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Grace Under Pressure 

In Monsters of Grace, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson may have created theater for the next century. Not easily, of course.

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999

You rarely get ideas by yourself," admits Philip Glass. "Things happen much more collectively."

"Collective" aptly describes the development of Monsters of Grace, the latest work by Glass and theater/opera director Robert Wilson. In 1976, the avant-garde giants changed the face of 20th-century musical theater with Einstein on the Beach, a landmark five-hour work with no intermission, no plot, no narrative, and sung text that consists only of numbers and solfege syllables.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Monsters may prove to be as groundbreaking to the 21st century as Einstein was to the 20th, both in terms of the technology employed and the teamwork needed to execute it.

Touted as a "digital opera in three dimensions," Monsters is a 73-minute work in 13 scenes, nine of which are settings of poems by 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi. The Philip Glass Ensemble performs the score live with singers while the audience -- wearing special polarized lenses -- views 3-D computer-animated images projected on a large screen.

The impetus for Monsters of Grace came from Einstein on the Beach, which despite its significance has never been staged in the U.S. outside of New York City, due to the high costs involved in taking it on the road. "According to the history books, [Einstein] is a masterwork that redirected the way performers think about what's possible," says International Production Associates founder Jedediah Wheeler. "To this day [it] hasn't been seen in its own country. And that was a big problem for me."

Wheeler produced the 1984 and 1992 revivals of Einstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and has worked on several projects with both Glass and Wilson since. "I wanted to do a work they could tour, that would bring the confluence of the Wilson and Glass sensibilities to people," he explains.

Glass was also interested in doing a touring project with Wilson. "I stayed mainly in America," says the composer. "But Bob went to Europe. And what I discovered is that his work has not been seen very much in the States. And what I wanted to do was bring the work of my longtime associate and collaborator here, and to make a traveling piece that we could take around the country."

So in the summer of 1993, the two retreated to Wilson's studio in Water Mill, N.Y. Working from Wheeler's directive to explore the relationship between objects, light, and sound in a theater, the affable, voluble musician talked, and the quiet, fastidious director drew. When they returned to Wheeler, they had a complete show. "It was about 90 minutes long, with 13 scenes," Wheeler recalls. "And it was glorious to look at -- except that it couldn't be done."

Among the images on Wilson's storyboards: a giant foot slowly landing in the desert, a helicopter hovering over the Great Wall of China, and a hand appearing from nowhere and pulling a 35-foot sword out of the ocean.

So much for touring.
To offset the costs of trying to stage these fantastical images, Wheeler started asking about computer programs that could design all of the elements and time out the entire production before it ever got into a theater. Someone suggested that Wheeler visit Massachusetts-based Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., which created the computer animation for movies like Stargate and Judge Dredd.

"We showed Jed the work we'd been doing in stereoscopic computer animation," says Jeff Kleiser. "He thought that might be able to solve some of the staging problems that they had for Monsters of Grace. We started thinking about it as a way of executing certain difficult effects onstage. Then my partner, Diana, said, 'Why don't we just do the whole thing in computer animation?' "

"By the time I finished the meeting," recalls Wheeler, "the whole show was going to be done on the computer. I could take all of the expenses I would incur touring the show, and I would reduce those costs and shift the expense into the film."

Done commercially, the cost of that much stereoscopic computer animation would have been even more outrageous than if Wheeler had tried to stage the work conventionally. But Kleiser-Walczak got help from Silicon Graphics, which loaned the animation company 50 processors, and Alias Wavefront, which lent software.

"I realized that we had a unique hybrid here, where the special-effects world embraces the high-art world and vice versa, and high and low find a common ground," says Wheeler.

High art would meet high tech in the longest 3-D animation film ever made.

The trouble with doing something unprecedented is that, well, it has no precedent. "None of us knew anything about it," says Glass. "There's no owner's manual for this kind of work, and there's no model for it." But Glass, who's done live music with film for works like La Belle et la Bete and Koyaanisqatsi, needed less convincing than Wilson.

"Bob didn't know what I was talking about," recalls Wheeler. "Bob is a traditionalist -- within his realm. Philip is more of an experimentalist in many ways; he's up for a good idea."

