Philip Glass & Robert Wilson: A Pathbreaking Partnership in a New Dimension

In 1976 the composer Philip Glass and the theater maker Robert Wilson unveiled "Einstein on the
Beach," an opera that expanded the horizons of musical theater. It was nearly five hours long with no intermission, no plot, no narrative and a sung text that consisted entirely of numbers and solfège syllables.

Glass and Wilson's latest collaboration takes their fondness for experimenting with theatrical time and space literally into another dimension. "Monsters of Grace," which opens on Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and proceeds on a 24-city American tour, is billed as a digital opera in three dimensions.

The "opera" part is a bit misleading. It might more accurately be described as a 68-minute song cycle in 13 scenes, 9 of them settings of poems by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, translated and adapted by the American poet Coleman Barks. While the Philip Glass Ensemble performs the score, the audience views a 3-D computer-animated film through special polarized lenses. In contrast to the thrills and spills associated with 3-D films, "Monsters of Grace" dwells meditatively on such scenes as a boy riding an old-fashioned bicycle and a helicopter hovering over the Great Wall of China.

The slow-moving, dreamlike imagery will be immediately recognizable to fans of Wilson, whose abstract, often controversial spectacles have appeared at theaters and opera houses around the world. But it has been executed by Kleiser-Walczak Construction, the computer-animation company that has supplied special effects for Hollywood movies like "Stargate" and "Mortal Kombat Annihilation." High art meets high tech.

"It is a brave encroachment into unexplored territory," Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times in April, when "Monsters of Grace" was performed as a work in progress in Los Angeles.

"For those who wondered when classical music would get around to connecting with the rest of the world, this may be the beginning of an answer." Connecting Glass and Wilson, denizens of the international high-art circuit, with the world of mainstream America was very much on the mind of the producer, Jedediah Wheeler, when he enlisted them to produce the touring theater piece that became "Monsters of Grace." Wheeler's company, International Production Associates, represents Glass and produced a revival of "Einstein on the Beach" in 1992.

Glass has gained widespread fame through his concerts and film scores, from Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi" to Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." But Wilson remains relatively unknown in the United States, however revered he may be throughout Europe. In recent years he created three rock musicals at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany -- "The Black Rider" and "Alice," with scores by Tom Waits, and "Time Rocker," composed by Lou Reed -- and a second opera with Glass, "The White Raven," in Lisbon.

To help remedy that homeland neglect, Wheeler proposed that Glass and Wilson cook up something more portable than "Einstein," which, in the revival, took three days to install. From 1993 to 1996, they developed storyboards for "Monsters of Grace." (The title originated as a slip of the tongue, when Wilson, touring his one-man rendition of "Hamlet," found himself repeatedly mangling the line "Angels and ministers of grace defend us.") Wheeler, seeing the designs, was bemused to encounter such images as a hawk circling a helicopter and a giant foot landing in the desert. So much for portable.

In 1996, while pondering how to build such props for a stage spectacle, Wheeler visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, where he met Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, a married couple whose computer-animation firm rented space in the museum.

They showed him their studio, where they are now creating "The Adventures of Spiderman," a seven-minute 3-D installation for a Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla. Intrigued by the technology, Wheeler came to realize that although the initial costs might be higher, a film with music would be cheaper to tour than a live Wilson spectacle. Glass was game. Wilson, though dubious, eventually agreed. None of them knew what they were getting into.

"When we began talking about a digital realization, there was some concern that it would be very cold," Glass said recently from Naples. "I wanted the text to have a strong human element." The combination of intense spirituality and erotic passion in Rumi's poems appealed to Glass, who had recently created three works based on films by Jean Cocteau.

"The basic thrust of Rumi's work is seeing the ordinary world as a transcendent world, which is very much like Cocteau," said Glass, who is himself a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. "I'm very interested in people who look at the world and transfigure it through their own spiritual development."

When he finally saw the animation Kleiser-Walczak had created from Wilson's storyboards, Glass was astonished. "It wasn't cold at all," he said. "Even though computer graphics is all done by mathematics, it looks like a photograph of a ring of fire on the ocean or a chair descending from the sky, stuff that's impossible to put on the stage. You get into this funny place where you don't know if you're looking at something real or something in a dream. Although he's never told me this, I think they really are Bob's dreams."

Ordinarily Wilson is in charge of every detail in exposing his dreams to the public. This time Kleiser-Walczak translated his rough sketches into computer animation. Using state-of-the-art software still in development, animation artists created digital objects, in each case using a grid of 50,000 or more spatial coordinates. Different software was used to position the 3-D "synthespians" in space, and still more software provided realistic light and shading. Each scene took 4 to 12 weeks to create.

Kleiser-Walczak made a deal to test emerging software on equipment donated by Silicon Graphics (the company that produced the dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park"), so the entire $1.7 million budget could be spent on people. Once the design work was completed, everything had to be rendered into 2,000 lines of resolution (four times the quality of conventional television resolution) and transferred to 70-mm film. Sixty processors connected by high-speed phone lines have worked at the transfer 24 hours a day since February. “No one has ever made an animated 3-D film this long," Kleiser said. It would have been preposterously expensive to produce commercially. (The four minutes of 3-D animation the company has created for the Spiderman ride cost between $1 and $2 million per minute, Kleiser said.) The process was so laborious and time-consuming that only half the film was completed in time for the first showings last spring. In Los Angeles and at subsequent stops on the tour, actors filled in the unfinished sequences. The BAM performances are the first with the complete film.

However daunting the technical aspects of the production may have been, the biggest challenge for Kleiser-Walczak was learning to communicate with Wilson. The first scene, for example, was to include bars of light, space and clouds.

