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FWO Archives: 'Hydrogen Jukebox' Program Notes (2011 Festival)

Hydrogen Jukebox (2011 Fort Worth Opera Festival)

Poetry by Allen Ginsberg

Music by Philip Glass

Behind the Scenes of Hydrogen Jukebox

The phrase "hydrogen jukebox," while curious sounding, had deep personal significance for poet Allen Ginsberg. For him, it summed up the entire idea of America's sensory overload with its military industrial complex - a thought that propelled much of his writing. By the time Hydrogen Jukebox came into being in 1990, Ginsberg had witnessed and catalogued four decades of turmoil in America through his poetry. Together, Ginsberg and composer Philip Glass constructed this piece from his poems written from the end of World War II, through the thick of the Cold War, and until just before the Berlin Wall fell. Fundamentally, it is a living image of America's difficult, often ugly, growing pains, and that picture is drawn by the words of someone who considered himself an outcast in his own country.

Hydrogen Jukebox is in fact very difficult to categorize, and has been described alternately as a portrait of America, a melodrama, and a staged song-cycle. Both Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass defied conventions in their lives and in their art. Ginsberg's poetry turned a critical eye to American society, examining accepted norms and questioning their authority. Composer Philip Glass based his music on fragments, brief melodic and repetitive structures, a style of writing he developed as a reaction against more conventional methods of composition.

The cast of 'Hydrogen Jukebox,' Fort Worth Opera 2011. Photo by Ellen Appel.
The cast of 'Hydrogen Jukebox,' part of the company's 2011 Festival; Photo by Ellen Appel


Philip Glass (b. 1937) hates being described as a minimalist composer, but he is affiliated strongly with the label. Minimalism's characteristics are simple melodic or harmonic vocabulary, built on repetitive rhythm. Minimalist music, like minimalist art, strives to strip compositions down to the purest essentials. As a young composer, Glass was dissatisfied with "modern" music coming out of Julliard, where he studied for a time. He believed that the highly intellectual approach to atonal composition left little room for an audience, so he took his studies to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Quincy Jones. He was later known to say that his time with her was a re-education in the basic elements of music.

The cast of 'Hydrogen Jukebox,' part of the company's 2011 Festival; Photo by Ellen Appel
The cast of 'Hydrogen Jukebox,' part of the company's 2011 Festival; Photo by Ellen Appel

However, the major turning point for Glass was when he was hired to transcribe music written by famed Indian composer Ravi Shankar for Western musicians. Through that experience, he found a style of composition based on rhythmic development, not melodic or harmonic development, which appealed to him deeply. He left Paris, traveling to North Africa and India to study types of Eastern music, and he returned to New York in 1967 with his aesthetic set. From that point on, Glass designed his music to submerge an audience in a tapestry of sound. Between using steady pulses and gradual transformations, minimalistic music can seem to be more like the canvas than the paint. The hope is that by experiencing the music in a pure form, the listener actually becomes part of the performance both emotionally and spiritually.

Read the KERA Arts&Seek Review HERE.


Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was instrumental in establishing a major literary movement, as the father of the Beat Generation. The Beatniks, as they were soon called, were birthed from the aftermath of the bombs that ended World War II. The horrors of WWII (concentration camps, 50 to 70 million casualties, nuclear bombs, and the ensuing spread of Communism and the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe) caused a poison to creep into America's consciousness. While it seemed, the American dream was flourishing, the truth was that paranoia, fear, and anxiety festered just under the surface. The writers who chose to face the darkness, even embrace it, found their figurehead in Allen Ginsberg.

Rosa Betancourt and Justin Hopkins; Photo by Ellen Appel.
Rosa Betancourt and Justin Hopkins; Photo by Ellen Appel.

In 1955, Ginsberg was in San Francisco- a city that was a continent away from Washington D.C. and New York both geographically and ideologically. Though he was still an outsider to the cultural scene, having just arrived from New York, he was asked to help organize a poetry reading. With his close friend Jack Kerouac, the other spokesperson for the Beat Generation and writer of On the Road, Ginsberg planned and executed a gathering that was in no way discreet or genteel. During the reading that night, called Six Poets at Six Gallery, Ginsberg introduced the world to the first part of his infamous poem Howl. The scene, which took on legendary status with each re-telling, was described as being anti-­ academic, and while it began with formality, the readers and the audience, both supplied with ample amounts of red wine, transformed into wild participants. Ginsberg admitted later "all [that] was missing was the orgy." In response to Ginsberg's reading, Michael McClure, one of the other poets who read that night, wrote: "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America . . .”

Read the TheaterJones Review HERE.

Ginsberg's poetry, which had not been published widely prior to the San Francisco reading, was thrust into the spotlight thanks to a publisher who attended the event. Ginsberg continued to refine and expand on Howl, eventually making it a three-part work. The poet's homosexuality and the frank address of sexuality in general addressed within the poem caused it to be declared obscene by the U.S. government. The publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti won the ensuing obscenity trial brought against him in 1957 when the judge declared Howl had redeeming social importance. The nationwide media coverage of the case helped bring governmental censorship to light, which led many to question the legality of what government was doing in the name of the national good.

