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Hydrogen Jukebox

by philip glass 

Libretto by Allen Ginsberg

Join us for our Outer Limits presentation, an intimate journey through America’s cultural landscape from the 1950s through the 1980s: sex, drugs, rock & roll, eastern philosophy, and landmark political events – a kaleidoscope of social phenomena. Glass’ poignant, percussive minimalism, fused with Allen Ginsberg’s prophetic text, envelops you in an experience passionately nostalgic and stunningly relevant.

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a word from philip glass

"In 1988...I happened to run into Allen Ginsberg at St. Mark's Bookshop in New York and asked him if he would perform with me. 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 I so 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 word from allen ginsberg

Ultimately, the motif of Hydrogen Jukebox, the underpinning, the secret message, secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium.

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."

Libretto & music

Read the poetry and listen to some music exerpts here.


Through his operas, his symphonies, his compositions for his own ensemble, and his wide-ranging collaborations with artists ranging from Twyla Tharp to Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen to David Bowie, Philip Glass has had an extraordinary and unprecedented impact upon the musical and intellectual life of his times.

The operas – Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten, and The Voyage, among many others – play throughout the world’s leading houses, and rarely to an empty seat. Glass has written music for experimental theater and for Academy Award-winning motion pictures such as The Hours and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, while Koyaanisqatsi, his initial filmic landscape with Godfrey Reggio and the Philip Glass Ensemble, may be the most radical and influential mating of sound and vision since Fantasia. His associations, personal and professional, with leading rock, pop and world music artists date back to the 1960s, including the beginning of his collaborative relationship with artist Robert Wilson. Indeed, Glass is the first composer to win a wide, multi-generational audience in the opera house, the concert hall, the dance world, in film and in popular music -- simultaneously.

He was born in 1937 and grew up in Baltimore. He studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School and in Aspen with Darius Milhaud. Finding himself dissatisfied with much of what then passed for modern music, he moved to Europe, where he studied with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (who also taught Aaron Copland , Virgil Thomson and Quincy Jones) and worked closely with the sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar. He returned to New York in 1967 and formed the Philip Glass Ensemble – seven musicians playing keyboards and a variety of woodwinds, amplified and fed through a mixer.

The new musical style that Glass was evolving was eventually dubbed “minimalism.” Glass himself never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” Much of his early work was based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry. Or, to put it another way, it immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.

There has been nothing “minimalist” about his output. In the past 25 years, Glass has composed more than twenty operas, large and small; eight symphonies (with others already on the way); two piano concertos and concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra; soundtracks to films ranging from new scores for the stylized classics of Jean Cocteau to Errol Morris’s documentary about former defense secretary Robert McNamara; string quartets; a growing body of work for solo piano and organ. He has collaborated with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, and Doris Lessing, among many others. He presents lectures, workshops, and solo keyboard performances around the world, and continues to appear regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble. 


Renowned poet, world traveler, spiritual seeker, founding member of a major literary movement, champion of human and civil rights, photographer and songwriter, political gadfly, teacher and co-founder of a poetics school. Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) defied simple classification.

Poets are commonly known only within their circles of readerships but like Walt Whitman, Ginsberg’s name was recognizable to millions who had never read so much as a single word of his poetry. Like Whitman, the foundation of Ginsberg’s work was the notion that one’s individual thoughts and experiences resonated among the masses. “It occurs to me that I am America”, Ginsberg wrote, and while the statement was intended to be humorous, it also illustrated his idea that democracy begins with the raising of a single voice. At the height of his celebrity, Allen Ginsberg was, arguably, as symbolic of America — or at least a large segment of the country — as anyone.

As a poet, he will probably be remembered most for two lengthy masterworks: "Howl," with its famous opening line (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) and relentless, rhythmic litany of lines devoted to the celebration of those minds, and "Kaddish" the powerful, heartbreaking biography of his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, who spent most of her adult life in a state of mental torment.

Other poems illustrate Ginsberg’s expansive interests and styles: "Sunflower Sutra” (Ginsberg’s ode to the beauty of the individual); “America” (a savagely comic commentary on American values); “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (a political diatribe in which Ginsberg individually declares an end to the Vietnam War); “Wales Visitation” (a celebration of nature’s minute particulars); the interconnected poems of The Fall of America, which won Ginsberg the National Book Award; “Father Death Blues” (a moving tribute to his father, poet Louis Ginsberg); and “White Shroud” (a dream poem in which the poet finally resolves some of his ambivalent feelings about his mother). And these are only a few of the many highlights. The overall body of Ginsberg’s work remains one of the most impressive literary canons in American history.

