Glass-Ginsberg Musical Lightning

Anne Kellas

Hydrogen Jukebox is an opera from 2 of the 20th century’s most controversial artists, composer Philip Glass, transgressor of classical music boundaries, and Beat poet/hero the late Allen Ginsberg, whose work is still about as contemporary as any can be. Using 18 Ginsberg poems as libretto, the opera paints a musical mosaic of America from the 50s to the 1988 Presidential election—and into the present. Synchronicity and the 60s still conspire: while this Australasian premiere was in rehearsal, the war in Iraq was brewing. In Hobart the show’s dramatic posters, on which Ginsberg’s words form Stars and Stripes dripping like paint slowly attracted a layer of anti-war graffiti. The war was at its height during the performance at Hobart College and we were all “…listening to the crack of doom on the Hydrogen Jukebox” as Ginsberg wrote in HOWL.

Rarely performed, Hydrogen Jukebox has a reputation for being difficult, but this production moved seamlessly from poem/trance to musical lightning strike across a canvas of controversial, confronting territory—political propaganda and anti-war feeling, personal anguish and sexual politics, religious and cultural dissonance, so content-rich and energetic it left me gasping.

Director Robert Jarman deserves high praise for making this important work accessible to a new generation eager for the hard-won truth: that sometimes art can explain life better than we think. Jarman’s innovation was the side-screen projection of scrolling computer text, taken from the net, listing US government and CIA interventions. Meanwhile, centre stage, Ginsberg’s lyrics rode effortlessly astride Philip Glass’ mesmeric musical lines. Glass uses the human voice as instrument and instrument as voice—just as Ginsberg played around with bizarre adjective-noun combinations. Medleys of incantations—“Who is the enemy, year after year…battle after battle…” (Iron Horse) form hypnotic, lilting word/sound waves that travel from performer to audience like electric musical current. This is a powerful and confronting production.

Behind the singers, actors made a living fresco—in Grecian white robes, or statuesque in plush towelling, slowly rubbing the stars and stripes off bronzed flesh, or forlorn in trench coats, travelling, crying. There’s humour too—Aunt Rose in lopsided 5/8 rhythm, and The Green Automobile, camp, upbeat.

Many in this production’s cast perform regularly with Hobart-based IHOS Opera. Of particular note were Sarah Jones’ crystal soprano, Matt Dewey’s wonderfully resonant bass-baritone, Chris Waterhouse’s and Craig Wood’s smooth tenor and Robert Jarman’s reading of Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra. Thematically, as we crossed beyond America into the buddafields, into now-ness, I felt I’d watched a new media form being invented. This beatnik opera’s mix of imagery and soundscape is explosive, but gentle beyond words.

Hydrogen Jukebox, University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music, composer Philip Glass, libretto Allen Ginsberg, director Robert Jarman, conductor Douglas Knehans, choreographer John Rees-Osborne, lighting Tony Soszynski, sound Malcolm Bathersby, Hobart College, April 15, 21, 24-26

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 30

© Anne Kellas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003