Glass: Einstein on the Beach

Drones. Almost imperceptible. A cathedral kind of reverence when the organ is marking time before service starts. And then, the counting: 1… 2…

Einstein on the Beach: Knee 1 (Philip Glass, Robert Wilson dir.)

In her new book, Betwixt and Between, essayist Jenny Boully writes of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, “One senses that at its very core is a strange mechanism, an enormous supercomputer with no connection to the empirical world yet nevertheless striving to connect to that world.”

The libretto of Glass’s opera (all 5 breathless hours of it, performed without intermission) isn’t built entirely around numbers — even the opening, Knee 1, includes catches of words: “Oh, these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends” becomes layered in soon on. But numbers form the foundation of the work, if even because they form the foundation of music: meter, time, and tempo. If you’re a musician who has played Glass, you’re familiar with the sensation of always counting. It’s how you maintain your awareness of the work.


This pairs with the foundational meditation practice of counting the breath. When we have trouble anchoring ourselves in the moment, we can always go back to counting the breath. If our mind wanders or we lose count, we begin again. If our focus has become more acute and we actually reach 10, we begin again. The most immediate way of being here now is connecting to the body’s most obvious expression of nowness: The breath in this moment. As we spend more time with it, we can perhaps see the symphony or the opera that we build on that moment. It’s our way of connecting the supercomputer to the empirical world.

Today’s Contemplation

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… Whether you've never counted the breath or you think you've graduated past counting, count the breaths today as you practice. Don't worry if you can't make it to 10 — getting to 1 is just as good.

Does counting the breaths get you to a more subtle state of consciousness? Does it bring you to a deeper sense of connection — either within your own body or to the present moment in the empirical world?