Notes on Philip Glass in City Lights Pre-Appomattox

Categories: Arts

By Meredith Brody

Continuing my pre-Appomattox education, I attended a discussion at City Lights, billed as an evening with Philip Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, that turned out to be somewhat different.

I’m usually keen on arriving early, especially to a venue as cramped as City Lights. But life and North Beach parking intervened, and I arrived, breathless, at 7:25, to find not only every seat taken, but the event in full swing. Startled, I asked the counter-person if, indeed, the start time had been 7 p.m., but she said no, "They just started early."

From my vantage point, in one of the archways dividing the main store from the counter, I couldn’t see (or hear) Glass (is it because I’m in a bookstore that I immediately think of J.D. Salinger’s "A Fine Day for Bananafish" ...

and "Can you see more glass?"?), but I spy the bald head of conductor Dennis Russell Davies, familiar to me from GLASS: a portrait of Philip in twelve parts, the documentary by Scott Hicks.

There are a number of us, stuck in limbo outside the main room, and a City Lights staffer comes to lead us to another City Lights entrance further up Columbus so we can get closer to the action. I end up sitting on the floor. Glass is indeed absent, but in addition to the unbilled Russell Davies, there’s also director Robert Woodruff, Hampton, and an interlocutor. They discuss Appomattox’s gestation. It was originally developed with director George C. Wolfe, who followed Joe Papp (and, coincidental footnote, Joanne Akailaitis, Glass’s first wife) as the head of the New York Shakespeare Festival. During the development process a useful decision was made to keep the action to the last two weeks of the war – and then add events that the war influenced in the future. "Opera without women doesn’t work too well," we were told, laughingly, and thus the wives of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were key. In fact, we’re told, Julia Grant both opens and closes the piece. In this vein, Christopher Hampton utters my favorite line of vthe evening: "Mary Lincoln was a real piece of work."

The discussion is opened to questions. The locked door we were led to has been left open, and a somewhat agitated questioner has alarmed me, a little, by coming in and standing just behind the interlocutor (who, I’m told later, is Dr.Christoper Kanna, the Musical Administrator of SF Opera), a little too close for comfort. The question he asks is a little rushed and garbled: it sounds something like "Paul Erdish has a philosophy of numbers. What’s your Erdish number?", which is greeted by blank stares and the eventual answer "We don’t have one."

I leave, clutching a reading list, which is so daunting that I immediately misplace it. (The reading about Russian politics that I did last year in preparation for Tom Stoppard’s "The Coast of Utopia" only served to confuse me, and I never managed to get to New York to see it, anyway. But I was better able to read the three million "New York Times" stories about it, anyway.) I mean to Google Paul Erdish when I get home, and Erdish numbers, but I misplace that idea, too.

But at a dinner party a couple of days later I mention the wacky questioner, and my friend Peter knows what he was talking about. It’s something like "Six Degrees of Separation," how far you are from being a co-author with this guy Erdish of a paper, which even though the question now makes a little more sense, still seems absurd in its context.

And a couple of days after that, in the familiar vein that once you hear about something you’ll soon see it popping up everywhere, I’m reading "The New York Times Book Review." In a review of a chess book, I learn that its author, Paul Hoffman, also wrote The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, about the mathematician Paul Erdos, and I make the leap. (And, when I google Paul Erdish, just for the hell of it, helpful Google asks, Did you mean: paul erdos. Well, yes, as it turns out. And I learn that Peter was right about Erdos numbers)

And I probably will be reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers before I crack any Civil War books.

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