Fri, 09/09/2005 — Fasteriskhead

In 1979, some three years after the co-creation of their landmark avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach, composer Philip Glass and stage producer Robert Wilson briefly reunited to consider the possibility of a sequel. Wilson, having become fascinated with Space Invaders through the latter half of '78, lured Glass in with the possibility of creating a new work loosely devoted to the subject of the then-new topic of video gaming. Although never completed to any great degree, portions of the new opera were sketched out in draft and the project was given a tentative title, basing itself off of the classic shooter Galaxian.

Wilson approached Glass in late '78 with the idea: a biographical opera several hours in length, basing itself not off of the life of a person (as Einstein, though non-narrative in nature, still focused on a historical figure) but on that of a pixillated intergalactic space ship. Initially, Glass was understandibly hesitant to become involved with Wilson again - though their previous opera had been very popular and enormously successful, the expense of producing Einstein had landed both men into massive debt after its premiere in '76. Glass, then involved with a series of modest dance and theatrical works and music for films such as North Star (1977), wanted nothing to do with a large-scale production with such a degree of financial risk. It was only after Wilson invited the composer into a local arcade for a night that Glass became fascinated with the idea, and agreed.

By the early months of '79 work was already underway, despite the lack of a final decision as to which game was to be used for the subject matter. There still exist painfully detailed blocking diagrams by Wilson, detailing a scene where some twenty alien ships (described as "figures made of light") slowly move back and forth above the stage, completing their descent exactly twelve and a half minutes later. Glass too had finished the scoring this scene (though he had yet to orchestrate it), and though it was ultimately never realized the music later appeared in slightly modified form in the printing scene from Satyagraha. Drafts for other scenes also exist, though in nowhere near as complete a form, and much of Glass' music from the project was later reused elsewhere in Satyagraha, Koyaanisqatsi, Glassworks, and his second string quartet.

By the middle of the year the two had tentatively settled on the subject matter of the recently-released Namco epic Galaxian; Wilson in particular was drawn to the game's innovative use of color. By this time, however, the ideas of both men had begun to fizzle (each admits this in his personal accounts), though work continued regardless. The last-dated piece available is a short description by the producer of a stage framed by monolithic blocks and a space ship (actually a solo clarinet musician) dodging back and forth between them as aliens make kamikaze dives towards him over the course of a half-hour. The death knell came when Namco, concerned about the (mostly untrue) details of sexual content, refused to allow the opera to use their product's name; rather than go back and redo months of work, both men decided to let Galaxian on the Beach simply die off. Wilson went on to make Death Destruction & Detroit while Glass continued with his own projects (eventually seguing into what was to become his true second opera, Satyagraha). The two friends remained on good terms, however, and would reunite a second time for certain portions of Wilson's the CIVIL warS.


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