The 1956 publication of Howl and Other Poems established Ginsberg as an important voice in American poetry. But Ginsberg would achieve international fame a year later with the highly publicized "Howl" obscenity trial in San Francisco and the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Kerouac, a Ginsberg friend and mentor since the mid-1940s, had written a novel that defined a generation of youths seeking experience, kicks, enlightenment, self-definition, and meaning in a dull, spiritless society. In such books as "Howl," On the Road, and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the Beat Generation had its own literature. Kerouac, dubbed “King of the Beats” by a cynical press, was a reluctant spokesperson. Ginsberg, who understood the currency of publicity from his youthful days as a marketing researcher, embraced his role as the Beat Generation’s most eloquent and persistent spokesperson.

Known for his prodigious energy, Ginsberg labored tirelessly to promote not only his own work, but also the writings of Kerouac, Burroughs, and many others associated with the Beat Generation, including Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady. In 1973, he and poet Anne Waldman co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, ensuring a continuing legacy of the study and practice of Beat Generation-influenced writings.

The Howl obscenity trial served as a catalyst in fomenting Ginsberg’s lifelong obsession with First Amendment issues in particular, and political activism in general. Using his fame as an international podium, Ginsberg spoke out on such controversial issues as the Vietnam War, gay rights (he listed his lifelong companion, Peter Orlovsky, as his spouse in his Who’s Who entry), and drugs (he was an early participant in Timothy Leary’s psilocybin and LSD experiments). At times, his opinions landed him in trouble: he was expelled from Cuba and Czechoslovakia in 1965 and, like many outspoken artists and activists, became the subject of a voluminous FBI dossier. His opinions and knowledge, however controversial, were highly solicited. He testified before Senate subcommittee hearings on drugs and his political essays were in constant demand. Accredited with coining the term “Flower Power”, Ginsberg became a figurehead of the global youth movement in the late 1960s.

Ginsberg eventually parlayed his fame and network of connections into a modestly successful career in music. He recorded a handful of albums, including music he had written to accompany William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and two separate recordings known as First Blues. He and neo-classical composer Philip Glass set portions of "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" to music. Over the years, Ginsberg appeared on stage with a diverse group of musicians, including Bob Dylan, The Fugs, Phil Ochs, the Clash and Patti Smith. Shortly before his death, Ginsberg recorded Ballad of the Skeletons with an eclectic lineup of musicians that included Glass, Lenny Kaye, Marc Ribot and Paul McCartney; the accompanying video, filmed by award-winning director Gus Van Sant, was both humorous and poignant.

Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels. His interests in Eastern religions, largely influenced by his friendships with Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, ultimately led to his adopting formal Buddhist vows.

The life and writings of Allen Ginsberg continue to be of great interest today — long after he succumbed to liver cancer in 1997. Almost all of his books remain in print. Four books of writings and interviews have been posthumously published and new volumes of journals and correspondence are forthcoming. His poems appear regularly in anthologies around the world, and his photographs are constantly recycled in books and magazines. Universities offer Ginsberg and Beat Generation courses.

But most important — as Ginsberg would likely have seen it — is the fact that every day, somewhere in the world, perhaps in a farm town in Nebraska, or in a café in Berlin, or in a village in Southeast Asia, some kid is picking up Howl and Other Poems and beginning the next journey down the corridors of imagination from which a more patient and generous world just might evolve.

behind the poem, "Howl"

The epigraph for "Howl" is from Walt Whitman: "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" Announcing his intentions with this ringing motto, Allen Ginsberg published a volume of poetry which broke so many social taboos that copies were impounded as obscene, and the publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested. The court case that followed found for Ginsberg and his publisher, and the publicity made both the poet and the book famous. Ginsberg went on from this beginning to become a cultural icon of sixties radicalism. This works seminal place in the culture is indicated in Czeslaw Milosz's poetic tribute to Ginsberg: "Your blasphemous howl still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality.”  



Drawing upon Ginsberg's poetry, this music/theater piece is a portrait of America that cover's the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's, seen by the collaborators Glass, Ginsberg and Sirlin. Its content ranges from highly personal poems of Ginsberg to his reflection on social issues: the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, eastern philosophy, environmental awareness. The six vocal parts represent six archetypal American characters- a waitress, a policeman, a businessman, a cheerleader, a priest, a mechanic.