Book Review: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

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Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.

This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.

Some of the texts in this collection have been published previously, in Moon in a Dewdrop, Beyond Thinking, and Enlightenment Unfolds. In fact, many readers may find those there volumes sufficient in content, and more agreeable in overall price. (Another useful book is Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Shohaku Okumura, which is a detailed, and very accessible commentary on this section of the Shobogenzo.)

This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.

But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.

This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.

Note: the original two-volume edition is out of print, but there is a one-volume edition (, Amazon UK) that has replaced it. I haven’t seen it, but it apparently has much thinner paper. There’s also a Kindle edition (, Amazon UK) which is great for reading on the go, since the book is so heavy, but the glossary is essentially unusable on the Kindle.

Music Notes: Hyperion 99-Disc Complete Liszt Box Set

Hyperion Records has released a 99-disc box set of the long-running series they have been publishing of all of Franz Liszt’s piano music. Recorded by Leslie Howard, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra for the concertos, this series has been a labor of love for some 25 years (the first disc was recorded in 1985, and was an early digital recording). Hyperion claims that it holds the Guinness world record for the world’s largest recording series by a solo artist; I don’t know of any that even come close.

Liszt’s music is an acquired taste; I’ve been listening to bits and pieces from this set since I got it nearly a year ago, and while some of the music is too over-the-top for my taste, much of it is very interesting. It contains 7,266 minutes of music, enough to keep anyone busy for a very long time. Discovering an oeuvre like this is a long-term process, and having all the music available in one set makes it possible to flip around from period to period to hear how Liszt grew.

A large number of these discs are transcriptions: of music from operas, of songs by Franz Schubert (11 hours’ worth), of Beethoven’s symphonies (masterful transcriptions indeed). The one set of works that has held me spellbound is the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a series of “mystical” keyboard works. This set is full of surprises, and I have barely scratched the surface so far.

It’s currently listed at €186 at Amazon FR, £228 at Amazon UK, and $302 at, with marketplace sellers offering it for less. Hyperion – one of my sponsors – also has it available for download, in MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless formats, with impeccable metadata, and full notes embedded in each track. They sell it for £200, but you get an immediate 25% “bulk buy” discount, making it £150. And you don’t have to rip the CDs.

Why Are There So Few Complete Sets of Schubert’s Lieder?

Yesterday, I received a copy of Naxos’ Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition, their 38-disc set of Schubert’s lieder, or art songs. Schubert’s lieder is one of my favorite parts of the classical repertoire, and I have many recordings by different singers. Yet, there are only two complete sets of his songs: the Naxos set, and Hyperion’s 40-disc set, which contains 37 discs of Schubert’s songs, together 3 discs of songs by his friends and contemporaries (which is a valuable addition to the set, putting Schubert’s songs in the broader context of his time).

This music is quite popular; singers regularly release new collections of Schubert’s lieder, and perform recitals of this music around the world. Yet only two complete sets of these songs exist. There are other monoliths of classical music that cover as many discs, or even more, and are better represented in the catalog. Take Bach’s cantatas, for example (another of my favorites). There are at least six complete sets of these works (either completed or in progress), and they cover around 60 CDs. Or Haydn’s symphonies: there are four complete sets of these, and they cover from 33 to 37 discs.

But Schubert’s lieder, even though popular (an Amazon search turns up more than 1,000 results) doesn’t inspire the same type of completeness.

It’s worth noting that the two existing Schubert sets were all “organized” or “overseen” by accompanists, rather than singers: Graham Johnson for the Hyperion edition, and Ulrich Eisenlohr for the Naxos. For the former, Johnson chose the best lieder singers of the time, over the many years it took to record the series. For the Naxos series, a focus was made on young German singers, rather than having singers whose native tongue was not German. (It’s worth noting that Johnson plays piano on all the Hyperion discs; Eisenlohr plays on 31 of the 38 Naxos discs.)

