Five Things You Didn't Know About 'Hydrogen Jukebox'

Fun facts about Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg’s operatic "portrait of America."

February 4, 2019

Photo Credit: Tori Sweetser

What happens when the forces of two American innovators are combined? You get Hydrogen Jukebox, an intimate and powerful portrait depicting a young nation’s struggle to find its identity. Through Ginsberg’s anti-establishment, philosophical poetry and Glass’s signature minimalist music, Hydrogen Jukebox—titled after a line in Ginsberg’s poem "Howl"—tells a poignant American story that reminds us our past is never too far behind. Here are five things to know about the work, which Boston Conservatory at Berklee is presenting February 7 through 10 as part of its Center Stage collection:

1. The collaborative spark between Glass and Ginsberg ignited when they met by chance in a New York City bookstore. Glass was slated to perform at a benefit for the Vietnam Veteran Theater that evening, and invited Ginsberg to join. During the performance, Ginsberg decided to read a selection from his epic anti-war poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra."

2. The song “Aunt Rose” is set in an uneven musical meter, 5/8, to personify a character’s limp when she walks. This is the only instance where Glass directly relates the music with the text.

3. Sixteen different American cities are explicitly referenced throughout the opera’s libretto, which is Ginsberg’s poetry set to music.

4. “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is the only time a true piano sound is used, rather than an electronic synthesizer. This song, in which the speaker “un-declares war” from a car in the middle of Kansas, is the only song in the entire opera that is spoken rather than sung. 

5. All of the information in the song “National Security Agency Dope Calypso” is true. These facts come directly from Senator Kerry’s subcommittee investigation of the government’s involvement with drug smuggling to fund contra arms, known as the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Hydrogen Jukebox runs February 7 through 10, 2019 at Boston Conservatory Theater. The performance is conducted by Ryan Turner and directed by Nathan Troup. Learn more about this Center Stage presentation and purchase tickets.