Music

Classical Notes

‘A common voice as cultural revolutionaries’: Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass’s ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’

Allen Ginsberg
Susan Ragan/AP/File 1994
Allen Ginsberg

A chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg in 1988 at a New York bookstore led Philip Glass to compose “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” an ecstatic piano solo to accompany an equally effusive reading by Ginsberg of his famous antiwar poem. So fulfilling did the pair find their collaboration that they decided to expand it into an entire work centered on Ginsberg’s texts. The result was “Hydrogen Jukebox” — labeled a chamber opera by Glass but really more of a theatrical song cycle that uses Ginsberg’s writings to sketch a portrait of America from the 1950s through the ’80s.

Though it lacks a clear narrative, “Hydrogen Jukebox” weaves through a host of socially pertinent topics, including religion, the sexual revolution, and political corruption. “It was right after the 1988 presidential election,” Glass wrote of the piece’s conception, “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.”

“Hydrogen Jukebox” is being revived for four performances at Boston Conservatory, beginning on Feb. 7. Conductor Ryan Turner and director Nathan Troup answered questions about the piece by e-mail.

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Q. What’s the importance of “Hydrogen Jukebox” in Glass’s oeuvre?

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Turner: Ginsberg and Glass, both Buddhists, found a common voice as cultural revolutionaries. Glass’s music, at times driving and percussively belligerent, suspends time and reality, evoking the meditative, incantatorial quality of Ginsberg’s poetry. While more of a song cycle than an opera, what is most resonant about this work to me is its big musical arc. Near the end, Glass weaves in quintessential American elements of gospel (in “From Nagasaki Days”) and then closes the opera questioningly with a capella quasi-Southern harmony (in “Father Death Blues”) to chilling effect.

Q. How would you judge his music, specifically his settings of Ginsberg’s poems?

Turner: Ginsberg’s poetry embodies a sort of breathless psychological state where we are at our sensory-input limit. Likewise, Glass sets it with an urgency and intense restlessness. He will often juxtapose in-your-face rhythmic and textual unison ensemble singing with hauntingly intimate lyrical solos. This is music that shakes the bones and penetrates the nervous system.

Q. What makes it worthy of being revived today?

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Troup: Ginsberg is a vibrant example of artists using art to reply and react to, and reflect on, the world around them. Even more specifically, there are many references to the atom bomb in the piece, and never before in my lifetime has the thought of or reference to nuclear warfare been so present or as real as it is today.

Turner: The issues of abuse of power, corrupt government officials, and the enlightened/audible voice of the few speaking truth to power are as compelling and relevant now, unfortunately, as they were to Ginsberg and Glass.

Q. How will the show be produced in order to make its relevance clear?

Troup: The fact that it’s being performed by an ensemble cast of young artists (all in their 20s) makes it relevant. And while not directly “quoted” in the design, the work of Robert Rauschenberg, which is evoked in the production, helps show the juxtaposition of time, place, and people, and lends itself to an imagining of those figures from the 1950s in relation to their current-day counterparts. Most of all, Ginsberg’s poetry is a commentary on the American experience as seen through his eye and experience, and that idea of artists using their platform to reflect, question, and challenge remains the essence of artistic expression.

Sorey at Wheaton

This weekend brings a rare opportunity to hear Tyshawn Sorey — composer, multi-instrumentalist, MacArthur Fellow, and one of the most inclusively creative musicians around. Sorey, whose music masterfully blurs the line between composition and improvisation, performs with his longstanding trio at Wheaton College in Norton on Saturday. Will Mason, assistant professor of music at Wheaton, will host a pre-concert talk with Sorey.

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“Sorey’s the ne plus ultra of omnivorous musicianship,” Mason wrote via e-mail. “He’s not burdened by the boundaries of genre or particular compositional method, but he’s also managed to craft an output marked by a distinctive and personal voice. His music evidences a deep and careful attention to sound, groove, and structure, and I find that it is at turns solemn, virtuosic, mischievous, and always engaging. I think there are few musicians better positioned than Tyshawn to show the next generation of musicians how to listen in an age of musical plenty and extract meaningful personal resonances.”

Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m., Wheaton College, Norton. www.wheatoncollege.edu/event

Hydrogen Jukebox

Glass’s music, at times driving and percussively belligerent, suspends time and reality, evoking the meditative, incantatorial quality of Ginsberg’s poetry.

Presented by Boston Conservatory at Berklee Center Stage. At Boston Conservatory Theater, Feb. 7-10. Tickets $25-30. 617-912-9222, www.bostonconservatory.berklee.edu/events/hydrogen-jukebox

Interviews were edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

An earlier version misattributed a quote about Tyshawn Sorey.