A remounting of Robert Ashley's legendary opera, That Morning Thing (1967), premieres tonight as part of Performa 11. That Morning Thing was performed only three times in the late 1960s, but acquired its reputation through rumor and the famous recordings of two sections, "Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon" and "She Was A Visitor" (released by Lovely Music). In three distinct acts plus an epilogue, the opera presents the sociopolitical climate of the times. Below, curator Mark Beasley spoke to Ashley about this exciting re-creation.
Mark Beasley: You describe That Morning Thing as an illustrated “tract,” where the broader idea is about the decay of spoken language. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Robert Ashley: A “tract” is an argument. Hopefully, an organized argument, not a spontaneous one, so that would suggest to the audience what is to come. In other words, I’m arguing something to the audience. It’s a lecture. It’s followed by very clearly delineated sections. [In That Morning Thing there’s] the lecture, three scenes, then two scenes of Act Three, then the episode. It’s really simple, that’s the idea.
The piece is about dramatic contrasts. In a subset it’s about the idea of a rationalized understanding as against a physical, something you understand with your experience that doesn’t necessarily follow from an argument. That is the way the piece is organized. In the first act there’s an unrecognized contrast between the speaker and the jungle where the people are moving around unguided. In the second act, the first and third scene are the same people, a woman who is counting an irrational meter and a man with a keyboard who is trying to make something based upon her irrational rhythms. In the next scene there is a soundtrack, which is entirely a description of an experience and what the illustration is; there are pictures of good looking people, models. There’s a dancer trying to imitate those poses. In the third act there’s a pre-recorded thing of an automobile commercial. So what you hear are the directions for how to illustrate that commercial, and in the same act you have four men who are rationalizing their relationship with a woman. The guy has seen the woman and he is rationalizing what happened between them. That’s the end of the piece… these harsh contrasts.
There’s that dichotomy between the irrational and the rational.
It’s not really irrational, its rational in the sense that you can speak about it, then there’s something you can learn that you can’t describe. It’s about what you can describe and what you can’t describe.
Some part of That Morning Thing is about three female friends who commit suicide.
Right. I don’t think it's tactful, [even though] the people are all dead and it's over 45 years ago. There were three women, good friends of mine, who didn’t know each other and they all committed suicide within a short period of time. I was trying to figure out why they did it. I knew them as relatively happy people. And that led me to this thing that we just described versus experiences that you can’t put into words, while other experiences are almost diluted by the amount of word attention they get.
The act of suicide seems to be an escape from an intellectual problem. That’s how I read it.
This guy who was a friend of Sylvia Plath, wrote a book about her, in which he described how he’d once tried to take his life. He doesn’t say it outright but it occurred to me that the living people, who are still alive, tend to appropriate the suicide as something that they had something to do with, like someone must have caused it. Living people take away something from the suicide, from the simple decision that the person who committed suicide makes. They line up all these reasons. And the person who committed suicide probably didn’t give a shit about those reasons. It’s too complicated for anyone but them to understand.
It’s an attempt to rationalize the…
You can’t even begin to understand how a person thinks who commits suicide, but you can imagine that it can be rationalized. Sorry, you can’t explain in words why you commit suicide.
So we return to that idea of the decay of spoken language. I was interested in this idea of a suggestion of a moral dimension of language, how it is used as a controlling methodology. You give an example of a guy in a dime store having a misunderstanding. In a way the storekeeper represents the pawn to capitalize. I was interested in whether you thought that was an instance of the decay of language or the post-verbal idea that you talk about where language conceals their agenda.
I guess what [I’m] trying to say is that for some reason what’s not explained in our spoken language is the decay and it being replaced by another kind of language – one that’s irrational. For instance in the dime store, the idea is that the person at the counter is indifferent to whether you’ve been cheated. They’re arguing against you, even though it has no profit for them. They argue against you because they belong to a system that requires them to argue. They are protectors, guardians of that system of how much money that store makes even though they don’t profit from it. It’s an irrational kind of behavior, in a real sense, but it happens all the time.
Is there a right or wrong way to use language? That’s a broad question but I’m just thinking aloud.
Yeah. You have to keep language accountable in a moral way. That’s exactly what Orwell says. Eight, 10, 15 volumes of Orwell say the same thing. You have to be respectful and moral with the language. Orwell is famous for that position.
So, I hadn’t thought about language as moral. I thought of moral as just good and evil. You talked about Orwell.
I love him. I would read anything I could when I was in my twenties. So when I was writing That Morning Thing he just came to mind. He just wrote this is happening and it is bad and I don’t like it. He was more like a journalist, but a spectacularly good writer too.
So the shopkeepers are the mothers of our future and their anxiety is more terrifying to me than death itself. Which seems quite urgent language. In this instance do you identify with the shopkeeper or are you pointing out journalistically, like Orwell, the compliance of the shopkeeper?
It’s the compliance. This is the part that is not moral, its amoral. The language doesn’t control that behavior anymore. That is so common. Orwell was so far ahead of it because there had been very little international understanding among people. So the British got it from the colonies, the Americans from the Indians… It’s almost a kind of innocence that those people had, compared to now where everybody is everybody. Everyone knows everything. Everyone’s been everywhere. In Orwell’s day they were so much more attached to the language. Now people land in New York and just keep speaking their own language.
So there’s something about language being taken about its locality that it’s diluted? Or it has this ability to shift?
It’s impossible to explain this, but when I grew up I was so ignorant of the world compared to now. Besides those guys being innocent, I’d never been anywhere, never knew anyone. So now - especially in New York - it's bizarrely wonderful in the respect that we all go through our day, not particularly understanding the other person. I had to go to Chinatown this morning, and had to deal with two women who barely spoke English but they’re doing their job. And you have a British accent and I’m talking to you… as soon as you start moving people around, you start thinking “What are those people doing?” You know? But you understand that they’re communicating. Go over to Chinatown; you can’t find one person out of 10 that speaks English. But everything functions, hanging on for bare life to what language they know. This business of language, the sirens are on, it’s gotten so out of hand.
That’s why I’ve always liked cities. That zone I quite like, the zone of the post verbal. I like it.
I like it too.
We talked about 1966–67 being the violent explosion of performance, Rolling Stones, the draft, Vietnam. Was that the seed of the idea of the decay or changing state of language?
I didn’t think of it as decay. Everybody was interested in change. The woman who was the first spokesman for feminism, she wanted change – Martin Luther King – everybody was in agreement, they didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew they wanted change. People now don’t want things to change. It’s the other way. The U.S. for 70 years has had a remarkable form of socialist democracy, improving life for everyone. All these [Republicans] grew up on it and now they want to take that away. They want to take that socialist democracy away and replace it with an authoritarian system. I hope they don’t do that. I’m pulling back from change now. I was for change back then and now I’m conservative. I want to conserve things as they are. It’s an amazing thing to realize this is happening to you.
The largest use of English is broken English. I listened to this British writer who used to write for News of the World giving a lecture on the horrors of American English. It came off as radically conservative. For me American English broke the language to a point that I could engage with it.
He is defending his narrow idea of language. It’s a strong political move because most people are not aware of it and they identify with that conservative thing. He’s cynical. He probably knows what he’s doing but is doing it anyway.
Mark Beasley is a curator, writer and artist based in New York.
All images unless otherwise noted: Dress rehearsals of That Morning Thing, courtesy of Robert Ashley.
This interview took place on August 21st, 2011. Transcription by Leonor Torres.