Minimalist Moderns

by John Engstrom

Theater by and with Robert Wilson—a theatrical jack-of-all-trades and true Renaissance man—hasn’t been seen in our neck of the woods for more than thirty years.  If you were in Boston during the mid-‘eighties and your taste in theater ran toward adventure, you could either be captivated or annoyed by one of Wilson’s spellbinding multi-media productions at the American Repertory Theater (ART), which was then under the artistic direction of Robert Brustein.  Those memorable shows, including the historic CIVIL warS fragment in 1985, put the ART on the map of world theater culture; people came to see them from all over the planet, and the international media paid attention.

Robert Wilson.
Photo Credit: Yiorgos Kaplanidis

But there’s been a lot of generational turnover among theater-goers since Wilson’s heyday at the ART, and one can be forgiven for noticing that probably not everyone around here remembers that silver age of theater and art.  How many, for example, recall the MFA’s important retrospective of Wilson’s theatrical designs and art objects, Robert Wilson’s Vision, in 1991?  The passage of time might explain why the local media largely overlooked Wilson’s return engagement in Boston, which took place Feb. 7 not at the ART, but at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The performance was well attended, however.

Robert Wilson is best known to the theater and opera community as a ground-breaking and sought-after stage director and designer of scenery and lighting, with plentiful engagements that take him around the world. On Feb. 7, he showed up for duty at the Gardner’s intimate Calderwood Hall not as an auteur, but as an actor.  Wearing a plain shirt and trousers with white makeup on his face and hands—design choices that made the tall, imposing Texan look otherworldly—Wilson performed solo for forty minutes without a break. The scenery consisted of four desks and chairs grouped in a rectangle around the performer, on a giant square of white cloth spread on the floor that was covered with fragmented sentences and non sequiturs in graffiti-like black lettering.  

The script Wilson delivered was a dense, cryptic text written by American avant-garde composer John Cage in 1950 called Lecture on Nothing.  Non-discursive, circular, repetitive, and full of aphorisms and comments that recall Zen Buddhism, the monologue incessantly called attention to itself as a formal structure.  Cage, who invented the “prepared piano” (stick ordinary objects like screwdrivers and nails between the strings and you’ll get bizarrely different sounds) and embraced the “chance operations” he found in the I Ching as a force in music-making, described the monologue as “a silently noisy musical piece disguised as a lecture.”  And that was what Wilson made of it at the Gardner, in a tour de force of cumulative impact and impeccable detail that came and went like a ghost in the night. This was one of those theatrical events you can be sure will stay with you for a long time.

Unlike theater directors who are simply entertainers, Wilson expects his audiences to work.  The task of interpreting and sifting the event—intellectually, artistically, and every other way—belongs to the spectators.  I never had a problem with Robert Wilson as a director for the same reason that I never had a problem with Shakespearean verse.  Who cares if you don’t understand it? It’s great anyway! In Wilson’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, lunar lighting, deep blue sets and costumes, and slow, stylized acting transformed the medieval fairytale into a mysterious, timeless ritual.  In Lecture on Nothing, the artist showed the courage of his convictions as a choreographer: he would perform simple but weighted gestures—like reaching for a glass of water—that took minutes, intensified one’s sense of time passing, and reminded you of the mystery that imbues the plainest objects and actions.  

The program also included, as an afterthought, a vocal piece sung powerfully by performance artist Thelma Davis, a frequent Wilson collaborator and the museum’s new Visiting Curator for Performing Arts.  Collaboration has been an important part of Wilson’s output for many years, and he has produced much of his recent work jointly with contemporary artists of high distinction and broad appeal: they include composers Philip Glass and David Byrne, poet Allen Ginsberg, musicians Lou Reed and Tom Waits, performance artist Marina Abramovic, the pop singer Lady Gaga, and many others.  

One of Philip Glass’s early collaborations with Robert Wilson—and the best known—was the 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, an avant-garde masterpiece that has been widely acclaimed, filmed, recorded (twice), and often revived.  The partnership continued with the CIVIL warS at ART—which gave local audiences an early taste of Glass’ now-familiar churning, pulsing sonorities—and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  (That production in toto was an ambitious, nine-hour endeavor that was intended for the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, but never happened because of funding issues.)  The director and composer are kindred spirits artistically because they both use unorthodox formal structures: Glass with his endlessly extended repetitions of notes and phrases, Wilson with immensely slowed-down physical movement.  

Philip Glass is an unusual example of “crossover success” in the performing arts world, a maker of music whose work is both mainstream and classical.  His compositions remain popular because they’re approachable and down to earth, yet so spiritual and lofty that they are performed by symphony orchestras and opera companies.  (Glass is a practicing Buddhist.) Ryan Turner, the conductor of Boston Conservatory’s rousing revival of the 1990 Glass opera Hydrogen Jukebox (Feb. 7-10), came to the job with prior experience of Glass’s theatrical music.  In 2015, Turner led the composer’s mini-opera In the Penal Colony for the Boston Lyric Opera, a group that was already acquainted with Glass operas from its production of Akhnaten in 2000.  Our arts community can even claim a tradition of welcoming the composer’s music theater creations: the ART gave premieres of the Glass operas The Juniper Tree (1985, composed collaboratively with Robert Moran) and Orphee (1991).

