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Bob Bernard's Corner: Spontaneous Composition

Composer Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg

By Bob Bernard

It was an inevitable merger: the reiterative arpeggiation of composer Philip Glass [b. January 31, 1937] and the classically-formatted, albeit vernacularly phrased, poetry of librettist Allen Ginsberg [June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997].

The product of this merger is the opera Hydrogen Jukebox, commissioned for the 1990 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. It has since been performed at more than thirty venues and will now be produced by Long Beach Opera [LBO] on May 30 and June 6 &7 at the Crafted marketplace in the Port of Los Angeles.

The title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from a verse in Ginsberg’s 1956 poem Howl:  "...listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...,” this juxtaposition of two unlikely things being what Ginsberg called an ‘Eyeball Kick’. One can readily understand how the anaphoric repetition from the poem’s first part would match up well with a set of Glass’ arpeggios:

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, 

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, 

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, 

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, 

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, 

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, 

“who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness …

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs …

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy …

“What came to me as a revelation was the use of rhythm in developing an overall structure in music.”

That from composer Philip Glass, recalling the epiphanic moment, while studying under Indian composer Ravi Shankar, which changed his perspective from Western music’s tension between harmonic movement and melody to that of Indian music’s dynamic between a rhythmic cycle and harmonic structure.

Locally, we recently have had the opportunity to view four of Glass’s operas which reflect his compositional style: In 2011, LBO’s Akhnaten, using state-of-the-art infrared technology, visually mimicked the quasi-repetitiousness of the score, projecting rows of time-variant hieroglyphic poses onto the Long Beach Terrace Theatre’s cyclorama. And, in 2013, LBO produced The Fall of the House of Usher, effectively conveying the requisite existential dread of the story’s Lady Madeline, straining to escape from her premature burial.

 
Long Beach Opera’s Akhnaten


LBO’s The Fall of the House of Usher

From the Met in 2011 - via HD theatre transmission - there was, based upon the life of Gandhi, Glass’ Satyagraha. And, in 2013, the final performance run of Glass’ collaboration with Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach.

     
 The Met’s Satyagraha                                       Einstein on the Beach  

Mr. Glass recently won the 2015 Glenn Gould Prize, a once-every-three-years award, given in recognition of his lifetime achievements. It is for $100,000, with prior winners including Sir André Previn, Pierre Boulez, Yo-Yo Ma, Oscar Peterson, and Lord Yehudi Menuhin.

 “Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the
outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.” (Allen Ginsberg)

American poet Allen Ginsberg was recognized as the face of counterculture in our country for several decades of the twentieth century. His opposition to the military, to economic materialism, and to sexual repression, right along with the period wherein he advocated the use of LSD and marijuana, were all part of his being at the forefront of the ‘Beat Generation’. Born Jewish, he became a practicing Buddhist, also adopting many of the practices of Krishnaism. His many citations and honors include being inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and being a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995 for his book Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992.

The nature of the subject matter of Ginsberg’s writing made for many conflicts, both political and social. One of the more genial confrontations took place on the September 3, 1968, Firing Line TV program, hosted by Wm. F. Buckley Jr. Ginsberg performed the Hare Krishna mantra, accompanying himself on a small portable (and, arguably, wheezy) harmonium. Buckley gently praised the performance: “That was the most un-harried Krishna I ever heard,” while a member of the audience (very likely a physician) gently criticized the performance by paraphrasing the Hippocratic Oath: “First do no harm … onium.”

Circumstantially, one suspects that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky may have been inspired by the persona of Ginsberg when he created the character of ‘mad as hell’ Newscaster Howard Beale (a latter-day prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of his time) for the 1976 satirical film “Network”, even to having the Beale character experience a middle-of-the-night hallucination in the form of a directing, disembodied voice, very much as in the way of the auditory hallucination from the eighteenth century English poet William Blake that Ginsberg claimed to have had in 1948.

        
     Allen Ginsberg at an outdoor gathering            Actor Peter Finch as Howard Beale

In a chance meeting in 1988 at St. Mark's bookshop in New York, Ginsberg’s 1966 anti-war poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” served as a catalyst to coalesce the energies of Glass and Ginsberg, initiating the project which led to the creation of Hydrogen Jukebox.

The libretti for Glass’ operas have been drawn from a wide range of sources:

  • Akhnaten used ancient Egyptian texts
  • Usher was based upon Poe’s novel
  • Satyagraha from the life of Gandhi
  • Einstein originated with Robert Wilson’s stage set drawings

For Jukebox, Glass and Ginsberg mutually agreed upon a set of topics which they felt should be presented; then, referring back to Ginsberg’s voluminous accumulation of poetry, they selected the poems which matched up well with the selected topics; and, finally, Glass composed the music to suit the selected poems. Scored for six singers, two wind players, two keyboard players, and two percussionists, it can be viewed as being a song cycle. The male singers have the predominant solos, along with large ensemble song; the women have a mixture of selected solo lines, some pure vocalise, and trio ensemble singing. Each vocalist assumes the role of an American archetype: businessman, cheerleader, priest, policewoman, mechanic, waitress.

The production debuted at both Spoleto Festivals (Charleston and Italy) and then went on a national tour, bracketed by bookings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and UCLA’s Royce Hall. The original production used actual slides from Ginsberg’s life, projected onto scrims. For the larger venues, Glass and Ginsberg performed together for the scenes of pure narration and piano accompaniment; otherwise, the piano/narration portions were pre-recorded, with the six singers providing choreography.

Los Angeles-based soprano Suzan Hanson [See: “A Soprano for All Seasons” elsewhere in Bob Bernard's Corner] created the role of the cheerleader, continuing on throughout the entire tour. Here below, courtesy of Ms. Hanson, are two photos from the premiere, showing Ms. Hanson’s cheerleader with the businessman of tenor Richard Fracker. Mr. Fracker is now Prof. of Voice and Vocal Arts Chair at Michigan State University, and Ms. Hanson shall be the Assistant Stage Director for LBO’s Jukebox.

       

The poetry includes themes related to the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, Eastern philosophy, and environmental issues, often having pronounced autobiographical linkage. The music - sometimes emotional, sometimes echoing matter-of-fact recitation – reinforces the rhythm and pitch patterns of the texts, concluding with an a cappella, spiritually-evocative setting of Father Death Blues, the text written upon the death of Ginsberg’s father in 1976.

The twenty scenes comprise a “time capsule” of issues from the 1950s through the 80s which, back then, were at the forefront of our concerns. As LBO opens this time capsule, we’ll be reminded as to which issues have now been resolved, which issues have faded, and, for the issue that festers ever more in the Middle East, we’ll be reminded that the poetry “Jaweh and Allah Battle” could have been written, well … yesterday.

__________________

Photo Credits:
  LBO photos by Keith Ian Polakoff
  Photos from Susan Hanson by William Struhs
  Ginsbert and Finch photos are stock photos from the internet

 

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Author: Judy Lieb
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