Sunday Times, 12 August 2012
Crickets live for a few weeks — 21 days, says Robert Wilson, though research suggests this figure is a bit low. Humans traditionally live for three score years and 10 — or, now, four score years and 10. What would you do with this information if you were the most fêted, admired director, choreographer, video artist, designer in the world? Well, this is what he, Wilson, did. He brought in another great artist, the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits, and recorded the stridulations — the correct word for the songs — of a mass of crickets. Waits then slowed down the recording by the ratio of the human life span to that of the crickets. What you hear, then, is the song of crickets as if they lived as long as humans.
Over tea and cakes in one of north Norfolk’s plusher hotels, Morston Hall, Wilson gestures to one of his entourage to get a laptop. After some techno-faffing, the assistant finds the file and plays it. I gasp; everybody gasps.
The voices of angels pour from the laptop. There is a bass drone combined with soaring waves of superhuman strangeness and purity. A shiver runs down my spine — a heavenly chorus, a message, seems to have been lying hidden in the depths of nature. All we have to do to hear it is slow down. And, if there is one theme that runs through the extraordinary career of this extraordinary man, that is it. Slow down, slow everything down, hear the real music.
But first things first. Wilson is passing through Norfolk because, in what must be the great local-arts coup of the year, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival has persuaded him to do Walking on the glorious, bird-infested marshes at Holkham. The audience is the work. People are required to give up their mobiles and watches, and to walk in a silent line, 50yd apart, along a three-mile path. They are also required to walk so slowly that the journey takes them 3Å hours. There is, of course, no talking. “When you walk slower than you normally would,” Wilson says, “you begin to perceive things differently. You become more aware of smells, you have time for interior reflection.”
And, if there is one theme that runs through the extraordinary career of this extraordinary man, that is it. Slow down, slow everything down, hear the real music
Along the way, guides lead them to a series of installations, one of which involves walking through a narrow passage while the music of the angel-crickets plays. Finally — no, I’ve been sworn to silence about what happens finally. Trust me, it’s good — I had a go. “The audience is the performer,” he says. “It’s a kind of choreography for the public. We don’t really impose on their way of hearing or seeing.” Walking has been done before, on an island in Holland, but the climax is wholly new for Holkham.
Wilson is 70, and a self-consciously large man who keeps resisting offers of cake. “No, no, I want to be thin and beautiful, like Bryan.” (I get that all the time. Joke.) But it suits him: he is friendly, likeable, avuncular and quite devoid of any traces of artiness — well, except for the fact that he sketches most of the ideas he talks about with a soft pencil on A4 sheets, but this is more a tic than a pose.
He speaks, as you would expect, slowly. This is perhaps a legacy of severe childhood stuttering, which was cured when he was 17 by a theatre teacher who simply got him to slow down. As I said, it’s the big theme. “It was amazing. Within six weeks, I had almost completely overcome the stutter. Stuttering was like speeding in place, so I just had to slow down.”
He was brought up in Waco, Texas, clearly feeling like the only gay in a hyper-religious town. The local Baylor University was the largest Southern Baptist institution in the world. Women wearing trousers, and theatre, were equally despised. “It was,” he says, chortling, “a national disgrace that Abe Lincoln died in a theatre.”
He had an academically brilliant black friend — a further disgrace in Waco — Leroy, who taught himself French. It did him little good. Years later, he picked Wilson up in his taxi in Los Angeles. Leroy recognised him, but Wilson didn’t recognise his friend. Then he said something about admiring black culture, and Leroy turned round and said “Who ever told you you ain’t black?” — a perfect summary of the alienation of his life in Waco.
Having fled Texas, to, finally, New York, and swerved into architecture via law, he met another black kid, Raymond Andrews. He was a deaf-mute. Wilson felt pity and wonder. What, he asked himself, is Raymond’s world like? Asking that question changed his life. He formally adopted Raymond and became an artist.
Wilson encouraged him to draw what was in his head. This formed the basis of his first big theatrical spectacle, Deafman Glance, in its original form a seven-hour “silent opera”, a murder story. It was a sensation, but primarily in Europe. Wilson has ever since worked mainly outside America. “America is very provincial, very cut off,” he says. “In Europe, you live much closer together. The English know where the Germans are, you’ve been invaded, and we’ve never really been invaded. So I think Americans are very naive.”