"Our first big project, in 1990, was a PBS special called 'The Astronomers,' where we created 12 minutes of cosmic phenomena," Kleiser said. "Based on that experience, we came up with a suggestion that included a pink galaxy in one area and something else in another area, representing the night sky. All wrong. He wanted horizontal swatches of pure light and color."

Wilson conceived the scenes as alternating among landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. Kleiser-Walczak showed him how his concepts of distance and scale could be translated into a 3-D moment for every scene. An ocean landscape could recede to infinity; a portrait of a severed hand could appear to dangle before the audience's eyes.

The taste level was in constant negotiation. "In the work we usually do, we always strive to inject an element of cool," said Kent Mikalsen, Kleiser-Walczak's creative director. "Robert Wilson doesn't need that. He would often reject stuff, saying, 'Do this, but not like Disney.' "

Kleiser acknowledged, "Our visual vocabulary comes from incredibly fast-paced and expensive MTV-style editing," while Wilson's visual reference points were painting and stage lighting. Understanding what he wanted in terms of color was especially frustrating without constant access to Wilson, whose busy schedule rarely kept him in one place for long. "He'd look at something and say, 'Too sweet,' " Kleiser said. "We wondered if he meant too saturated, or too light, or too bright. Finally we realized that he meant too red. The project wasn't going anywhere until we could figure out what he was talking about."

In retrospect, Wilson admits to mixed feelings about "Monsters of Grace," the first theater piece he has conceived but not directed himself. "Usually I'm the kind of parent who stayed very close to the child even when it grew up," he said recently from Milan, Italy. "This is like being a dog with a litter of puppies that went away six weeks later. This one left me early. Here I was working with people who didn't know my work, in a medium I didn't know. Often the colors turned out to be something I would never have done.

"Maybe that's O.K.," he added, turning philosophical about surrendering control of every detail. "I'm sure Merce Cunningham wouldn't have minded."

While Wilson views "Monsters of Grace" as the one that got away, Glass, who is onstage for every performance, sees it differently. For him, the work continues his lifelong exploration of the relationship of music to image and text. "Traditionally in the theater, whether it's a Tennessee Williams play or 'The Lion King,' that relationship is defined in the opening moments," he said. "The director and the designer take care that that universe of discourse will never be disturbed. This piece doesn't work that way. The triangulation between you, what you're seeing and what you're hearing is different for each number. Sometimes you're close, sometimes far away.

"We begin with a remarkable poem, 'Where Everything Is Music.' You hear the whole poem before you see a picture. It's an amazing poem for a musician to hear. It is about what music is about: 'We have fallen into the place where everything is music.' Every night when we perform it, I look at the players, and I look at the singer, and I feel profoundly moved by them."


Sidebar: An Ancient Poet Suddenly Ubiquitous

In the 1990's, the ecstatic spiritual poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi has become all but ubiquitous. Lines from Rumi show up not only in Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's "Monsters of Grace" but also in a series of Cy Twombly paintings in the de Menil collection in Houston.

The New Age health guru Deepak Chopra has just released "A Gift of Love," a CD of Rumi recited by an unlikely assortment of celebrities, from Madonna and Goldie Hawn to the civil rights activist Rosa Parks. The poet Robert Bly and the storyteller Michael Meade, who incorporated Rumi's poetry into men's-movement gatherings, both appear in Hayden Reiss's recent documentary, "Rumi:Poet of the Heart," narrated by Debra Winger. And Oliver Stone is developing a feature film on the life of the 13th-century Sufi mystic, who founded the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes.

If any one person could be said to be responsible for the Rumi renaissance, it would have to be Coleman Barks, the poet and translator from Athens, Ga., whose Rumi books have sold 450,000 copies since 1984. Not since the popularity of "The Prophet," by Kahlil Gibran, in the 1960's, has a poet made such a dent in American popular culture.

Born in 1207 and raised in what is now Turkey, Rumi was a traditional religious scholar until he met Shams of Tabriz, who sparked a spiritual awakening. After Shams disappeared four years later (probably murdered by jealous relatives), Rumi spent the rest of his life composing verse that addressed love for God and love for the absent friend as variations of each other.

Although Rumi is recognized as a spiritual authority throughout the Moslem world, most English translations have been either drily academic or blandly homiletic. In 1976, Mr. Bly handed Mr. Barks a copy of the Englishman A. J. Arberry's translations, saying, "These poems need to be released from their cages." Around the same time, Mr. Barks became a student of the Sri Lankan Sufi master Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Merging his own earthy poetic instincts with his apprenticeship in Sufi mysticism, Mr. Barks began to capture Rumi's outpourings in language that uncovered the sensual and humorous aspects of spiritual longing:

If anyone wonders how Jesus

raised the dead,

don't try to explain the miracle.

Kiss me on the lips.

Like this. Like this.

Why are contemporary readers so drawn to Rumi?

"I don't have an explanation myself," Mr. Barks said recently from his home in Athens, "but Robert Bly says that when Christianity excluded the Gnostic material from the gospels, the ecstatic material, there was a lack felt in the religion. There's some thirst, some need for an intimate connection with the divine, and simultaneously some grief about its absence, that Rumi knows well." A stocky, bearded Southern gentleman, Mr. Barks speaks with the kind of endearing drawl that adds an extra syllable to the word "love." "Rumi uses the language of romance and drunkenness and addiction, because he's trying to explode those love categories into a wider kind of love that is just the atmosphere you walk within. It's not sexual, I don't think, but it's beyond gender, beyond the old categories. Rumi says: 'I'm not Christian or Jew or Moslem, not Hindu, Buddhist or Zen. I'm not from the East or the West. I belong to the Beloved.' "

New York Times, December 6, 1998

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