A scene from Philip Glass' 'Hydrogen Jukebox'; Photo by Ellen Appel.
A scene from Philip Glass' 'Hydrogen Jukebox'; Photo by Ellen Appel.


Thirty years later when the collaboration between Glass and Ginsberg began, America had changed radically since the publishing of Howl, but Ginsberg's poetry had continued to reflect those changes as the decades passed. As such, the two men decided in approaching Hydrogen Jukebox that they should depict how America looked through Ginsberg's eyes throughout his career. Lawrence Edelson, director for Fort Worth Opera's production of Hydrogen Jukebox, describes in his notes how these two great artists came together to create the piece:

Ginsberg wanted his poems to be read aloud. Music and chanting were both important parts of Ginsberg's live delivery during his own poetry readings, often accompanying himself on a harmonium, or being accompanied by a guitarist. The collaboration with Glass on Hydrogen Jukebox was borne out of a chance meeting between the two men at St. Mark's bookshop in New York City. Glass explains that he asked Ginsberg if he would perform with him. "We were in the poetry section, and he grabbed a book from the shelf and pointed out 'Wichita Vortex Sutra.' The poem, written in 1966 and reflecting the anti-war mood of the times, seemed highly appropriate for the occasion. I composed a piano piece to accompany Allen's reading, which took place at the Schubert Theater on Broadway. Allen and Iso thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration that we soon began talking about expanding our performance into an evening-length music-theater work. It was right after the 1988 presidential election, and neither Bush nor Dukakis seemed to talk about anything that was going on. I remember saying to Allen, if these guys aren't going to talk about the issues then we should."

A scene from Philip Glass' 'Hydrogen Jukebox'; Photo by Ellen Appel.
A scene from Philip Glass' 'Hydrogen Jukebox'; Photo by Ellen Appel.

For Hydrogen Jukebox, Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg worked together to choose eighteen poems that they felt formed a portrait of America. As Glass explains, this portrait "covered the '50s, '60s, 70s, and '80s. It also ranged in content from highly personal poems of Allen's to his reflection on social issues: the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, Eastern philosophy, environmental awareness-all issues that seemed "counter-cultural" in their day. Now ...they seemed to have become more 'mainstream' and yet, because of the power of Allen's poetry, still with their youthful energy intact."

Jonathan Blalock and Dan Kempson; Photo by Ellen Appel.
Jonathan Blalock and Dan Kempson; Photo by Ellen Appel.

Ginsberg described the piece as "a 'melodrama'...a millennial survey of what's up-what's on our minds, what's the pertinent American and Planet News. Constructing the drama, we had the idea of the decline of empire, or Fall of America as 'empire,' and even perhaps the loss of the planet over the next few hundred years. We made a list of things we wanted to cover... there was of course Buddhism, meditation, sex, sexual revolution - in my case awareness of homosexuality and Gay lib. There was the notion of corruption in politics, the corruption of empire at the top. There are the themes of art, travel, East-meets­ West and ecology, which is on everyone's mind. And war, of course, Peace, Pacifism." He further explained that "the title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from a verse in the poem Howl: '...listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...' It signifies a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization's military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, reminder of apocalypse."

The cast of Fort Worth Opera's 'Hydrogen Jukebox'; Photo by Ellen Appel.
The cast of Fort Worth Opera's 'Hydrogen Jukebox'; Photo by Ellen Appel.

In Hydrogen Jukebox, the "story" is a slice of America - a national community facing a myriad of challenges as we travel through the decades: a community of six singers embraces the richness of Ginsberg's text as set to music by Glass on behalf of you, the community watching. The best way to "understand" Hydrogen Jukebox is to disregard conventional ideas of narrative storytelling. Instead, join us on the journey. Embrace what is meaningful to you. Allow the singers to break down barriers and expose the raw nerves that you might not be completely comfortable exposing on your own. Feel the collective embrace of the community surrounding you. And most importantly, remember that there is no one "right" reaction to Hydrogen Jukebox -it’s just important that you react.

Program notes by Hannah Smith with additional notes by Lawrence Edelson.


Baritone: Dan Kempson

Soprano 1: Rosa Betancourt

Soprano 2: Corrie Donovan

Mezzo: Amanda Robie

Tenor: Jonathan Blalock

Bass: Justin Hopkins

Conductor: Steven Osgood

Director and Choreographer: Lawrence Edelson

Scenic and Costume Designer: Anya Klepikov

Projection Designer: C. Andrew Bauer

Lighting Designer: Lisa Miller

Sound Designer: Ra Byn Taylor

Stage Manager: Lisa Marie Lange

Assistant Director/Choreographer: Keturah Stickann

Repetiteur: Christopher Devlin

Featuring members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

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