No one singer could record all of Schubert’s lieder. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did record all of the songs for solo male voice, or more than half of them, on 21 CDs (my favorite Schubert lieder recordings), but he did not record those written for soprano, or part-songs, with multiple singers. So while an individual singer might oversee such a project, they couldn’t perform all the works. Also, this is a long project to realize, and no singer today could devote themselves to just Schubert’s music for that long. The total time of the Hyperion set is just under 43 hours (not counting the three discs of friends and contemporaries); the Naxos set is a bit over 40 hours. The amount of time it takes to record that much music is monumental.

There are many excellent lieder singers today, and, while it’s interesting to have a handful of discs from them, it would be nice to see more attention paid to these songs. The Hyperion and Naxos sets are both excellent, in different ways, and are complimentary, to those who really appreciate this music. But I’d love to see one or two more sets. Are any labels out there willing to take up the gauntlet? I could imagine Harmonia Mundi or Bis doing such a series; the former has already released several volumes of Schubert’s lieder by Matthias Goerne, and, while he couldn’t sing everything, perhaps they’ll continue with other singers.

One note: if you’re a fan of Schubert’s lieder, you should definitely own a copy of John Reed’s Schubert Song Companion, which gives excellent translations for all the songs. You should also get Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubert’s Songs: A Biographical Study. This book is out of print in English, but used copies are available from many on-line booksellers. I have a copy of the French translation, and it’s an interesting look at the songs by someone who knows them very well. A commenter also points out The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, which contains some songs by Schubert, but also songs by other composers.

A note on the Naxos box set: this comes with a 429-page book, which includes track listings, notes on the music, for each disc, artist information, and indexes. It does not, however, contain song texts, either in the original German or in translation, though the song titles are translated on each disc’s sleeve. (You can download PDFs with sung texts for each volume of the series from this web page. The book is entirely in English, which is the “international version” of the set; there is also a “German version,” which presumably has this book in German. This book is impressive, and useful, but, frankly, I’d very much like to have it in PDF format. It’s hard to read CD liner notes with their small print, and a book this thick is a bit unwieldy. Nevertheless, it’s good that it’s included.

Also, flipping through the notes as I started listening to this set, I spotted a mention that six of the discs feature the fortepiano, the type of instrument that Schubert used, which is different from today’s piano. This is interesting, and I’m looking forward to hearing how these discs sound. This makes me think that if there were another complete set to be made, it would be nice if it were on fortepiano…

An Overview of Apple Lossless Compression Results

I recently pointed out that the Apple Lossless codec has gone open source, meaning that this lossless codec can now be freely used in both hardware and software. The Apple Lossless codec (also known as ALAC) is similar to FLAC, and offers the same advantages. When you compress files in a lossless format, you lose absolutely none of the original data. Just as when you compress a text file using zip compression, decompressing returns all the original letters and characters, lossless music compression provides the full fidelity of the original audio you compressed.

It’s interesting to look at the sizes of files compressed in Apple Lossless format. (These file sizes are similar for other lossless formats, such as FLAC, SHN and APE.) I took a handful of CDs, and ripped some tracks to show how the amount of compression can vary.

When comparing file sizes, the easiest way is to look at the bit rate that displays in iTunes. (Comparing file size is more difficult, as the different files used would have to be the same length for this to be valid.) This is an average bit rate, but it gives an idea as to the amount of compression that was achieved. Different types of music, notably with different instruments, result in compression rates that vary widely. Compare the bit rates below to the bit rate of uncompressed music on a CD, which is 1411 kbps.

Here are some examples:

  • A solo harpsichord work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 902 kbps
  • A solo piano work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 554 kbps
  • A movement of a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven: 565 kbps
  • A choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 690 kbps
  • A piece for jazz piano trio by the Brad Mehldau Trio: 687 kbps
  • A live recording of a song by the Grateful Dead: 796 kbps
  • An excerpt from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: 597 kbps
  • A movement of a symphony by Franz Schubert: 645 kbps
  • A song for male voice and piano by Robert Schumann: 446 kbps

Again, these figures are in no way absolute, and for each piece of music, the resulting level of compression could be different if the tempo, volume or instrumentation varied. But what they do show is that some types of music – notably solo harpsichord, which has a high level of harmonics at high frequencies – compress less well than, say, solo piano or voice and piano. The range of compression for these examples is from 36% to 68%, with the majority of the examples clustering around the 50% level.

