, Review of 1000 Airplanes on the Roof
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1000 Airplanes on the Roof, Philip Glass, 1989, 54:07

1000 Airplanes on the Roof: A Science-Fiction Music Drama, Henry David Hwang, Peregine Smith Books, 1989, 63 pp. (with photographs taken from the production design by Philip Sirlin)

Note: The libretto officially credits 1000 Airplanes on the Roof in this way: "Realized by Philip Glass/Henry David Hwang/Philip Sirlin."

1000 Airplanes on the Roof is one of the lesser Philip Glass creations. Compared to such weighty masterpieces as Einstein on the Beach or Satyagraha (or even my recent favourite, Civil Wars), this music drama is insignificant and worthless, with music that would make critics of Glass' work in general shudder with horror. But there are several reasons why the production of 1000 Airplanes on the Roof might have been at least mildly interesting. This is an alien abduction story, but without the pulp or paranoia elements that we have come to expect. Rather, the main focus of the story is one man's psychological disintegration, likely due to abduction but quite possibly something else entirely. So the narrative itself is somewhat against the grain of expectation, even if the music does not match up to it. What's more, a live production of 1000 Airplanes on the Roof would be accompanied by gorgeous visuals designed by Philip Sirlin. The book from Peregrine Smith is the most lavishly illustrated libretto I've ever seen -- it's of the astounding size of approximately 45 cm by 25 cm, which is much taller than the typical coffee table book. The text by Hwang is dwarfed by full-color photographs on every page.

It's hard to describe Sirlin's production design adequately: a single actor, the abductee, stands onstage, moving around and between tall screens onto which are projected images. These high-definition images depict such things as a city block, so that the actor appears to inhabit very different scenes from moment to moment. Sirlin's images range from the realistic, such as the abductee's workplace or apartment, to the surreal, such as the abduction sequences. Because of the projection method, with the brightly lit screens set against the pitch black background, the stage is suffused with a warm, glowing beauty, stark in its own way, and very effective at conveying mood.

Track 1 of the CD, named after the music drama itself, is an overture, which introduces many of the themes to come. Track 2, "City Walk," introduces the main character; in the corresponding section of the libretto, he moves from a bucolic life in the country to the rat race of the city. Track 3, "Girlfriend," corresponds to our hero's new job in a copy shop, and a crush that he has on a co-worker. They go on a date, but he is already facing mental difficulties, and we get our first glimpse of alien consciousness. Track 4, "My Building Disappeared," depicts the ending of the date: "We reached the street where I live and I figured I'd better cut my losses and say goodnight. But, then, to top it all off, to put the icing on the worst first date in history -- my building started to disappear" (17). From here on in, almost everything is some kind of vision or hallucination.

Track 5, "Screens of Memory," depicts the beginning of his mental disintegration; he tries to find his way to work the next day, but it's simply not happening. The title has to do with what his mind is undergoing: "Layers upon layers of mesh. Each layer, a screen holding a memory" (23). The next track, "What Time Is Grey," corresponds to further breakdown, and Sirlin shows us vividly how the abductee loses control over his senses. Track 7, "Labyrinth," is one of the longer tracks on the CD, and it is the first of two parts that make up the significant portions of the abduction experience. Glass does not use spoken word portions of the production other than "Labyrinth" and here we have spooky voices of the aliens (or of the internal voices of his breakdown) grinding down the abductee's sanity: "It is better to forget. It is pointless to remember. No one will believe you. You will have spoken a heresy. You will be outcast" (30). Sirlin provides spooky grey faces in the background, and all three elements of the music drama -- text, music, and visuals -- splice themselves together in a way that doesn't happen elsewhere in the project.

Track 8, "Return to the Hive," and Track 9, "Three Truths" both deal with the continuing destruction of his mind. Sirlin creates a lovely sequence of beehives, circular windows, weird structures, clouds, and branches in nighttime that belie the ongoing trauma. Track 10, "The Encounter," is the second significant portion of the experience, and is the longest track on the CD, clocking in at 8:42. Hwang tries to give as many answers as he can two questions such as why while still remaining cryptic. This is as good as an explanation as any for the UFO phenomenon:

Now I understand why they travel. Why any of us ever feels the need to walk across a room towards another being, whose heart beats and whose flesh smells of life.

We are all visitors. We all travel. We all ask questions. We all hope one day, looking into the eyes of another, to find part of an answer.

We all perceive. (48)

A poetic explanation, and one that suffices if abduction is understood purely as some sort of mental breakdown. If aliens are responsible, and are charming visitors and travelers, why then all the stupid, vicious behaviour? Hwang's abductee undergoes all of the same pointless cavity searches as every other unsuspecting dupe who yearned for a close encounter. No explanation for that.

All that's left is wrap up. Track 11, "Grey Cloud over New York," shows the character of the piece going off to work, blithely unaware that four days have passed. Track 12, "Where Have You Been Asked the Doctor," has the return of the spooky voices; while being questioned by the doctor, his memories disappear just as foretold. Sirlin's backdrop has squidlike designs behind the abductee, changing color and swallowing the poor man. The music drama closes with Track 13, "A Normal Man Running," as Glass' music returns to its state at the beginning, Sirlin's visuals show the same cityscape as at the beginning and Hwang's text closes in this way: "The throbbing grows. It threatens to become a sound. There is a universe in my mind, struggling to break out. And I'm a normal man. A normal man, running" (63).

And so 1000 Airplanes on the Roof is quite possibly a story of alien abduction, but is also rather vividly the story of one man's loss of potential. At a few points, the three creative forces join together in a powerful way. But not often enough, and despite (unevenly) great contributions on the parts of Hwang and Sirlin, the music drama cannot stand on its own due to Glass' lackluster music. This is one of those artsy projects that I cheer for as a matter of principle. Too bad that the reality in this case did not live up to my expectations.


Last modified: March 6, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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