litquake was that anyone could become a part of this volunteer driven literary community and more than 75% of the events were for free.
The last day of the festival, called Litcrawl, included 80 different readings in a span of three hours and three phases. If you are a writer in San Francisco then the Mission district is the place to be which is why it was also the host of Litcrawl. Mission is the latin/hipster neighborhood of San Francisco. It has an array of eclectic shops like 826 Valencia owned by Dave Eggers which is a pirate store/writing clinic for kids. Viracocha which is an antique store and comes packed with a modernist out of print book lending library and a performance space in the basement. Ritual Coffee and Cafe la Boheme are the marxist themed cafes. Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper is an urban bee keeping store. Borderlands is a sci-fi/fantasy/mythology bookstore with a cafe. To cover all the multifarious shops and the world famous murals in the Mission is yet another blogpost.
It wasn’t just these cafes and literary themed stores that took part in Litquake but even the Laundromats and Barber shops were metamorphosed into Lyceums. The Mission police station also took part in Litcrawl with a reading of mystery and mayhem. Every thursday the subway station at 16th and Mission street transforms into an open mic poetry space. The performers very precisely call themselves 16th and Mission poets. Nearly two hundred people stop to listen and as per the police reports crime on that day is almost non existent.
This year Litcrawl had an attendance of fifteen thousand people. The night was quite alive with people rushing from one venue to another with their Litcrawl performance schedule in hand. There were street performers on every corner singing folk music and doing inconceivable tricks. Yes this is San Francisco and everything has to be done in its own unique way. From the outside one could see people jam packed in small sweaty venues listening to the poet standing on top of a pool table. It was very difficult to pick and choose the events to attend as everything sounded extremely interesting. One of the joys of the night was listening to Kay Ryan a two time U.S Poet Laureate and a 2011 MacArther Fellow. She said that her assignment for the night was to read ten poems in ten minutes. A task she carried out most joyfully. Her latest work can be found in the three penny review.
Events at Litquake and Litcrawl were about admiring the accomplished, cheering for the favorites, and discovering the new. There was a feeling that the future Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Walt Whitman were right there amongst us. My literary universe not only expanded but exploded with all the new writers, journals, magazines, publishers, artists I unearthed over the course of a week. I was very honored to have attended this gem of an event and cannot wait for it to happen all over again.