Note that I haven’t tested much rock music, and especially not much recently recorded rock or popular music. With many recent recordings having high volume and using compression (not the type that reduces data size, but the kind that reduces the dynamic range of music), file sizes can be much larger. If you listen to recent recordings of such music, you’ve probably noticed that they are often very loud, compared with, say, recordings from a couple of decades ago, and these will result in higher overall bit rates when using lossless compression.

Death to “Bonus” Tracks

In the music industry’s never-ending quest to get us to pony up our money for the same music over and over, the standard method is to re-issue some music with bonus tracks, hoping that we’ll re-buy the same CD, or, even better, a whole slew of CDs in a box set. This trick is often combined with another one, that of remastering. Sometimes remasters can be good, but other times not. So bands that have been around a long time can re-purpose their material for those die-hard fans who have to own everything they’ve recorded.

The problem is that the real fans are the ones who get suckered into such tricks. Take, for instance, this forthcoming box set of the Brad Mehldau Trio’s Art of the Trio Recordings: 1996-2001. This box set not only brings together the five volumes (six discs) of Art of the Trio recordings that the trio issued, but adds, lo and behold, a seventh disc of “previously unreleased material from shows at the Village Vanguard” that “completes the box.” So, if you have all five original releases, you just have to buy the box set to get the bonus tracks.

Well, to be fair to Nonesuch Records, the box set is fairly priced: it’s currently listed at $38 on Amazon; I paid much more than that for the original releases. But do they really think that I’m going to spend another $38 for that additional disc of music (which is only 44 minutes long)? Ha!

I’m a big fan of Brad Mehldau, and own every one of his releases. But the scam of record companies to get people to buy the same material again, or to, in essence, pay a high price for some bonus tracks, is just too reprehensible for me to accede to. I can certainly find this music elsewhere, and I will do so. As much as I want to support artists, I simply can’t justify the greed of trying to get people to buy the same music over and over. The music industry managed to get us to do that when we shifted from vinyl to CDs, and I accept that the change was positive: better sound, no pops and clicks, and, in many cases, much longer timings on CDs than on LPs. But when they come out and scam fans with a few extra tracks on a re-issue, well, that’s just a swindle.

Alas, I am sure a lot of people will buy this set; mostly people who don’t have more than one or two of the original releases, or even none at all. This sort of budget release is a great thing for artists who have moved on and who don’t sell a lot of back catalog, and for fans who discover artists later in their careers. If Nonesuch sold this box simply with the original releases, I would applaud. But by adding “bonus” tracks, they’re just scamming their customers, as most record labels do.

See also a related article, Death to “Hidden Tracks”

Thoughts on Reading Proust Again

In 1981, when a revised English translation of Remembrance of Things Past was published in hardcover in the United States, I bought a massive, three-volume set of what was said to be the greatest novel ever written. (And also the longest.) A friend of mine had been reading it in an older edition around that time, and I was tempted to discover this work that so enthralled him. I remember lugging the huge, black-bound volumes, each of more than 1,000 pages, with me to and from work, and reading on the subway and bus. I had a long subway ride – from 179th St. in Queens to midtown Manhattan – and to come home I would sometimes take an express bus, which took a bit longer, but at least let me read by daylight. It took a very long time to read the entire work – I don’t remember exactly how long – but since the work’s theme is time, this was fitting.

Reading Proust got me interested in French culture. I had already read a number of French authors, such as Camus and Sartre, and Beckett (if you count him as French), and I decided that I wanted to learn French to read them in the original. (I had studied French in high school, so I had some background.) Proust’s writing is more complex than that of many other French authors, so while, at the time, I thought I wanted learn French to read Proust in the original, I never thought that would actually come true. I took some French lessons, then, a few years later, saved up enough money to move to France for a year, and ended up staying.

I came to France in the fall of 1984, where I had rented a house for a year, in the southwest of the country, with the same friend who had introduced me to Proust, and with two others would would come and go during the year. Stopping by Paris first, I visited some bookstores, and my first purchase was the three-volume Pléiade edition of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. (The Pléiade editions are unique. They are small, pocket-sized leather-bound books printed on bible paper, which generally contain complete works of great authors, often in multiple volumes, with from 1,000 to 2,000 pages each. Published by Gallimard, this series is considered to be a pantheon of great writers.) This was the then definitive edition of the novel, published in 1954, and given its compact size, you could have probably fit a half-dozen of them in the huge box that held the English translation.

