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In the mid-’70s, Michigan-born composer Robert Ashley discovered a rare commodity in the art world: a niche. Lamenting that his homeland lacked the rich operatic tradition of Europe, he sought to invent a distinctly American art form, mixing dense sound environments and amorphous narration to create something he called “opera-for-television” (with the “television” part mostly referring to the works’ division into 30-minute “episodes”). He clearly wasn’t courting a mass-media audience, though: In early efforts like Music With Roots in the Aether and Perfect Lives, the black humor of the avant-garde is on full display, with chants about “geriatric love” and recipes for Pear Jello Salad flashing across the screen.
Perfect Lives actually made it onto European prime-time television, but as you might imagine, Ashley hasn’t had the same opportunities back home. Unfazed and still defiantly American, Ashley, now 78, considers the opera house a dated idea and claims to have “learned more about writing opera from listening to Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys than I did from listening to Puccini or Wagner.” So why call it opera at all? “Because there isn’t another term I can think of that describes the musical storytelling I’m trying to do,” he explains over the phone from his apartment in New York City, where he’s lived since 1979. “The term ‘musical theater’ still has too much active meaning in America. I just need some word. I need to call it something, and opera seems like it can handle a new definition.”
When Ashley first emerged in the early 1960s, composers had just begun “doing their own performances with their own ensembles, because that was the only way you could get the music done,” and since then, he has carried on the great DIY classical tradition. Like fellow multimedia artists Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk, he’s usually a central figure in his works, singing the part of a primary character. This is mostly a result of his skepticism toward traditional music notation: Instead of writing down his ideas, Ashley gives “demo tapes” of himself singing to his performers, a process he describes as “covering a song.” Similarly, he uses the terms “songwriter,” “band,” and “script” to define his work as often as, say, “composer,” “ensemble,” and “libretto”; just after describing his art as “serious music,” he adds, “If I didn’t have a band, I’d just sit around and watch TV all day.”
The latest project to keep him off the couch is an 11-day opera marathon in mid-January at the East Village’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, in which his three most recent operas will be alternately performed. These works—Dust (1998), Celestial Excursions (2003), and Made out of Concrete (2007/2009)—have been loosely described as a cycle and a trilogy, but Ashley explains that only in retrospect could the three works be looked at as being connected. “The ideas for the operas came separately and consecutively,” Ashley says. “The three are related in the fact that they all concern people ‘marginalized’ in our society.”
Dust, the earliest, is culled from Ashley’s eavesdropping on the rants of local homeless people and includes such constant interjections as “Where’s the peanut guy?” Celestial Excursions explores the “language of old people,” a subject Ashley researched in an assisted-living facility. In Act I, one of his elderly characters remarks, “When I talk to myself or even when I just try to say something—an idea, like right now—I am always addressing someone.” These lyrics, like those in all three of these operas, comprise the private languages of regular people. Made out of Concrete, Ashley’s most recent work, replaces his compositional methods with freely improvised electronic tracks and vocals: “The singing would change for every performance depending on the singer’s mood—their take on the story they are telling,” Ashley says.
At the La MaMa performances, the ensemble consists of the auteur’s long-standing group—Sam Ashley (no relation), Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, and Ashley himself—all accomplished new-music performers who’ve worked for two decades on operas-for-television, refining the form’s nuanced, unusual style of singing. Ashley uses close microphone techniques to capture the subtle fluctuations in his singers’ voices, an approach he considers more suited to the English language than Italian opera’s wide, belting vibrato. What’s on display is not the acrobatic stretching of vocal chords, but the stream-of-consciousness rhythm of everyday speech. These works avoid even the faintest whiff of typical operatic histrionics: The stories are inspired not by grand-scale themes of murder or love, but by the mutterings of self-reflexive neurotics.
Ashley has a famously complex relationship with language, something that can be traced both to his work with speech synthesis at the AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories and his struggle with a mild form of Tourette’s syndrome, a condition that led him to see involuntary vocalizations as a “primitive form of composing.” In conversation, he apologizes for raising his voice, continuously asks if he’s over-explaining, and frequently criticizes himself under his breath. Yet he also speaks with the same philosophical eloquence that defines his self-conscious characters, stammering briefly before dropping potent little aphorisms like, “There is no such thing as a word without a sound.”
What keeps the operas-for-television conceit truly distinct from the European high-art tradition is Ashley’s ability to translate his irregular view of language into fluid libretto. He considers that his characters are “obliged, as human beings, to make sounds . . . whether or not anyone is listening.” Separated from the humming drone of his music—several of his operas are available as stand-alone books—his lyrics serve as odd masterpieces of American vernacular, recalling the loose tongue of Bukowski, the neurosis of Spalding Gray, and the abstract lyricism of Ghostface Killah. His characters don’t quite “sing” their lines; instead, they softly and with brilliantly clear diction speak-chant such phrases as “He takes himself seriously/Hotel rooms have lost their punch for him” or “The farm kid smells bad because his father makes him eat a lot of yeast.”
To draw further attention to the libretto—to force listeners to hear what Ashley calls “the sound of the instant”—the accompanying instrumental music in opera-for-television is almost always static and ambient. His backing tracks float like extended modal-jazz improvisations, functioning primarily as a moody, ethereal bed for the words. For Ashley, this is one step closer toward his goal of “pure storytelling” and establishing opera-for-television, an innovation begun deep in the 20th century, as one of the most vital musical and literary forms of the 21st.
La MaMa will present three Robert Ashley works on alternating nights, January 15 to 25. See lamama.org for the schedule