Mr. Bojangles

I have had a lot of dreams come true this year.

This happened:

(Shout out to my brotha’ Haden)

This happened:

This happened:

Or it’s gonna happen… I guess it’s happening.

Indeed it has been a big year for us. I turned 21. We got married. We moved to New York. We’re going to be parents. It’s all happening at once. Tonight the next of my dreams comes true.

This will happen:

Photo Credit: Roberto Zava

What exactly is that? Why it’s Einstein on the Beach. And Chelsea and I will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight to witness it.

Einstein on the Beach is an opera by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. It was an avant garde production originally performed in 1976 and it has been revived three times, this year partially in conjunction with Philip Glass’ 75th birthday. Wilson and Glass are artists known for breaking and recreating the rules and Einstein is broadly considered the most significant work of their careers. So to say that it is a non-traditional opera is an understatement. Instead of using a plot, the opera uses the set, music, and dancers to stage pictures of Albert Einstein’s life and work. You can read a great article with a bit of history on the play and the creators here.

I do not claim to understand the opera. I probably will not grasp most of the concepts or artistic innovations during the four-and-a-half hours with no intermission. But I will enjoy it. Why you may ask? Well I have to tell the whole story!

When I was in high school at the pinnacle of my listening-to-Christian-rock career, I discovered Edison Glass. Their guitar work struck me first and influenced me as a wee budding musician. I actually learned that a few members were ORU alumni, but more importantly that they took their name from Thomas Edison and Philip Glass, thus my introduction to Philip Glass. I used to work as a clerk for a newspaper which essentially entailed sitting for eight hours and surfing the internet. Inspired by Edison Glass’ inspiration, I spent lots of those long hours at the newspaper discovering Philip Glass.

Until college I didn’t really have formal music training. I learned more than most in your average guitar lessons, but it wasn’t until I got into my classes that I really began to grasp theory and music history. That is to say that when I heard Beethoven or Bach I wasn’t really interested. I only knew that they were great composers and I was suposed to appreciate them. Classical music didn’t really have any true aesthetic value to me. So when I was discovering Philip Glass all I knew about him was that he was a classical composer who influenced one of my favorite bands. When I thought of a classical composer I thought of (what I knew of) Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven.

Then I listened to Philip Glass. I believe the first piece by him that I ever listened to was “Trail 1, Mr. Bojangles,” a scene from Einstein. It was weird. Some percussion and a violin repeating the same pattern over and over again, while a male chorus repeated the same pattern over and over again, while a woman recited a seemingly random monologue about guns and trees and baggy pants. I had no idea what was going. But I thought it was cool. Just like Beethoven, I knew that this was a respected composer and I was to appreciate his work, what I didn’t understand I just passed off as being over my head. But there was something about “Mr. Bojangles” that was different from any other classical music I had heard. It was just interesting to me. I felt something attractive about the music even if it was the same pattern for 16 minutes.

Then I listened to the second movement of his Violin Concerto. It’s a slow movement and is very dramatic. The solo violin plays a wrenching and longing melody over a bed of oscillating strings. As the violin introduces new material the ensemble imitates the previous solos and it just builds and builds until your heart melts. And that is precisely what happened to my heart when I first heard it. I feel sappy talking about how much I love this piece but to that point I had never had an instrumental or classical piece of music make me feel that way. Most of all this was the first time I remember thinking, “This is classical music I like.” It wasn’t that I was supposed to respect his work or I had been told he was great composer or that someone had recommended him to me (even though all those things were true). The reason I love this piece is simply that when I heard it for the first time I felt it. I really can’t describe it. I just remember being moved by that piece and thinking, “If there is classical music like this in the world, I want to listen to it.”

I can’t fully articulate everything I believe an artist should be or do, but I believe that creating experiences like the kind I had with that violin concerto is essential. Philip Glass was one of the pioneering composers of the minimalist movement, which basically means that the great majority of his music is based on small ideas that are repeated a buncha’ buncha’ times with little changes every so often. It’s very minimalistic. Some consider Glass’ music to be nausea inducing, and it can get wearisome, but Glass has said that if you want to listen to something else then he gives you his permission and he won’t be offended.

As for me, I will always have a deep connection to Philip Glass’ music. I have intellectually analyzed his music and it is not the most brilliant or groundbreaking music ever written. But nothing will be as important to me as the transcendence that surpasses my intellect and hits my heart. I believe this is the stuff of which the world is made. Connection. Something Philip Glass created resounded in my being in a way that I couldn’t understand but could only experience.

Life was meant to be experienced. People were meant to be experienced. Art was meant to be experienced. This is the Incarnation. God didn’t only tell us how to live or show us outwardly. He became us. Something entirely other from us shared with us in our experience and now we share in his experience everyday. He connected with us in every possible way. He just happens to be the source of all life and good in the universe. If you don’t believe that then you’ll have to wait for me to post about mewithoutYou.

I should explain that I am not advocating for neglecting our intellect, in fact I think our intellect should be a part of the experience, a tool that leads us to the experience. But it wasn’t knowledge that knocked Saul off his horse and it wasn’t theology alone that made Thomas Aquinas call his entire life’s work straw. Our intellect leads us to the experience and afterward it informs us. I now enjoy Philip Glass’ music more because I spent four years of college learning how to analyze music. I don’t think learning more can ever hurt anyone until it becomes the end rather than the means to the end.

That end, I believe, is knowing and experiencing God and his life as it is incarnate in all of creation. I believe that that life is everywhere and in everything. This life is what motivates people to do real things. It’s why people write symphonies and why people cry after those symphonies. It’s why people get married and have families. It’s why people sacrifice their entire life to fight for justice. And it’s why I’ll sit for almost five hours tonight and watch a group of dancers and musicians tell a story. It’s life and it’s happening.

Needless to say Philip Glass has had a huge impact on me. Tonight one of my dreams comes true as I get to experience one of his greatest and most influential works live and in person. Speaking of dreams coming true, I forgot to mention that earlier this week another one did so. It came in the form of homemade lasagna, made with homemade sauce and homemade pasta.

As Christians we believe that Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God here on Earth, yet it is still not completely here until his second coming. So we live in the here, but not yet. That lasagna was part of the here.

I love my wife.

Grace and peace,

Elliot & Chelsea

3 thoughts on “Mr. Bojangles

  1. The New Yorker ran an article on him in the Sept. 17 edition (I’d send you the link but I think you have to be a subscriber to access it). If you can track down a copy, you’d probably enjoy it =)

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