I would repeat my initial Proustian experience a couple of years later in Paris, when my French, and my vocabulary, did, indeed, reach the level required to read the novel. (I recall reading a book about Proust at some point, in a Paris library, which said that Proust used 18,322 different words in his long novel. Vocabulary was therefore essential.) I carried these smaller volumes with me on the metro and busses in Paris as I went to and from work. At the time, I was teaching English to French executives, and I would always have a book handy to read during my commutes, and when waiting for classes to begin. As I look at these well-worn volumes now, I recall that period with a certain nostalgia; one could say a Proustian nostalgia.

I read La recherche a few more times after that. In the late 1980s, a new Pléiade edition was issued – it contains four volumes, costs more than twice as much as the old edition, and has twice as many pages, as each volume contains huge swaths of “variants,” or drafts that Proust wrote. I haven’t read these variants, in part because they are in tiny type (the Pléiade volumes already use a small font, but the back-of-the-book material is even smaller), and in part because there’s enough to read without going into the variants. I listened to the work once in an audiobook recording of 128 hours, which is a magnificent way to discover Proust. And I’ve just started reading this work again.

Proust has a reputation for being difficult. The novel is long – initially published in seven volumes, it comes to 3,000 to 4,000 pages, depending on the edition and font size. His writing can be hard to follow at times; Proust is known for writing long sentences, one of which is 847 words long. (I append that sentence, in French, at the end of this article for the curious.) And his work contains dozens of major characters and hundreds of minor characters, which can be hard to follow. Nevertheless, his writing is easy to read, not hard. He’s no James Joyce, and he’s no proponent of the nouveau roman. Proust’s writing flows smoothly, lyrically, as if he was speaking to the reader. (All but the Swann in Love – Un amour de Swann – section is written in the first person, so he is actually speaking to you and me.) The important discovery I made about Proust’s style occurred, in fact, when I listened to an audiobook version of La recherche in French. It became immediately apparent that Proust’s style was simply spoken French written down on paper. His long, sinuous, rambling sentences were simply the way people spoke when they went on and digressed. With this understanding, Proust’s style became nearly transparent. (I say “nearly,” because you still have to pay attention when a sentence goes on for a long time; however, if you get lost, just start over and read it out loud.)

Proust’s novel is about time. The first English title, Remembrance of Things Past, was chosen by the translator who had only read the first volume, and who didn’t know where the work was going. It was taken from a sonnet by Shakespeare, and, while it does wax poetic, it is far from the simplicity of the actual title of the work: In Search of Lost Time, or A la recherche du temps perdu. (It’s important to note that, in French, this title is slightly more ambiguous than in English; “temps perdu” is both lost time and wasted time. (An aside: French toast, in French, is “pain perdu,” or lost/wasted bread.)) The first book begins with the word “Longtemps,” or “For a long time,” and the last book ends with the word “temps,” or “time.” The entire story is about the changes that time causes on people, how people react to the passage of time, and the desire, sometimes, to get back the time that has passed.

Readers today have a much easier time with Proust than I did at first, as there are a number of books that can help you on your journey. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous look at Proust, his work, and his way of viewing the world; this is a good introduction to the work. William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life, sadly out of print, is the best English-language biography of Proust, who famously claimed that one shouldn’t concern oneself with an author’s life when reading their works. Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time is another useful guidebook, as is Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars. Offering less analysis than the previous books, Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past is a cheat-sheet for readers: it contains a plot summary, a cast of characters, and more useful information to keep you from getting lost. Finally, a wonderful series of video lectures by William C. Carter, Proust scholar and biographer, provides an excellent “course” in Proust. This web site, available on a one-payment lifetime subscription basis, includes lectures and regular Q&A sessions via webcam, as well as a forum. (If you join, you’ll see me on the forum; I’ve volunteered to help moderate and administer it.)