He is also dismissive of much contemporary theatre, primarily American. It is just too fast. “It is all so speeded-up in time, and it says, over and over again, ‘Do you understand what I am saying?’ It says it so many times, in the end I understand nothing. If you look at Three Tall Women and Angels in America, the way they are written, the way they are directed and the way they are acted — it’s like every 10 or 20 seconds, we’ve got to react. But it’s okay to get lost. If you read a good novel, you can get lost, but we’re so afraid in that space of letting the public go.”
Raymond fired Wilson’s interest in pathologically different world-views, a subject he pursued with the psychologist Daniel Stern. (He was also the co-inventor of the slow walk, when he joined Wilson in spending four hours walking from the UN building to downtown Manhattan.) Wilson once read that autism was a form of daydreaming — “And I thought: what’s wrong with daydreaming?”
Stern also used slow-motion films to watch the interactions between mothers and babies. Wilson was enthralled. “In one small segment of time, what is happening between the mother and the child is very complex. So perhaps the body is moving faster than we think, and it is these almost imperceptible movements that Raymond Andrews, this 13-year-old deaf-mute boy, was reading.” Raymond, in other words, saw in slow motion what we, in our speeded-up world, miss.
Such alternative mind states suggest the possibility of escape from the prison of the ordinary, and I suspect Wilson’s fascination with the idea has something to do with his upbringing in Waco. Not that his relations with Texas are traumatic; now they’re just funny. He brings the house down at Morston Hall with a story of being waylaid by a Texas traffic cop, complete with comedy accent: “Well, now, lookee heeyah…”
‘My work for the most part is like a shooting star, something that happens once’
In 1976, he directed Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. It was to prove one of the most influential theatrical double acts of our time. In effect, Wilson was the true originator of the piece; and, in conception, it is certainly more Wilson than Glass. The structure of the four acts is rigorously formal — he goes into a frenzy of scribbling, explaining how the acts are connected — and Glass composed his music on the basis of Wilson’s sketches. After Einstein, Wilson was routinely described as the greatest theatre artist — if not the greatest artist — alive.
One big point he keeps making is that he is a classicist, not a romantic. Even KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace, works that were performed on seven hills in Iran for seven days, are strictly organised. Nothing in his work is ever sloppy. “I was always interested in classical music, never in Romantic,” he says. “The same in architecture — Frank Gehry is not Mies van der Rohe. And Louis Kahn — he knew light, he started with light, I start with light. I like Mozart, Chinese architecture, I am fascinated by the pyramids. Or Donald Judd’s 100 stainless-steel cubes. To me, 500 years from now, that will be interesting.”
There is something almost medical about this rigour. He wants his work to take you elsewhere by acting like a surgeon’s knife or a physician’s drug. Getting to that elsewhere is slow, and being there is even slower. But, having been there, you don’t have to go back. Wilson is comfortable with the idea that so few of his works will survive. “My work for the most part is like a shooting star, something that happens once. It was once said that modern dance will have no tradition. It was a shock to hear that, but I think it’s right.
“So much of what happened in the 1960s for my generation — happenings and events that were going on in galleries and churches, and on the rooftops of buildings — will never happen again. When I went back to some of those pieces, they didn’t make sense any more, they were part of the era. The 24-hour play would never work today. And will the younger generation really sit through five hours of Einstein?”
Coming from this sweet-natured, slow-talking man, it sounds, at first, sad. But he’s at peace with the idea. Indeed, he prefers his works to be so of the moment that they can never happen again. He often turns down offers of revivals on the basis that the work is effectively over after its first run, or even after its first performance.
What they will make of this in north Norfolk, a land of twitchers, braying boaties, boring aristos, ironic locals, incomprehensible fishermen, neurotic media types and an already bewildered Farrow & Ball middle class, I can’t imagine. But Walking is not really about society, it is about the human alone in this landscape, the marshes, woods and water. Wilson will, for a few brief weeks, make us look at them all anew and face the strange truth that, like the choir he found in the crickets’ stridulations, there is another world out there.