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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Rock critics have understandably been quicker to call attention to the stylistic affinities between Glass's music (or minimalism generally) and pop, although few have put the matter bluntly in terms of influence. Michael Walsh, writing in Time magazine, was content to observe that “rock and minimalism share obvious characteristics, including a steady beat, limited harmonies and hypnotic repetition.”48 Robert Coe, in the New York Times magazine, credited the Philip Glass Ensemble with providing the means “to place new experimental music on a continuum ranging from academic modernism to progressive rock and jazz,”49 and noted particularly Glass's apparent influence on disco, the 1970s commercial genre with which Terry Riley had also been associated. But the chronology of Glass's relationship with rock does not necessarily support the one-way model; and one young critic, Gregory Bloch, has dared suggest that disco, that most commercial (and therefore disdained) of rock genres, may have been among the elements that conjoined to produce Glass's “operatic” style.50

As noted above, the word “disco” is short for discothèque, a nightclub where people danced to recorded music. The disc jockeys who played the records were skilled artists who sequenced and remixed a multitude of short individual tracks into all-night marathons, a technique already reminiscent of Glass's “module” procedure, which was about to take its own quantum leap into marathon length just as disco was becoming fashionable. By the middle of the decade, disco had become not just a performance practice but a compositional genre that produced single “tracks” of previously unheard-of length, in which the vocal lines, to quote the rock historian Joe Stuessy, were “more like repeating patterns than melodies in the traditional sense.”51

The first disco “classic,” Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby (1975), blew a single song up to seventeen minutes’ duration (requiring an entire 12″ LP side) by a succession of swirling riffs performed on electric keyboards and synthesizers, supported by a percussion track that divides an insistent four-beat-to-a-bar pulsation into subtactile eighths and sixteenths. Compare Einstein on the Beach, also composed in 1975, which though cast in four acts (each containing two or three scenes about the length of Love to Love You Baby, connected by musical joints that Robert Wilson called “knee plays”), was performed in a single five-and-one-half-hour bout, without intermission. The program displayed a note, “the audience is invited to leave and reenter the auditorium quietly, as necessary,”52 just as the dancers at a discothèque left and reentered the dance floor as the spirit moved them.

While suggestive, these parallels are inconclusive as historical evidence. But Glass's rock appeal, his success in drawing on the huge rock audience, and the status of his music as a meeting ground for fans of many kinds of music (hence an auspicious or ominous breaker-down of categories), are established facts. John Rockwell's review of Einstein on the Beach in Rolling Stone, by then the principal American rock magazine, emphasized the last point, hailing Glass's work as “genuine fusion music that can appeal effortlessly to fans of progressive rock, jazz, and even disco.”53 And with that appeal came a financial success that undermined one of the chief distinctions Glass had previously drawn between his activity and that of the “packagers.”

Whatever its relationship to disco, Glass was also led to his operatic conception and its majestic sense of scale by his collaborator. Einstein on the Beach was far from Robert Wilson's longest theatrical marathon. The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973) lasted twelve uninterrupted hours. A series of static tableaux with a stage-filling cast of nonprofessional extras, it was already called an opera even though there was no musical score. For Wilson, opera was a sort of visual term connoting monumental pageantry. His attraction to larger-than-life, fetishized historical figures or “icons” as nominal subject matter (Freud and Queen Victoria as well as Stalin and Einstein) was the consequence of this massive, virtually immobilized theatrical conception, which, as Robert Palmer writes, “one ends up wandering within rather than watching.”54 Glass's music with its endless modules seemed its predestined sonic clothing.

The scenario and music of Einstein on the Beach were planned on the basis of a set of drawings by Wilson, and revolve around three recurrent images: a train, a courtroom scene (that includes a bed), and a spaceship. (The relevance of the second image to Einstein is never explained.) The title character occasionally wanders onstage as an onlooker, playing the violin. (At the Met and on the original recording Einstein was played by Paul Zukofsky, a well-known new-music specialist.) There is no summarizable plot, nor is there a libretto. Actors engage in mumbled monologues and the singers either count their eighth notes or sing solfège syllables (according to the French conservatory or “fixed-doh” method that Glass learned in his student years).

“When numbers are used,” Glass has written, “they represent the rhythmic structure of the music. When solfège is used, the syllables represent the pitch structure of the music. In either case, the text is not secondary or supplementary, but is a description of the music itself.”55 What lends coherence to the whole is the patterned coordination of what Glass calls “visual themes and musical themes.” At the opera's slowed-down time-scale, the images became mandalas or focal points for meditation, and the musical modules resembled mantras, the endlessly repeated passivity-inducing vocables of tantric Buddhism. Many viewers compared their experience of the opera to a dream.

All of this recalls surrealism. Most early viewers with a modernist frame of reference compared Einstein on the Beach to the Gertrude Stein–Virgil Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts of forty years before—another nonlinear, nonnarrative theatrical presentation in which the verbal component posed deliberate enigmas that listeners were invited to invest with mystical significance. The difference was that Thomson's ingratiating music, with its obvious references to folk and vernacular styles, made a far less overtly avant-garde impression than Glass's resolutely abstract modules in their raw, rocklike timbres. The fact that Glass's music was consonant and intermittently “tonal” did nothing to lessen that impression of aggressive stylistic novelty.