So, where do you begin if you want to read Proust? You should simply dive in and start with the first volume, Swann’s Way, in a recent translation, or Du côté de chez Swann, in the Folio paperback edition, if you read French. The nice leather-bound Pléiade edition is attractive, but the books are too long, in my opinion (much longer than the older edition that I carried around in my Paris days), and at that price, I don’t want to read them in the bathtub. But there are a number of different editions in French: there’s a 2,400-page one-volume edition, which is too bulky to read comfortably, and another edition in two 1,500-page volumes, which is a bit easier to handle. Other French publishers have released their own editions in paperback, since the work went into the public domain.

If you like audiobooks, and you’re a French speaker, you can get a recording of the complete text of La recherche. If you’re not a French speaker, there’s an abridged audiobook version of Remembrance of Things Past (meaning it uses the older translation), from Naxos Audiobooks or an unabridged recording of Swann’s Way, from Tantor Media. (Naxos also has a 3-CD biography of Proust, called The Life and Works of Marcel Proust, written and read by Neville Jason, the narrator of the abridged Naxos version mentioned above. Finally, Jason also narrates The Essential Remembrance of Things Past, a 10-hour version of key scenes from the text. I’ve been informed by Naxos Audiobooks that they’ll be releasing full, unabridged versions of Remembrance of Things Past within the next year.

One other wonderful book that doesn’t fit in any of the above categories is Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time. This book presents all the paintings mentioned in Proust, with excerpts from the text to contextualize them. And, if you read French, go for the French version of the book with the original texts: Le Musée imaginaire de Marcel Proust : Tous les tableaux de A la recherche du Temps Perdu.

Reading Proust is a long process; one that never ends. If you “get” Proust, you’ll realize that when you get to the end of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, you’ll want to start over. Not right away, of course, but the aftertaste of lost time will linger, and a few years later, you’ll get the itch to read it again. For me, this itch sneaks up on me every five years or so, and with each reading I understand more of the vision of this unique author who managed to write in such a way as the reader can learn to see the world differently. It’s the voyage of a lifetime, and you can start any time.

See other articles about Proust on Kirkville.

Bonus: Proust’s longest sentence, from Sodome et Gomorrhe:

Read more

Weekend Read: How Proust Can Change Your Life

This weekend, I’m re-reading a little book that I’ve found very enjoyable: How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. De Botton is a Swiss writer who lives in the UK and writes in English; I consider him to be a “popular philosopher.” He has written books about philosophy, travel, business and work, our perceptions of status, and much more. In this 1997 books, de Botton examines the life and work of Marcel Proust, and shows us how reading this work can help us understand, as Proust said, that, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Proust is perhaps one of the most daunting of authors. He didn’t write separate novels, but one long work, A la Recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time. This work covers thousands of pages, and follows its protagonist (the “narrator”) from his childhood through his adult years as he discovers aristocratic society in France. With long sentences, florid descriptions, and acerbic characterization, Proust presents a portrait of a society that, behind the glossy surface, is wicked and deceitful. Yet in spite of the length of the work, In Search of Lost Time is funny, strange, and a delight to read. Proust’s style is verbose, but his writing is musical.

I first read Proust in 1982, when a revised edition of an earlier English translation was released. In three large, hardcover volumes, this book was quite heavy, and I read it on the subway and bus as I went to and from work in New York City. When I moved to France in 1984, the first book(s) I bought was a three-volume Pléiade edition of the work (now superseded by a later four-volume edition; the extra girth is made up of notes, sketches and variants). I’ve since read Proust twice in French, and once in audio. Every few years, I get an itching to read him again, and this often starts by reading a book like de Botton’s or a biography of the author’s life.

But even if you haven’t read Proust, or don’t plan too, this little book about Proust can delight you and give you some interesting lessons about life and literature. Proust can change your life, if you take the time. Read this book to find out how.

Two notes:

  1. Interestingly, this book tends to get filed in the “self held” or “self development” category, in addition to being put on the “literature” shelves. I guess it is, in some ways, a guide to living, but, then again, isn’t all great literature?

