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Playing the Hydrogen Jukebox

Leading up to our 44th president's inauguration came Georgetown University's and American Opera Theater's production of Hydrogen Jukebox by Philip Glass based on a libretto of poems by Allen Ginsberg. On January 16, 2009, the Dresser had the pleasure of experiencing this Washington premier to a sold-out house in the University's Gonda Theatre at the Davis Performing Arts Center.PH2009011403656.jpg


This song cycle, often called a chamber opera, made its fully staged premier in 1990 at the Spoleto Music Festival, which had also commissioned the work. The title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from Ginsberg's long poem Howl and the phrase is what Ginsberg called an "Eyeball Kick" --two unlikely things put together that might represent something weak with something strong, a mix of high versus low culture, a juxtapositioning of sacred versus profane. The collection of songs presents a portrait of America from the 1950s through the late 1980s and deals with such social issues as the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, eastern philosophy, and matters of the environment. If another production gets mounted, do not bring young impressionable children because Ginsberg lets it all hang out in his colorful language.

What struck the Dresser immediately was how contemporary the piece seemed with its mention of Bush (albeit Bush Daddy and not the Decider son who has thankfully retreated back to his Texas ranch), Allah versus Jaweh, violence, drugs, same sex love songs (e.g. "The Green Automobile"), and the yearning for a natural landscape in the midst of a huge city. What also hit the Dresser foursquare was how accessible Philip Glass's music is in this 90-minute piece. The music actually seemed less repetitious than what is Glass's usual approach.


What the Dresser adored about the music was its whimsical soprano sax and often droll percussive sounds--lots of woodblock and cowbell taps. And yes, Glass does love percussion in spite of no percussion in his Gandhi opera Satyagraha. And the Dresser was indeed reminded of the music of Satyagraha in the opening number of American Opera Theater's (AOT) production of Hydrogen Jukebox:

"Lightning's blue glare fills Oklahoma plains, the train rolls east casting yellow shadow on grass Twenty years ago approaching Texas, I saw sheet lightning cover Heaven's corners... An old man catching fireflies on the porch at night watched the Herd Boy cross the Milky Way to meet the Weaving Girl... How can we war against that?" (From Iron Horse, 1972)

Picture the words drawn from Ginsberg's poem above accented by flashes of slow lightning and an able tenor singing serenely on a stage, nearly bare except for boxes to stand on (representing a cliff) and occasional projections. This is how AOT's artistic director Tim Nelson filled his stage: with accomplished student singers or recent graduates, minimal props, interesting lighting accents, and well-selected projections. And hey, the costumes by Heather Lockard, but particularly the shoes had the Dresser drooling. The dancing was made all the more agreeable by those splendid shoes.



Thinking outside the box, Tim Nelson produced a different Hydrogen Jukebox from the original versions (including the 1993 Nonesuch recording that features the voice of soprano Elizabeth Futral and Allen Ginsberg as narrator) and he added three more singers to the original list of six. Nelson's intention by reordering the songs was to create more of a dramatic arc and to feature what is more universal. Here's what Nelson had to say in email exchange with the Dresser:

In the recording, there were several movements not recorded. Those included "Patna Benares Express," "And the Great Rush," "The Long Stone Streets," "Consulting I-Ching," and "How Sick I Am." The latter two were originally in the first part (where we had the instrumental movement "Mad Rush"). We moved them to the second half to provide movements about spiritual and emotional emptiness that can afflict modern society. "And the Great Rush" has the same bass line and melody as "P.O Box Calcutta" (or something like that). We cut that movement and just included the one that is left out of the recording. That is the only movement we cut, and the instrumental movement "Mad Rush" is the only one we added (it is originally a piano piece of its own). "Green Automobile" was originally after "Aunt Rose." We moved it into the first half because we felt it depicted the American dream which was conceived in the automobile. It also made a nice transition into "Crossing the Nation" which is all about air travel.

The Dresser thinks that without seeing this production more than once and knowing at least the Nonesuch recording, it would be hard to say how successful Nelson was in strengthening the storyline. What came across to the Dresser as previously stated is that the piece vibrated with contemporary events and concerns. And the Dresser and her seatmate left wanting to see and hear the work again. The last number which is also the way the original production ended is a New Age barbershop quartet kind of piece called "Father Death Blues" and this piece sent the Dresser and her friend out into the frigid night humming and glowing. There were no bombs dropped in this appealing production.

Here the Dresser gives Allen Ginsberg the last word.


Hey Father Death, I'm flying home

Hey poor man, you're all alone

Hey old daddy, I know where I'm going

Father Death, Don't cry any more

Mama's there, underneath the floor

Brother Death, please mind the store

Old Aunty Death Don't hide your bones

Old Uncle Death I hear your groans

O Sister Death how sweet your moans

O Children Deaths go breathe your breaths

Sobbing breasts'll ease your Deaths

Pain is gone, tears take the rest

Genius Death your art is done

Lover Death your body's gone

Father Death I'm coming home

Guru Death your words are true

Teacher Death I do thank you

For inspiring me to sing this Blues

Buddha Death, I wake with you

Dharma Death, your mind is new

Sangha Death, we'll work it through

Suffering is what was born

Ignorance made me forlorn

Tearful truths I cannot scorn

Father Breath once more farewell

Birth you gave was no thing ill

My heart is still, as time will tell.

by Allen Ginsberg

Copyright © 1976 Allen Ginsberg


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 22, 2009 2:01 PM.

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