In the 1980s I witnessed a lot of dreary performance art, which in retrospect might have been amusing except for all those minutes and hours lost, never to return. To think of the constructive things I could have been doing, like drinking beer, masturbating, or listening to Bob Murphy broadcast a Mets game.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music balances itself on a line of performance art and the legacy of its heyday. When BAM is at its best, as it was several times during the first two months of their 30th annual Next Wave Festival, performance art is just attractive marketing for creative ideas and performances that are deeply grounded in the roots of music, writing, drama, and visual arts. When BAM is at its worst, as it was for one event I saw, I was transported back to the bad old days of preening self-regard, mockingly shallow thinking, and boredom.
The best, roots and all, was in Einstein on the Beach, which in an ideal world would be a regular feature at BAM. It fulfills everything that the institution promises: avant-garde thinking and uncommon creativity that avoids the detritus of cliché and received wisdom while being firmly grounded in the best aspects of 500 years of music drama. The line from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s magnum opus is straight and short. Einstein is neither gimmicky nor obtuse; it’s clear and affecting music drama that combines the foundation of counterpoint, harmonic structure, and lyrical vocal-writing with a non-linear approach to staging that is borrowed from movies like L’Année dernière à Marienbad and Le notti di Cabiria. The libretto is evocative contemporary vernacular poetry. But putting these all together into an opera, a brilliant form but one that has rarely got past an essentially normative concept of human thinking and acting, was a great breakthrough, one that shattered the boundaries of accepted styles and ideas and opened up an expansive horizon.
That no one else has bothered to wander through this territory is our continuing loss, but no fault of Glass or Wilson. That this is a great and important work is clear in how incredibly fresh it is as it approaches 40. This new production emphasized its gleaming beauty, with the live performance of the music providing warmth and visceral excitement. The staging and music depict a theater of repetition, of mechanical and institutional society and the human characters who seek their freedom from it. The pull of the tonic note underneath Glass’s arpeggiations lets long passages like “Spaceship” fly freely. Antoine Silverman played the demanding violin solos at the performance I attended, and his aplomb combined with his Einstein costume to project an intimate and human feeling. Lucinda Childs’s choreography is so simple and musical and beautiful that you wish it would never stop. At the final line, “in fervent osculation,” Charles Williams raised his hand to the audience in a benediction of friendship.
The worst was ElseWhere, a misstep from cellist Maya Beiser. There’s an intriguing concept of the instrumental “CelloOpera” that unfortunately is wedded to a narrative of suffering endured by women through time. An opera needs drama, and there’s nothing dramatic about making an obvious statement in front of no one who would object. Beiser played with her usual energy, but the new music from Eve Beglarian and Missy Mazzoli was as bland as the theme, and Michael Gordon’s teeth-rattling “Industry” was out of place with its inarticulate force. The direction and choreography from Robert Woodruff and Brook Notary came off like a watered-down version of Sucker Punch, with the objectification intact.
The pendulum swung back to the good with a wonderful evening of music from Phil Kline with singer Theo Bleckmann, Kline’s great “Three Rumsfeld Songs” and “Zippo Songs” and a new set, “Out Cold,” all either written or orchestrated for ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. From the moment Bleckmann, in a suit, stood on top of a television and sang, “As we know, there are known knowns,” the whole performance, with smart staging from Emma Griffin, was as gripping and entertaining as a thriller. Kline’s music and original lyrics for “Out Cold” combine the aesthetic profundity of the art song with the succinct clarity of pop music, and the social and political message is more powerful for his light touch.
In between was The Loves of Pharaoh, a mostly restored silent film from Ernst Lubitsch, presented with original live music from Joseph C. Phillips Jr. and his ensemble, Numinous. It was the music that made it work—the movie is not only dated kitsch, but there are several missing or partial reels replaced by stills, and that breaks up the narrative. Phillips’s music flows smoothly and richly. While his previous work has a strong flavor of Minimalism, his language in this work is more Romantic and expressive. On opening night, the strings sounded a little unsure in the prelude, but everything fell quickly into place. Phillips does two things I admire: He never mocks the picture, and he never limits the music to the obvious emotion of a scene. Instead his score is a parallel narrative to the movie, and where Lubitsch overplays everything, Phillips maintains a cooler, more sympathetic, and more humane voice.