In 1988, modernist composer Philip Glass ran into out beat poet Allen Ginsberg in St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City. Glass had agreed to perform at a benefit for the Vietnam Veterans Theater and asked Ginsberg to accompany him.
Ginsberg grabbed one of his own books, Planet News, from the bookstore’s shelves and introduced Glass to “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the 1966 anti-war poem he had written while traveling across the country. Glass composed a piano piece and the pair performed, with Ginsberg reading the poem to Glass’s music, at the Schubert Theater later that year.
“Allen and I so thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration that we soon began talking about expanding our performance into an evening-length music-theater work,” Glass writes on his website. “It was right after the 1988 presidential election, and neither Bush nor Dukakis seemed to talk about anything that was going on. I remember saying to Allen, ‘If these guys aren't going to talk about the issues then we should.’”
The result was Hydrogen Jukebox, a chamber opera that features the poetry of Ginsberg, who died in 1997, paired with the music of Glass, who recently turned 77. The work will be performed by Skylight Music Theatre March 14–30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.
“I don’t even want to call this an opera because the term carries so much baggage,” says Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman, who is serving as the show’s music director. “The combination of theater, narration, electronica and opera makes this just an incredible piece of theater for me.”
Hydrogen Jukebox drew its name from a line in “Howl,” Ginsberg’s seminal three-part poem that was the subject of a 1957 obscenity trial, primarily for its references to homosexual sexual acts. Hydrogen Jukebox premiered at the 1990 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.
"The title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from a verse in the poem: ' listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,'” Ginsberg once explained. “It signifies 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, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, a reminder of apocalypse."
Put more prosaically, the chamber opera charts America’s progress from the 1950s through the 1980s through Ginsberg’s poetry. The Skylight’s staging is designed to provide the connective narrative threads.
The work is scored for six voices. For the Skylight production, baritone Dan Kempson takes on the role of Ginsberg.
“We’re not making Dan look like Allen Ginsberg, because we’d have to age him throughout the show,” Subbaraman says. “Ginsberg was also a very idiosyncratic-looking person and we didn’t think we could do him justice.”
The striking difference between Glass’s minimalist music and the rampantly colorful poetry of the beat era adds a creative tension to the work. Having to adhere the rhythm of the poetry without being distracted by a score comprised of seemingly repetitive measures makes this an extremely difficult show for the performers to master, Subbaraman says.
“There is a joy to the color, beauty and emotion in the words, but also a fear for the future, which creates an interesting dichotomy,” Subbaraman says. “Beat poetry in itself often seems to be a random output of words and images, but underneath there is true beauty in its structure.”
Glass’ music operates sometimes in counterpoint, while at other times seems to provide tongue-in-cheek commentary on the narrative. The music’s minimalist nature and rhythmic intensity is challenging, Subbaraman says.
“Glass hated the ‘minimalist’ term and has said that he writes in repetitive small structures with subtle changes,” explains the music director. “There is a sense of repetitiveness in the music that makes it almost feel slow when matched to Ginsberg’s text. This piece has an incredible propulsion because of that weird combination.”
Of all modern composers, Glass is probably the most familiar to the general public, if only for his work composing film scores. The Hours, The Illusionist and The Truman Show are three of his 35 films, meaning that many audience members have “heard a lot of Glass already,” Subbaraman says.
“Unlike what people think of as modern opera, Glass is very tonal and uses harmonies that people understand,” Subbaraman says. “He was one of first modernists to reject atonality. Nadia Boulanger, his composition teacher, thought he was going to revolutionize music — and to a great extent he has.”
Despite its artistic pedigree, Hydrogen Jukebox is a highly accessible and energizing work, says Subbaraman. No special preparation is required for audience members to enjoy this show.
“We’re taking a risk and giving the audience the ability to come with us on a real trip,” he explains. “It’s not a scary opera or scary modern music, but a frank look at our country. The sheer variety makes the nerd in me very excited.”
The Skylight is presenting Hydrogen Jukebox in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation.
Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Hydrogen Jukebox runs March 14–30 at the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7811 or visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.