Glass' one reservation about the animated film was that the computer images might end up feeling too cold. "I hadn't ever seen it," says Glass. "So it was without reason. But it was especially why I was moved to a poet like Rumi. It's a very openhearted, warm, humanistic kind of poetry. The second consideration was that the world of magic and transformation that Rumi talks about is very much the world of magic and transformation that you see in the work of Wilson."

Glass, working from Wilson's storyboards, heightened the mystical and exotic aspects of Rumi's poetry by adding samples of Middle Eastern instruments -- including traditional ancient instruments from Persia and Turkey -- to his usual sonic palette of synthesizers and woodwinds. The resulting score is extremely lyrical, with a warmth and richness wholly distinct from Glass' earlier music.

Through Rumi, Glass also found meaning in the work's title, which originated from a slip of the tongue. "Bob was doing Hamlet," says Glass. "There's a line in it that has the phrase 'ministers of grace,' and he couldn't get it right. He kept saying 'monsters of grace.' We were working on the piece at the time, and he was complaining to me, saying, 'I can't get this line right. I can never get it.' And then he said, 'Oh, the hell with it -- why don't we call the piece Monsters of Grace? And so that was the title.

"And then about a year later Bob said to me, 'What does the title mean?' So I said that grace is a divine state that is a gift that is given to people. And monsters are, in fact, the human condition. So as a piece, Monsters of Grace becomes the passage between the human world to the divine world -- which is precisely what Rumi is talking about."

Having collaborated with Wilson several times, Glass was all too familiar with the difficulties involved in turning Wilson's otherworldly imagery into reality. "How you take these space-age images and magical visions of Bob Wilson and put them on a stage has always been a problem," says Glass.

The 3-D computer animation proposed by Kleiser-Walczak seemed to be the perfect solution. "We were able to create a mountainscape for him," says Wheeler. "And in that mountainscape we were able to put the Great Wall of China and a pagoda that looks like the leaning tower of Pisa, and then all of that is fractured into little pieces of mica.

"Technology had caught up with Bob Wilson."
Creating visuals for Monsters of Grace involved a year of almost nonstop work by a crew of 20 to complete the final 73 minutes of footage. Only seven of the 13 scenes from the film were completed in time for the first scheduled performances at UCLA last April. The remaining six were staged live with actors.

Wheeler dubbed the UCLA show Monsters of Grace 1.0, with later, "updated" performances similarly designated (version 1.2 played at London's Barbican Center) until the world premiere presentation of the completed film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December.

Kleiser says the animation crew did everything they could to keep Wilson directly involved in the decision-making process. "We used both stereoscopic slides, which we projected for him in our New York office, and we also took a team of people to Berlin, while he was rehearsing another project, so that we could keep up with showing him what we were doing," he says.

But Wilson had apparently grown frustrated by his inability to exert his usual creative control, and began to distance himself from the work. "It was clear that we weren't going to have Bob be able to say, 'Yes, that's good' or 'No, that's no good,' " explains Kleiser. "So we took a lot of the responsibility for designing the later scenes ourselves -- based on Bob's designs, of course. That's when Diana and I became directors of the project, and we just told Bob that everything was going to be fine."

"I don't think [Wilson] is going to be doing 3-D film again," admits Wheeler. "Still, the objective is being achieved. Bob will be represented -- and represented positively -- throughout the country with a project that's groundbreaking, and which changes the way people think about what's possible. He will be associated with something rather daring that's using technology of the day."

While 3-D usually involves objects flying out of the screen to scare and/or surprise the viewer, Monsters explores infinite distance as much as startling proximity. Where high-end computer animation is known for maximizing activity in a minimal amount of time, here, as in Wilson's stage works, imagery unfolds in extreme slow motion. A boy rides toward the camera on a bicycle, moving at an almost imperceptible speed through the trees. A Japanese tea tray floats in midair before dissolving into television static. Wilson's trademark bars of light glide across the screen in a graceful, multicolored dance.

"Each person has a different experience, depending upon who they are and what they're thinking about," explains Kleiser. "There's nothing there in the content, really, to think about. It's just imagery to look at, and you bring to it your own kinds of sensibilities. So it's really a different sort of experience. It's a unique and enthralling experience."

Monsters of Grace will be performed Tuesday through Saturday, April 13-17, at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $22-42; call (510) 642-9988.

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Stacey Kors


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