Glass’ librettist for Hydrogen Jukebox was the fabulously famous poet, beatnik, radical activist and spiritual guru Allen Ginsberg.  That he especially would be drawn to musical expression is easy for his readers to understand: Ginsberg’s wild, soaring, rapturous lyrics always seem to be on the verge of bursting into song, and the poet did write a number of actual songs in addition to public performances in which he chanted and sang when not reading his poems.  He made several recordings of his music and, six years after Hydrogen Jukebox, re-connected with Glass to compose and record The Ballad of the Skeletons, in which ex-Beatle Paul McCartney also had a hand.  Glass’s Sixth Symphony, Plutonian Ode (2002), was based on Ginsberg’s 1978 poem of the same title, but the poet had died five years before the symphony premiere.  Glass wrote of feeling attracted to the poems for musical purposes because Ginsberg had created “a poetic language from the sounds and rhythms all around us—an American language that is logical, sensual, at times abstract and always expressive.”

The term “hydrogen jukebox” first emerged in Ginsberg’s incantatory poem “Howl” (1955-56), a hallucinatory rant against capitalist America and angry lament over the wreckage of “the best minds of my generation.”  The unusual phrase signifies, as he wrote later, “a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization’s military jukebox.” Ginsberg also wanted the opera “to relieve suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium.”

In their opera, Glass and Ginsberg aimed for a collective portrait of the modern American psyche, reflecting on charged cultural and political subjects and taking place anywhere and everywhere in the national landscape from the 1950s to the late 1980s.  The BC presentation extended the chronology forward to the present day. The stage director, Nathan Troup, wrote in a program note that the layered imagery on the stage was meant to be “a visual manifestation of Ginsberg’s text,” but this was hard to discern; the production was less like a collage than it was like a didactic history drama by Bertolt Brecht, with projected visual images, words and texts to nudge the audience, make them think for themselves.  

Conceived without a plot and characters in the usual sense, Glass and Ginsberg created a kind of musico-theatrical smorgasbord of “noise and wild wisdom and political statement,” as the writer put it, adding that “it’s not a ‘linear’ story.”  Divided into 14 scenes, the opera is scored for chamber orchestra (six musicians at BC) with instruments and conductor visible on the stage. The music is pretty good Philip Glass music, which is to stay it stops short of being great. It may lack the brilliance and power of passages of Einstein and the other operas, but it is good enough: colorful, variegated, and molded nicely to Ginsberg’s explosive orations.  

The vocal forces are a six-member ensemble (two sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, a tenor, baritone, and bass-baritone) who are supposed to portray “archetypal American characters—a waitress, a policeman, a cheerleader, a priest, and a mechanic.” But those characterizations did not come through at BC, despite skillful performances by the student singers.  (Two separate casts performed the opera across the four presentations.) They were not the only things that didn’t come through.

The over-stuffed libretto is stuck in the quandary of not being about anything in the particular sense, and of being about too much in the general sense.  On the surface, it’s a rambling discussion of topical issues: anti-Vietnam War activism, the destruction of the environment, protest against capitalism and consumer society, gay liberation and more.  But that’s not all: the complicated mix is complicated further by introducing the evil spread of technology, haiku poetry and Zen meditation, the Iran-Contra hearings, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega—the ingredients tumble together and brush against each other like clothes in a washing machine.   It’s all just too much—free association taken to the point of sensory overload.

Glass stated that when he composes an opera he aims to respect the integrity of the language, but at BC, Ginsberg’s text was literally hard to understand as sung.  It wasn’t that the vocalists were not enunciating crisply enough or that there was a faulty balance between instruments and voices. But Ginsberg’s verbiage just got swallowed up by Glass’s sound-scape, even with the help of simultaneous projected titles at either side of the stage.

Everything else about Hydrogen Jukebox at BC came together with professionalism and bravura.  Ezra Joshua Sanders did well with passages of off-stage, spoken narration that were performed by Ginsberg in the first production and on the recording.  Set designer Julia Noulin-Merat brought visual fluency and flexibility with movable chairs and a ladder on wheels that saw continual and imaginative use.  The American flag was a constant presence, both as a projected backdrop and actual drape and was employed as a beach blanket, a funeral shroud, and more. The fast-moving, cohesive performance that was unified by Turner’s and Troup’s direction couldn’t have been improved, which left you at the end feeling both satisfied and let down by how compromised the literary element had been.

John Engstrom lives in the West Fens.