The extreme musical unity of the work is suggested in Ex. 8-9, which shows the basic musical stuff of two whole scenes. Act II, sc. 2 accompanies the recurrent train imagery (here titled “Night Train”); the concluding act IV, sc. 3 (plus Knee Play 5) accompanies the final apparition of the spaceship. The module on which the “Night Train” episode is based consists of a pentatonic hemiola idea (Ex. 8-9a), whereas the concluding scene is based on a harmonic module (Ex. 8-9b) that provides thematic material for several other scenes and “knee plays” as well. Glass describes it as “a progression of five chords,” and represents it as follows—

Disco at the Met

—commenting that it “combines both a familiar cadence and a modulation in one formula.”56 He analyzes the half-step descent between the roots of the first and last chords as motion to the leading tone, demanding resolution. “As it is a formula which invites repetition,” he notes, “it is particularly suited to my kind of musical thinking.”57 It crops up throughout Einstein on the Beach in many figurations and voicings, many if not most of them “incorrect” according to textbook rules of voice-leading.

The rigor with which the minimal material shown in Ex. 8-9 was expanded to form the respective scenes impressed all listeners, both those who regarded Glass's technique as impressively single-minded and those who thought it woefully simpleminded. What was most extraordinary was the visceral response that the music elicited, especially the Spaceship finale—extraordinary, at any rate, to the “classical” musicians in attendance, who associated the visceral with the popular, and therefore distrusted it. The response was calculated. As Glass told an interviewer:

I decided that I would try to write a piece that left the audience standing, and I've almost never played that music without seeing everyone leave his seat; it's the strangest thing, almost biological. In fact, sometimes I've done concerts where I've played the Spaceship, and then as an encore played the last part of the Spaceship, and the same thing happens again.58

The effect was polarizing, to say the least. At the enthusiastic extreme was the response of Ransom Wilson (b. 1951), a flutist and conductor who attended the Metropolitan Opera performance. He was completely won over to the cause of minimalist music and has since become one of its leading exponents. “There were no intermissions,” he marveled:

The work continued relentlessly in its grip on all of us in that packed house. Suddenly, at a point some four [actually five] hours into the opera there occurred a completely unexpected harmonic and rhythmic modulation, coupled with a huge jump in the decibel level. People in the audience began to scream with delight and I remember well that my entire body was covered with goose bumps.59

“So much,” a less enthusiastic critic observed, “one may elicit from a pithed frog.”60 And indeed, there were many who worried at the music's brute “biological” manipulativeness, even as they acknowledged the rarity of gooseflesh at a new music event. There were mutterings about behavior-modification therapy and authoritarian control. Elliott Carter, who did not attend the performance but read about it, sounded an alarm worthy of Cassandra (or at least Adorno). Minimalists, he warned, “are not aware of the larger dimensions of life. One also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler, and in advertising. It has its dangerous aspects.”61

Disco at the Met

ex. 8-9a Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, “Night Train” module (“first theme” in Glass's analysis)

Disco at the Met

ex. 8-9b Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, “Spaceship” module (“third theme”)

Minus the animus and alarm, some music historians have tended to agree. One historian, Robert Fink, has associated the rise of minimalism with “Madison Avenue” (i.e., the advertising industry) and claimed that the key text for understanding its appeal is The Hidden Persuaders (1957), a best-seller by the American social critic Vance Packard (1914–1996), who popularized—and thus helped reinforce—the perception that American society consisted of a mass of consumers constantly subjected to manipulation by corporate schemers who created in them previously unsuspected (and to that extent “unreal”) desire.62 Such an observation about music was not in itself anything new. Manipulation of desire had been the business of music (some would say the chief business) since at least the time of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. What was new in advertising (according to Packard) and in music (according to Fink) was the insidious, “subliminal” nature of the pitch.


(48) Michael Walsh, “The Heart Is Back in the Game,” Time, 20 September 1982; quoted in Gregory Bloch, “Philip Glass and Popular Music: Influence and Representation,” University of California at Berkeley seminar paper, spring 2000.

(49) Robert Coe, “Philip Glass Breaks Through,” New York Times Magazine, 25 October 1981, p. 72.

(50) Bloch, “Philip Glass and Popular Music.”

(51) Joe Stuessy, Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1994), p. 349.

(52) Metropolitan Opera House program, 21 November 1976; reproduced in booklet accompanying Tomato Records, TOM-4-2901 (1977), p. 6.

(53) John Rockwell, “Steve Reich and Philip Glass Find a New Way,” Rolling Stone, 19 April 1979; quoted in Bloch, “Philip Glass and Popular Music.”

(54) Palmer, liner note to Einstein on the Beach, p. 7.

(55) Philip Glass, “Notes on Einstein on the Beach,” booklet accompanying Tomato Records, TOM-4-2901 (1977), p. 10.

(56) Philip Glass, “Notes on Einstein on the Beach,” p. 11.

(57) Quoted in Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 330.

(58) Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987), p. 216.

(59) Ransom Wilson, liner note to EMI Angel Records DS-37340 (1982).

(60) R. Taruskin, “Et in Arcadia Ego; or, I Had No Idea I Was Such a Pessimist until I Wrote This Thing,” lecture delivered to the Seminar on the Future of the Arts (Chicago Seminars on the Future, forum on Aesthetics), 13 April 1989; rpt. in R. Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), p. 14.

(61) Quoted in Walsh, “The Heart Is Back in the Game,” Time, 20 September 1982, p. 60, col. 3.

(62) Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008011.xml