  2. I’m a fan of audiobooks, and I was tempted to buy this in audio to listen to when walking. But seeing it at $20 (on the iTunes Store) quickly dissuaded me. Paying twice as much for an audiobook is ludicrous, especially as I know how much audiobooks cost to produce. It’s a shame, because a book like this at $10 would probably sell a lot better.

Europe ’72 Is Here

I finally got my Complete Europe ’72 box set:

I got number 3047:

In my initial listen to parts of the first show (4/7/72, Wembley Empire Pool, London, England), I’m very impressed by the quality of the mix and remastering. The instruments all sound fresh and clear, and the overall sound is very nice. It’s especially interesting to hear Pigpen’s organ a bit more present than in most recordings from this tour, and the vocals are all well balanced.

Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach

Note: I originally wrote this post in October, 2007, and having an urge to listen to Einstein on the Beach today, I decided to update it and tweak it a bit.

Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach is one of the seminal works of minimalist music. (This genre of music is characterized by repetitive motives and rhythmic structures.) Described as the “first in a Glass Trilogy of operas about men who changed the world through the power of their ideas,” Einstein, first performed in 1976 with staging by Robert Wilson, was so full of new ideas that it rocked the music world. The combination of spoken parts and singing, the tight integration of set design and dance, and the use of minimalist music in such a large scale work, mark Einstein as one of the defining works of minimalist music. Whether you like minimalism or not – and I can understand those who find it boring, even though I don’t – it is hard to deny the importance of this work.

An extensive quote from the notes to the Nonesuch recording, while slightly hubristic, gives a summary of its importance. “It is the first, longest, and most famous of the composer’s operas, yet it is in almost every way unrepresentative of them. Einstein was, by design, a glorious “one-shot” – a work that invented its context, form and language, and then explored them so exhaustively that further development would have been redundant. But, by its own radical example, Einstein prepared the way – it gave permission – for much of what has happened in music theater since its premiere.”

In 1984, I was fortunate to see the revival of the work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York, and was marked by the audacity of the music and the staging. Ten years later, when Nonesuch released a “new” recording of the work, I bought it immediately. (The original, and shorter, Sony recording, originally issued on Tomato records (which I actually still have somewhere on LPs) was later re-released on CD.) Unfortunately, neither of these are available on CD any more, though you can purchase them by download. It’s quite a shame that this opera is out of print on CD.

While I have listened to it several times over the years, it languished on my shelves until a recent query on a classical music newsgroup reminded me that I hadn’t listened to it in several years. So, how does Einstein stand up after all this time? Does it still sound as important? Does it sound dated? Einstein is clearly a product of the 1970s, both musically (Glass’s music has evolved since then, but not to the point of rupture) and culturally (there are many cultural references to the times). The work consists of the following:

1. Knee 1 8:04
2. Train 1 21:25
3. Trial 1: Entrance 5:42
4. Trial 1: “Mr. Bojangles” 16:29
5. Trial 1: “All Men Are Equal” 4:30
6. Knee 2 6:07
1. Dance 1 15:53
2. Night train 20:09
3. Knee 3 6:30
4. Trial 2/Prison: “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” 12:17
5. Trial 2/Prison: Ensemble 6:38
6. Trial 2/Prison: “I Feel The Earth Move” 4:09
1. Dance 2 19:58
2. Knee 4 7:05
3. Building 10:21
4. Bed: Cadenza 1:53
5. Bed: Prelude 4:23
6. Bed: Aria 8:12
7. Spaceship 12:51
8. Knee 5 8:04

As you can see above, there are several long sections, which provide the “meat” of the work – ranging from ten to twenty minutes, or grouped into scenes lasting about twenty minutes each – and there are also what Glass and Wilson called knee plays, “brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes,” with spoken text containing numbers, solfege syllables and poems. These five knee plays provide musical anchors for the work, using the same motives throughout, and the other long sections the “meat” of the narrative.

Some of the sections, such as the first long part, Train 1, or the later Dance 1, are raucous examples of Glass’s signature style, replete with organ and fast rhythmic motives, while others, such as the knee plays, the Entrance movement, and Mr. Bojangles, are more subtle and relaxed. Others, such as Night Train, fit somewhere in the middle. Throughout the work, there is a tension between the speed and intensity of the different sections, providing enough variety – within the relatively strict framework of minimalism – to keep the listener interested. (Though one loses all of the visual effects, which, as I recall, were quite striking; enough so to keep me interested throughout the nearly five-hour performance.) This said, the faster movements seem to me to be the weakest sections of the work, at least musically. They seem to belong to a different era of Glass’s music–similar, for example, to his Music in Twelve Parts, in their “radical minimalism”.

