Einstein on the Beach: A New Documentary Honors Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Operatic Masterpiece
Jun. 16, 2015
“Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” remarked Albert Einstein, who, as well as being one of the most influential theoretical physicists of our time, was a skilled violinist. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
In 1976, composer Philip Glass and theater director Robert Wilson premiered a five-hour operatic portrait of the iconic scientist, Einstein on the Beach, seen by many as one of the most important artistic works of the 20th century. Today on NOWNESS, we premiere a chapter from director John Walter’s new feature-length documentary The Earth Moves, which follows the story of this seminal collaboration between the two New York heavyweights.
“The film begins with opera and ends with theoretical physics – that’s the wild ride.”
“[The film] triggers different connections in the viewer, just as the opera does for its audience,” says the film’s co-producer Lianne Halfon (Juno; Young Adult; Ghost World). “It begins with opera and ends with theoretical physics – that’s the wild ride – and your understanding of both shifts as you go.”
Through a series of abstract performances of chanted numbers, cyclical passages of music, and fragments of poetry, Glass and Wilson dreamt up aGesamtkunstwerk with a narrative unlike anything seen before. At some early performances there were stage invasions, and furious opera lovers would pound on the piano or even throw punches.
Despite all this, Einstein on the Beach is not an act of iconoclasm, but rather a joyous celebration of the imagination and the way it aids our appreciation of the arts and our understanding of the cosmos.
“When I first started to work on The Earth Moves, as an exercise, I attempted to reconstruct the opera in the edit room using the existing documents. I matched up photographs of the original production with the original cast recording,” explains the director. “This raised more questions than it answered, but it turns out that questions were just the thing I needed at that point. The more questions I have at the start of a project, the better my chance of finding the answer on camera, and capturing those moments of discovery are a prerequisite for true documentary magic.