Spontaneous Composition: Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass partner to create Hydrogen Jukebox

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Hydrogen Jukebox takes its name from a line in Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem Howl, which reads, "listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox . . . . " Philip Glass was the pianist for the work's Spoleto Festival premiere (above). Photo by William Struhs

1990"Ultimately, the motif of Hydrogen Jukebox, the underpinning, the secret message, secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium." -- Allen Ginsberg

In FY 1990, Spoleto Festival U.S.A received a $60,000 NEA New American Works grant to "support the development, rehearsal, and preproduction of 'Hydrogen Jukebox,'" a chamber opera for ensemble and soloists. The work, which premiered at Spoleto on May 26, 1990, grew out of a chance meeting between legendary poet Allen Ginsberg and groundbreaking composer Philip Glass in 1988. Glass had just been asked to compose a piece for the [Vietnam Veterans Theatre Ensemble], and he asked Ginsberg to perform with him. Ginsberg suggested a piece based on his epic anti-war poem Wichita Vortex Sutra.

"Allen and I so thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration that we soon began talking about expanding our performance into an evening-length music-theater work," writes Glass in the liner notes for Hydrogen Jukebox. Along with designer Jerome Sirlin, Glass and Ginsberg built a libretto from Ginsberg's collected work, selecting 18 poems that together sketched a "portrait" of America from the 1950s through the 1980s.

"Having decided the topics, we then found texts that covered them, and put a mosaic or tapestry together," explained Ginsberg, "so the drama is interlinked, hooked together thematically, though it's not a 'linear' story. Maybe more like a slow motion video."

For Glass, Ginsberg's work was a natural fit for addressing the social issues prevalent in the 1980s. "With Jukebox I was working with a vernacular language that we all know," he says. "For this purpose nothing could be better than Allen's poetry, because he is inventing a poetic language from the sounds and rhythms all around us -- and American language that is logical, sensual, at times abstract and always expressive."

Prior to the work's Spoleto premiere, Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival hosted several early performances of Hydrogen Jukebox in the spring of 1990. A Washington Post reviewer praised the work for its "fully focused, deeply communicative and artistically integrated concept."

With a playing time of nearly two hours (with one intermission), Hydrogen Jukebox is scored for six voices and a chamber ensemble comprising keyboards, winds, and percussion. The poet serves as narrator. Sirlin designed the sets and visual elements, while choreographer and director Ann Carlson originated the staging. The mood of the 15-song cycle shifts from the percussive militarism of Jahweh and Allah Battle to the haunting vocalese on the Iron Horse selections to the hymnlike rhythms of Wichita Vortex Sutra.

The Washington Times called Hydrogen Jukebox "a happy meeting of two unmistakably American sensibilities." Given Glass and Ginsberg's shared adherence to Buddhism and each man's standing as a cultural pioneer -- Glass as a proponent of minimalism in classical music and Ginsberg as a resurrectionist of poetry's incantatory line -- it is not surprising that their collaboration was a fruitful one, garnering mostly positive reviews.

The Times review further raved, "The triumph of Mr. Ginsberg's poetry is much like that of Walt Whitman's 'Specimen Days,' a joyous reaffirmation of humanity in the face of brutality. The triumph of Mr. Glass's music lies in its power to make time stand still, letting the audience live the words as if these were not taking place in a linear plane."

Glass and Ginsberg presented Hydrogen Jukebox in more than 30 cities in the U.S. and abroad. They also made plans to collaborate on another concert work based on Ginsberg's 1978 poem Plutonium Ode. "At that time I had in mind simply an extended piano work to accompany Allen in live performance," recalls Glass. Ginsburg died in 1997, however, before the new work was completed. Unwilling to continue without the poet, the composer left the work incomplete,

A new commission -- from Carnegie Hall and Brucknerhaus Linz -- to celebrate Glass's 65th birthday prompted the composer to finish what became Philip Glass' Symphony No. 6 -- Plutonian Ode. "By then, the piano music I had originally imagined had grown to a full orchestra and Allen's resonant speaking voice to a lyric soprano," recounts Glass.

Nearly two decades after its composition, Hydrogen Jukebox remains a relevant work in the contemporary repertoire. Glass speaks to its persistent appeal saying, "We've taken [Hydrogen Jukebox] to many different cities, and people recognize it -- perhaps they see themselves in the portrait."

Notes: All Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg quotes were taken from the liner notes for Hydrogen Jukebox, as posted on www.PhilipGlass.com.