Glass’s music is gradual, but not in the same way as, say, Steve Reich, the other major minimalist composer of the period. Glass seems to focus more, at least in Einstein, on atmosphere, whereas Reich’s music is more about process. One of the most emblematic sections, “Mr. Bojangles”, which features a speaker reciting what may be seen as simply a nonsense text, a chorus, and obligato violin, and what could pass for a minimalist continuo, is a modern version of a Bach cantata. Musically, this section is one of the strongest in the entire work. Visually, if my memory serves, it was also stunning, and I seem to recall that the violinist was sitting on-stage as he performed his part. (And the seductive melodies and motives of that obligato violin return throughout the work, providing coherence, and beautiful music.)

There is no plot to this opera, and it is not even entirely about Einstein. The music, while fitting together, could be listened to separately. In fact, as the notes to this recording point out, “some of the music in Einstein had been originally written for a long series of concert pieces.” For those who cannot sit through the 3:20 of the entire work, there is therefore nothing wrong in listening to it in bits and pieces. After all, this is not an opera in the usual sense of the word. It is more like a series of set-pieces that fit together because of their similarity, motives and atmosphere.

To respond to one of the questions I asked above, Is it dated?, I must answer emphatically that it is not. Minimalism has been integrated into much modern music, both “classical” and electronic music, as well as other genres. Glass and Reich can both be seen as groundbreaking precursors, and, while Einstein may have shocked the first people who saw it performed in July, 1976, at the Festival d’Avignon, little of its music or staging would be seen as unorthodox today. Musically, a few of the sections may sound a bit clichéd, but, for the most part, this music has aged well, and, after nearly thirty years, belongs to the canon of classical music.

While some of this music will annoy anyone who feels that minimalism is not “real” music, other sections of the work are brilliant examples of musical atmosphere and structure. I am pleased to have brought this work back into my listening rotation, even though I won’t be listening to the work in its entirety each time – I’ll listen to a handful of sections, perhaps, or one disc at a time. (With iTunes or an iPod, making a playlist of my favorite sections would be interesting as well.) But I would also like to see a DVD of a performance of Einstein. I don’t know whether any of the performances were filmed, but, if not, it certainly is time for a revival in order to do so. Much more so than many classical operas, this work depends greatly on its visuals and staging, and the time is right for it to come back into the zeitgeist.

On the Subject of “Seriously” Listening to Music

Via the Twittersphere, I became aware of an article by composer Gabriel Kahane about Spotify, digital music, and how we listen now. Mr. Kahane – who I had never heard of before today, and who’s biography touts him as a “peerless musical polymath” – complains that people are no longer listening to music seriously. He says:

Over on the Twitter, there’s been a flurry of discussion as to whether Spotify is an improvement over illegally downloaded music or if it’s basically the same thing. I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible.

and goes on to speak of:

the gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening.

This is an interesting point, yet one that is deeply flawed. Mr. Kahane is claiming that people no longer know how to listen seriously to music; that their way of listening is somehow wrong or deficient. It is the usual complaint of the elite cultural world dissing the plebes. My art is good, but you have to spend time to understand it; the art you like is crap because you’re unable to take the time to appreciate it.

Now, I’m one of those people who is willing to take time to discover art (I’ll not limit myself here to simply music). I very much like the music of Morton Feldman, for whom time is a key feature of his works, as some of them stretch on for hours. I’m a fan of James Joyce, and have read Finnegans Wake from cover to cover, with books of annotations to help me get through it. I’m a big fan of Henry James, perhaps one of the slowest novelists in the English language, and one who wrote the most. I’ve read Proust, in toto, first once in English, then twice in French. And I have a passion for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and am currently reading the 16 volumes of his journals, to be followed by the 10 volumes of his letters. So I think I’m one of those who can and will take time when it’s necessary. (Elitist, moi?)

