Hydrogen Jukebox: a critique of America

“Hydrogen Jukebox,” a 1990 musical collaboration between Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg and the latest operatic production from the School of Music, is a very fitting title for the collaboration between two titans of American 20th century culture: a fusion of thought and music in a single atomically explosive package.

On one side of the collaboration we have composer Philip Glass, one of the pioneers of minimalist music, best known for his breakthrough piece Einstein on the Beach. On the other side we have Allen Ginsberg, a poet of the Beat Generation, best known for the 1956 poem “Howl Part II,” a critique of American post-war capitalist culture and sexual repression. A chance meeting between the two in a New York book store in 1988 led to “Hydrogen Jukebox,” an opera intended to form a portrait of America in the years between 1950 and 1980.

The opera has no narrative structure, but is more of a compilation of different pieces. The show starts off with low bass notes emulating ominous rumbles of thunder and flashes of light to mimic the blue lightning mentioned in the first song “Iron Horse,” a reflection on the Vietnam War and the state of war in America.

The School of Music’s production features a minimalist, industrial stage. There is a wall of ridged metal in the background, and a giant billboard in the foreground that displays the lyrics being sung. The billboard at times also shows visual annotations of some of the content in the lyrics, which is quite helpful in instances where the poems make period-specific references.

Different props are also introduced and taken off stage for each different piece. While most of the time these props are innocuous, sometimes they can be ridiculous. For instance, during “Iron Horse” a giant grenade floats down from ceiling in a not-so-subtle allusion to war. During a song about atomic warfare where one of the lines is “there were people starving and crawling…” a giant hamburger appears on the left side of the stage and a shirtless man slowly crawls on the ground towards it.

While Ginsberg is mostly known for his highly political, Beatnik-era critiques of American society, many poems featured in Hydrogen Jukebox also let us see more of Ginsberg’s more intimate and reflective sides. These pieces greatly help to break up some of the more politically heavy pieces, whose enjoyment may vary depending on someone’s political beliefs or how much knowledge they have of the time era.

“Consulting — Ching” is a contemplative song about the passing of time while slowly getting high on pot and drifting off to “the deserted city which lies below consciousness.” “Cabin in the Woods” is a haiku-like composition about watching the sun rise with a cup of tea while sitting on a tree stump in the mountains that Glass transforms into an ethereal aria. In “to P.O.” Ginsberg describes a hot summer night in Calcutta with his lover. The warm yellow lighting and the staging, a single bare yellow light bulb hanging above a rocking chair, seems to transport one into the hot hotel room where Ginsberg was staying. The music, tinged with the soft rattle of maracas and the ringing of Indian bells, has a mesmerizing, ritualistic feel. “From The Green Automobile” is an imagined road trip with an old friend; the musical composition is bright and free — woodwinds and electric tones resonate with the child-like excitement and wistful imagination of the poem. A projection of hand-drawn stars appears during the verse with “forestlike unnatural radiance illuminating the mountaintop.”

The highlight of the show, however, is “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” a poem that reconciles Ginsberg’s political and personal sides. The poem, first composed by Ginsberg on a tape recording made while traveling to Kansas on a bus, is a call for healing after the brutality of the Vietnam War. Glass’s warm yet minimal piano accompaniment flows fluidly alongside with Ginsberg’s poetry and subtly but powerfully emphasizes its emotional undertones. Junior Linguistics major Dante Horvath does an excellent, impassioned reading of the Ginsberg poem.

“Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which is performed spoken, does leaves one questioning why Glass decided to convert Ginsberg’s free verse poetry into, of all forms, opera. Much of the poetry’s original musicality in terms of the rhythm of the syllables in each verse is lost in the transition into operatic song. Verses are often stretched out or condensed at places where they normally would not be if spoken. A prime example of this is in “To Aunt Rose” where the verse “limping down the long hall in Newark on the running carpet” becomes “limmping down the long halllllllll – in Newwwwwark – on the ruuuuunning caaaaaarpet” when sung.

That is not to say all of the pieces don’t work with the format. Some poems, especially those with a more lyrical or hymn-like structure to begin with, work surprisingly well. For instance, “Howl Part II,” a condemnation of war and capitalism, features a screeching, howling sax line while harsh neon pink and red lights frame the singers. Altogether, it sounds like Satanic hymn. Similarily, the closing piece “Father Death Blues,” a poem about accepting death whose structure was also originally more lyrical, uses a wide range of voices to create a contemplative lullaby.

For those interested in the works of Glass or Ginsberg, “Hydrogen Jukebox” is a good introduction to both their styles and composition. Even for those uninterested in either artist, their collaboration on “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is an experience that must be heard; it is truly a merging of their work, a piece that brings together the best aspects of both artists.