Opera Rad

Robert Ashley Releases His Most Accessible Work

"I want to fall in love just one more time I want the world of magic one more time Look forward to tomorrow one more time. . . . Dream about someone all day just one more time And finally we touch just one more time. . . . To know I've given pleasure one more time. . . ."

In a late style he's developed that is likely to be widely imitated, each song segues into the next with split-second timing, like diffracted aspects of a split consciousness. This candid snapshot of a psyche is structured down to the pixel.

Is Dust Ashley's greatest opera? It is certainly his most accessible, and is bound to win over fans who didn't have patience for the verbal curlicues in Now Eleanor's Idea. I do slightly miss the more oblique poetry of Improvement and Perfect Lives, but I also admit that I haven't been so punched in the gut by an opera in 20 years. As an older man's brutally honest work, Dust gives the same impression as the late sonatas and quartets do in Beethoven's output: a new simplicity, in a way, but coming from an emotional realm that seems beyond everyday consciousness. The text's realism is so palpable that autobiography seems the only plausible explanation, and I pity the poor first biographer who undertakes to separate Ashley's life from his so closely entwined fiction.

Ashley has mastered the brilliant illusion of casualness.
Ashley has mastered the brilliant illusion of casualness.

In a healthy culture, that work would have already begun: We would be attending conferences about Ashley's output, unraveling his symbolism, charting out his intricately detailed musical structures, no doubt all to his irreverent amusement. Instead, as a massive and greatly threatened classical music industry clings to its arias, orchestras, and categories ever more tightly, Ashley remains the hardest nut for the classical mavens to swallow. As with Harry Partch 40 years ago, John Cage 30 years ago, and Morton Feldman 20 years ago, his very status as a composer is denied by the people in power—and yet, like those figures in their day, he may very well be the greatest one living. He's given us an amazing series of prototypes for what opera could be in Millennium Three and, in Dust, a theater-text-music work worthy to open a new era.

Expanded Classical Music Section: Part 2

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