Mr. Kahane claims that, in the past, when we spent $15 on a CD, “there was an economic imperative of sorts to grow to like it,” and says that “Nowadays, the only records that people seem to give second chances after an initial reaction of indifference or dislike are those given the stamp of approval by select tastemakers in the blogosphere.”

Poor Mr. Kahane. Perhaps he’s reacting to poor sales of his own recordings, which may not be the darlings of the “blogosphere.” He feels that, in the future, “listeners of the world simply bounce around from one immediately satisfying songlet to another, and anything that is truly visionary/difficult/new will probably get tossed aside.” What he ignores is that, for decades, this is exactly what most music listeners have done. It’s something called “radio,” and people switch stations whenever they come across a tune they don’t like.

I’m a broad listener, rather than a deep one. I have lots of CDs – thousands, in fact – and lots of music that I’ve bought by download. I write reviews of classical music, and I’m a fan of many kinds of music, from the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan, from piano jazz to minimalism; from German lieder to Renaissance vocal music. It’s true that I don’t listen to a given disc as often as I used to – it’s simply mathematical. One thing I like to do is find those works that really move me and get multiple recordings of them, to really dig into them and hear what different performers have to say. (One example of that is Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, of which I have some 15 recordings. If you’re not familiar with that work, I recommend this recent recording by Jeremy Denk.) I’m often intrigued by new music, though I don’t pay as much attention to pop and rock as I did in the past, focusing much more of my time on classical works that I am unfamiliar with.

But does this make me a non-serious listener? In any case, who is Mr. Kahane to judge whether any listener meets his criteria for seriousness? The man comes off as a snob with a grudge, and saying that the world doesn’t appreciate Art is nothing new.

More people are discovering more music than ever before. Mr. Kahane should be delighted that his music, rather than being available only in a handful of downtown record stores, is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. The flip side of this availability is, naturally, that those who are really interested in music will listen to more music, hence listen to any given work less. But would it be better that people only have a small selection to choose from, one that is “curated” by the big record store chains?

I think the number of people who are interested in discovering “new” music is probably not decreasing; if anything, it’s the contrary. Andy Doe, writing on Twitter, made a valid comment: “To argue that streaming services are bad for serious listening is like claiming that public libraries are bad for literacy.”

Mr. Kahane, the philistines are at the gates; just as they always have been.

Update: Mr. Kahane replied to my rebuttal to his post by adding an addendum to it which is a rebuttal to mine. (Yes, terrible syntax…) I will admit that, while I had no attention of being “nasty,” the use of the word “serious” in the conclusion is what irked me most about his post. It’s clear that this was not Mr. Kahane’s intention, and I take note of that.

Mr. Kahane says:

When I was a freshman in college, my classmates and I developed a habit of walking to the hulking tower records at the corner of, I think it was Mass Ave and Newbury. We would spend a good deal of time walking amongst the oppressively lit bins and leave with a disc or two or three. I’m not going to belabor the oft-recounted ritual of unwrapping, reading the liner notes, the aura-of-the-thing to quote Benjamin. Like so many kids of my generation and generations before it, I felt an emotional rush from these acts, and from the assemblage of a collection.

While he is much younger than I, Mr. Kahane does point out the affective nature of choosing and purchasing music, which, I will agree, has gone away as music has become dematerialized. Several years of my life were chronicled in Nick Horby’s High Fidelity, when I hung out in a record store in Queens after coming home from work, with a handful of other music fans, and then went to one or another person’s apartment to listen to new LPs. (The difference in our ages is such that I was doing this around the time Mr. Kahane was in diapers.) And, yes, there was something special about it. But the difference in that time and now is partly due to a change in age, and a growth in the size of my music collection, not just the difference in music being available by download.

No matter, I dislike thinking that the “good old days” were better. They were, in some ways, but in others they were not. Back in the late 70s, it would have been hard to find more than a couple of recordings of, say, Mahler’s symphonies, Schubert’s lieder, or Beethoven’s string quartets. Now, one can find many of them, quite easily, and at much lower prices. Should we lament the fact that music is cheaper, which may lead to some of us buying more?