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Robert Wilson: the theater of images.

Wilson's evolution from physical therapist to avant-garde dramaturge is one of many fascinating aspects of Robert Wilson: The Theater of Images. Like the studio recording of Einstein on the Beach, this is a crucial document for anyone with an interest in the contemporary avant-garde. Assembled with the cooperation of Wilson's corporate entity, the Byrd Hoffman Foundation (Byrd Hoffman was the teacher who helped him overcome his speech impediment), it's based on the catalogue from a 1980 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It contains essays by center director Robert Stearns and New York Times critic John Rockwell, an interview from Theater magazine, a 1974 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins, a selection of Wilson's drawings, and black-and-white photographs of every major Wilson production, from The King of Spain (1969) to the initial segments of the CIVIL warS (1983).

If this sounds like a hodgepodge, it is, and sometimes an irritating one because the pictures and text are not correlated in any way. But it's also the first booklength treatment of Wilson, and much of what it has to say is enlightening. The Tomkins profile, which is built around the 1973 BAM production of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, contains intriguing anecdotes about Wilson's childhood, his role as guru to the unlikely and sometimes rather disturbed people who appear in his productions (they're known as "byrds"), and his unorthodox approach to celebrity. In Yugoslavia, for example, he gave a press conference in which he repeated the word "dinosaur" for twelve hours while cutting an onion. "Students and other people would come up and ask why I kept saying 'dinosaur,'" he told Tomkins, "and I'd keep saying 'Dinosaur, Dinosaur, Dinosaur,' and after a while I'd feel as though I had answered their question."

The four-record set of Einstein on the Beach, originally released in 1979 on Glass's Tomato label but long since out of print, contains some equally curious information. In his notes, Glass provides a detailed explanation of how Einstein's musical structure is tied to Wilson's dramatic structure and to his own experiments with harmony. Glass was trained at the Juilliard School, but his formative influences came from India and North Africa. Unlike most Western composers, he uses rhythm as a base and adds harmony and melody later. His cyclically repeating rhythmic structures, like Wilson's stage pictures, don't tell a story or lead anywhere in the customary sense, although they do have a powerful momentum. But that doesn't mean the vocal parts--the numbers and the solfege syllables--have no meaning. On the contrary, they provide a running description of the music itself: the numbers describe the rhythm; the syllables, the pitch.

Given such austere and formal underpinnings, the expressive potential of Glass's music is remarkable. Again, like Wilson, he creates a mood. His music is mesmerizing, spellbinding, and once under the spell, we are free to wander. The formalism that lies at the root of it is as precise and mathematical as Bach's or Telemann's, and yet the sound that results is as expressive of Einstein's age as theirs is of Newton's. But what can only be suggested on record is the deep sense of mysticism that emerges when the opera is performed. Together, Glass and Wilson set up a resonance that is far more powerful than any of the individual elements at their command. By purging their work of most of the conventional ingredients of music and drama, they create the possibility that something revelatory will happen, something transcendent and profound.

All this being said, however, it must be admitted that what finally makes Einstein so satisfying is its departure from minimalist technique at the end. Having lured its audience into a trance, it concludes with an unexpected moment of climax and resolution. The climax comes in the final spaceship scene, when a scrim with a mushroom cloud descends across the stage and the twin elevators, perhaps signifying the classical absolutes of space and time, are replaced by a single figure swooping through the air. The image is redolent with symbolism: humans, having freed themselves from the tyranny of reality as it is perceived, must now face the awful consequences of their knowledge. And then, at the very end, in the final knee play, all this has disappeared and we see two lovers sitting on a park bench while the wonderfully rich voice of actor Samuel Johnson tells a story--"a familiar story, a story that is so very, very old, and yet it is so new." The story is about the redeeming power of love, and it ends in the middle, suggesting that this is a story that will never end. After such a solemn meditation in the church of science, in the church of knowledge and destruction, this makes a powerful amen.
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Author:Rose, Frank
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 16, 1985
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