Almost everyone learns the same lesson the first time he or she hears Tristan und Isolde, at least supposing the listener in question is a fanatic of the voice and not, say, a Furtwangler nut who's listened to every possible recording of it seven times through. The listener I'm imagining, who was me, hearing Tristan for the first time has heard pieces, and most especially the Love-Frog, as we have taken to calling it, the Love-Frog over and over and over. It's a fine thing to know and of course stands on its own as a piece of heavenliness, but what you learn later on is that it is in fact even more exquisite if you've just listened to all of Tristan und Isolde. It's a lesson about water and thirst, not to say that the rest of the opera is a lack of something, but if you know what the crowning moment is, you'll be thinking of it throughout. Won't you? And, unless you are a Wagner fanatic of the first rank, there really are moments of Tristan that it's tough to get absorbed in, and in those moments especially, you might think, "could someone sing just a few phrases of the Liebestod, please?"
This is a little like what happens with Einstein on the Beach unless I'm totally wrong and it's not that typical to have heard the closing monologue long before ever hearing the other 3-5 hours of music. My friend the classical guitarist in college who introduced me with contagious enthusiasm to many things ranging from pot to Perotin to the Pixies once said (and maybe he was stoned) you have to listen to the end of Einstein on the Beach, because it's so great, and then he recited a little of it in a creaky old-man voice that made me assume Einstein was actually a character in the opera. And I had heard this and that in high school--my friend M. and his friend M. would act out one of the Songs from Liquid Days--but there is something sweet and instantly memorable about that last scene with its text. It gives you very little flavor of the rest of the work if it's what you've heard first, because it makes narrative sense, and is concise, but there it sits at the end, like the Love Frog, and it's even better if you've just been through a lot.
Saying it that way makes Einstein sound like an ordeal, and it sort of is. Maybe I'm speaking here for the listener still somewhat ambivalent about much avant-garde music (and yes, E on the B is thirty years old and it's only minimalism and etc etc etc but it's a challenge, verily.) Jonathan says that in the most positive way, there are parts of this piece that make you want to scream. I can't disagree. It's sensory overload, and for me the only way to enjoy it is to go in having written yourself a permission slip to let your mind wander as it will. Unlike Tristan, E/B has moments that you simply cannot process: the text is solfege syllables, going by at a rapid clip to changing rhythms, and the most you can do is register it unless perhaps you're my other concert-going companion A, but I'd venture to say most of us aren't. Hell, in fact all of us aren't, except A.
I'd like to think of this kind of listening not as inattention but as the psychoanalytic concept of floating consciousness or, as one analyst has it, listening with the third ear. You will almost inevitably go in and out, especially if you're seeing it in concert without any Robert Wilsoning going on in the background, and some of the sonic assault may in fact be difficult, unpleasant. You can't not hear it, and perhaps it will resonate in your head as any number of things including fear and distaste, which are a valid response to art as well, and do not mean the art is bad. And when, as floating consciousness implies, you tune finely back in, it may be on a moment of textual revelation or sonic splendor. I'm not guaranteeing anything, but it might.
So was for me, at times, as in Tim Fain's solo in the "knee play" section: precise, elegant, alarming on the simplest level of "how does he keep count", and with a core of emotion and dynamic nuance you may or may not associate with this kind of music. At other times, I read my program notes, more than once over. Mrs. Dalloway remained closed, at my side, though at times I wondered what the reasonable limit might be on my decision to drift in and out of music deliberately devoid of obvious footholds. What is the difference between thinking about your day while the tedious dancing gypsy scene in Traviata goes by and cracking a book at Einstein on the Beach, especially in the age of mechanical reproduction of music, some of us listening to Penderecki on the treadmill?*
Lucinda Childs (whose name I almost typed as "Lucinda Williams" and kept mentally confusing with minor 90's pop chanteuse Toni Childs during the performance) was on hand to deliver what the program note described, I believe, as her famous reading of the "Prematurely air-conditioned supermarket" monologue, and indeed it was something to behold. I'm told by A, who knows more about these things, that it's kind of crazy and wonderful of her to show up to do this as she is, as confirmed by her program bio, busy elsewhere being Really Important. The "lovers on a park bench" monologue I started talking about back before the Rhine overflowed was delivered by Melvin van Peebles, who is a little bit mumblier than whoever does it on the old recording, but speaks with poetry in his voice, so it was fine.
It's tough to comment on the rest. This is obviously not an opera review. I'm not sure it's a review at all, and I'm not sure it's an opera. Most things seemed to go musically very right, and it was another fun evening with Event Buzz in the air. It was also pointed out by those present that, given E/B's busy performance schedule on the order of once every fifteen years, we may have witnessed the last performance led by its creator, which is a large thought to get in one's ear, a responsibility almost.
*not me, not bragging here. I hate exercise and am not sure about Penderecki.
Next up: Iphigenie! Unless I decide to write about the play I'm going to tonight.