Robert Ashley
by Kyle Gann

Reviewed by Devin King


Published by University of Illinois Press, 2012   |   184 pages

Of the first generation of composers working through the aleatoric and performative impetus John Cage gave to music, and now known primarily for his radical innovations of the operatic genre, Robert Ashley’s most famous early composition is a piece of “noise music”: The Wolfman (1964). Noise music traces its roots back further—Futurist Luigi Russolo’s book The Art of Noises (1913) is an early theoretical text—but The Wolfman is one of the earliest noise experiments in feedback. The piece dictates that a “sinister nightclub vocalist” appear on stage surrounded by “an environment of loudspeakers in which the amplification is turned up to the level at which any sound entering the microphone will result in feedback.” The performer then sings vocal phrases into the microphone (under certain directives given by Ashley) resulting in a pandemonium of positive feedback, functioning here as compositional bedrock. “It was, at the time,” Kyle Gann notes in Robert Ashley, part of the University of Illinois Press’ American Composer Series, “the loudest music most of the audience had ever heard.”

The current reigning paradigm of feedback in music comes from rock, in which feedback acts as a Bacchic counter to the Apollonian order of the verse, chorus, verse. This destruction is epitomized by the cool detachment of Pete Townsend’s reading of Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art – literally, Townsend was a student of Metzger! – or of Hendrix’s sacrificial burning of his guitar in ecstatic, spiritual blaze. But Gann is a deep and subtle analyst, attuned to the many potential ways feedback manifests in music. In The Wolfman, for example, he notes that for Ashley “the vocal sounds used to induce the feedback have to be extremely soft so as not to block it.” In rock, large noise generally functions in the service of large noise. For Ashley, small noise instead is enlisted to serve this purpose.

Though he never truly returns to the harsh noise of The Wolfman, Ashley has spent the rest of his career mining the very small for the very large. Gann’s main achievement in Robert Ashley is in illuminating these dynamics via an eye for the particulars of analysis.

Fifteen years after The Wolfman, in a series of six operas, Ashley entered what is generally regarded as his pivotal period. Every particular here – minimal drum machine patterns; slight, background piano playing; softly droning synthesizers; everyday speech; occasional pop music drifting in from the radio – is small, quiet, intimate. Cumulatively, however, they amass into a vast edifice written from, as Gann puts it, “the standpoint of eternity.” Specific to Ashley is this diversion of Wagner’s operatic idea of the gesamtkunstwerk—the “total artwork,” originally suffused with the desperate surge of Gods and heroes —so that eternity is here built up from an unhurried, Midwestern quotidian.

In line with Ashley’s fascination with the ordinary, the operas are written explicitly for television, rather than the stage (though, due mostly to lack of funding, many have nevertheless only been recorded aurally or performed on the stage). In Ashley’s words, the operas were conceived:

as a television series, with each episode having some meaning and humor in itself, but ultimately part of a larger something that only makes sense when you come to know it. Television devotees who have watched The Honeymooners…for most of their lives finally come to know something that they wouldn’t know if they had seen only one episode. Same for Star Trek…These were my models…[the operas] are pure television. They are meant to be heard and seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work…This is my idea of opera.

Perfect Lives, the first of the operas, is his ur-text—the following operas derive from its plot and themes—and is a good introduction to Ashley. Over the course of its ten 25:50 minute episodes, Ashley speak-sings a (long) poem at 72 bpm, under varying metrical constraints and tonal centers, while one of Ashley’s collaborators, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, accompanies on piano. The poem / story is, essentially, about a bank robbery, told from multiple points of view, but much of the libretto is distant and amusing, digressing into interior monologic asides on the Midwest, the philosophy of Giordano Bruno (as read by memory theorist Frances Yates), the Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc. Ashley did manage to get Perfect Lives made for television – for Channel Four, in Britain – and the visual elements are strange: Ashley, covered lightly in glitter, speaking at a microphone in a television studio, slowly fades into the image of undulating Midwestern wheat, while portions of the text scroll across the screen. Then there is the film of someone in a body suit driving a tractor. Perfect Lives, like the best opera, is alien, beautiful and moving all at once.

Here is the opening of The Park (Privacy Rules), the first episode of Perfect Lives. As with much else in the opera, the scene is minimal, bare, noiseless, told from the point of view of Raoul, sitting in a hotel room, “a singer who’s seen better days”:

He takes himself seriously.

Motel rooms have lost their punch for him.

The feeling is expressed in bags.

There are two, and inside those two there are two more….

One of the bags contains

a bottle of liquor,

A sure sign of thoughtfulness

about who might have been.

He thinks to himself, if I were from the bigtown

I would be calm and debonair.

The bigtown

doesn’t send its riffraff out.

Language in Ashley is consistently like this; descriptive, thoughtful, filled with quasi-surreal turns of phrase. It shifts without notice from the everyday to the philosophical. , Later, looking at a photo of two men speaking on a park bench, Raoul says:

Among those particulars which were neither physical nor mental they listed

attainment, aging, and coincidence.

On the permanent side of this great division of reality was a notion

they referred to as space.

And by that term they meant neither conceptual space

nor space as given by our senses.

as given by our senses.

They meant connections.

Here is the pleasure of Ashley: a lonely man in a hotel looking at a photograph, the scene given strange dignity by a complex dialogue about the difficulties of conceptualizing space within a world that appears to be simultaneously eternally permanent and frightening fleeting. Gann, in his analysis of the scene and work, closely examines these complexities, pointing the reader in particular towards the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Gann makes clear that the conceptual underpinnings of the work are quite complex, yet also surprisingly transparent in other ways.

Over extended periods Perfect Lives remains starkly slow and simplified, approximating something of a minimalist drone. But, as Gann demonstrates over and over again, Ashley operas are not mere exercises in Eastern consciousness-emptying, but instead engage with an enormous wealth of ideas: “In source material [the operas] range from Renaissance occultism to Hindu cosmology to the financial pages of the Wall Street Journal to boogie-woogie to country and western music to recent research on the evolution of the brain to cult fan magazines.” There is, likewise, behind the musical pleasures the “aural accessibility of the text—vernacular phrases sung in natural speech rhythms” – and the visual component, which engages with “the counterpoint between image and text, the fact that the words may describe one thing, while the camera shows us something else.”

Ashley’s operas can be difficult to register—their many diverse elements can perplex and disorient a listener / viewer accustomed to the pleasures of classical, or even much Modernist, opera. Gann’s new book, without removing any of the essential mystery of the work, ably lays bare Ashley’s immense achievement: the discovery of a new paradigm for opera – that of the epic within the minuscule – one “attune[d] … to our postmodern and polytextual age.”

Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, “CLOPS,” is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space , is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. Both are available at http://thepapercave.com. More at http://dancingyoungmenfromhighwindows.com.

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