Robert Ashley, 1930–2014
In 2011 Performa presented a series of performances celebrating Robert Ashley’s work, restaging the definitive version of his seminal operatic work That Morning Thing (1967) at the Kitchen, and the New York-based composer/performer collective Varispeed’s inspired twenty-four-hour public reworking—from Washington Square Park to an Elizabeth Street bar—of Perfect Lives Manhattan for Performa 11. Ashley dealt with words and sound in a manner that reinvigorated storytelling: His use of voice and phrase gave life to countless characters making their way through a musical landscape while telling their tales of bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, and adolescent elopement. With works such as That Morning Thing (1967), Perfect Lives (1977–83), Dust (1999–01), Now Eleanor’s Idea (1993), and Atalanta (Acts of God) (1981–87), Ashley recast an old form—European opera—and with a deft vernacular phrase and electronic musical line delivered the television opera to a new century and a new continent. His music from the sonic power of The Wolfman (1964)—the first recorded use of feedback as an instrument on record—and the distant spectral voices of Automatic Writing (1979) prefigured Noise as genre, and also the haunted strains of contemporary record labels such as Britain’s Ghost Box.
In my many meetings with Robert he was never less than a generous host, ready wit, and storyteller beyond compare. My abiding memory is of Robert many months after the Kitchen presentation: He sat in the Manhattan apartment of one of the members of Varispeed, glass in hand, watching new works by young composers. Robert also performed, reading from Quicksand (2011) while sitting behind a small circular table lit by a bedside lamp. It was a very casual affair, a performance for friends by friends in a social setting. What struck me was the fact of a new generation and their connection to Robert, and his connection to them—his attentiveness to new work, new thought, and new music. If there is such a thing as passing the baton between generations it couldn’t be more lovingly understood than this.
Our thoughts are with Mimi, Robert’s family, and the many artists, musicians, and friends who were touched by his work.
The Heaviness and Lightness of Passing it On: Some Thoughts on Robert Ashley
I want to swim in quotations from Robert Ashley’s work. In a lengthy conversation about talking to oneself last autumn, Bob explained to me that he often finds himself talking to himself in the form of composing or practicing a line for one of his operas. Akin to humming to oneself, the repetition of vocalizing these phrases is how he learns to get them right. In my own voice, practicing the lines of his operas over and over—learning the lay of the land so that that I can smoothly navigate its territory—I find myself talking to myself, using his words. I try them on for size, chew them up, push them around a little, smooth them out, lay them flat, and parade them into my psyche. Every time I go to write something about him, I find myself turning to a libretto—grasping at lines like puzzle pieces or keyholes. I read through old emails. I listen to recordings. I drown in the archive. And though I want to focus on him and not talk about myself, his words are always stubbornly mediated through my mouth, and my mediation remains the foot stuck in the doorway—my only way to keep the door open.
Great works of art hold you by the stirrups and don’t let go for years. They are something you can spend a lifetime going back to—an animate mythology that weaves itself into the foundational fabric of an individual’s ever-evolving personal meaning making. That’s how I feel about the work of Robert Ashley.
I am part of the younger generation that has taken up Bob’s work in recent years. We have been lauded as proof of the staying power of his art, serving as evidence of the fact that his words can withstand a severing of the umbilical cord from their creator’s mouth. I am also part of a movement of new American opera that holds the fundamental shifts he made in musical practice and thought as foundational, as inspirational, as obvious—we’ve made our homes on the mountains he moved, even as we continue to learn their terrain.
My relationship to Bob and his work has taken on a vigorous dialectic of heaviness and lightness in the last few months. ("heaviness" and "lightness": terms I heard repeatedly from Bob and eloquently used by Sam Ashley in his response to Bob’s passing.) There is a great heaviness in the discourse of legacy, in the mourning that follows death, in the writing of history, and in the weight of wisdom I have found in Bob’s words and musical choices. When I infuse these weighty loads with my own breath and musical ideas, I strive for lightness—literally in the performance of his words and conceptually in how I let myself co-exist with them. The lightness of the first time I performed Bob’s work—in 2011, with Varispeed, in what became known as Perfect Lives Brooklyn, a casual, barely rehearsed all-day reading of his Perfect Lives—remains present in my every subsequent turn: A continued drive of discovery and learning, outside a matrix of perfection and instead within a logic of awakening.
Scholars in performance studies love to rehash the issue of ephemerality in performance (made so pivotal by Peggy Phelan). What is stuck in time does not stay. The grandest argument against the ontology of performance as fleeting is the urge toward and practice of repetition: the drive to perform again, to experience anew through performance. History is seen as living in the re-enactment. Re-performance is a concept dreamed up by an object-based economy before it understands the "re" that functions in every performance. Time plays tricks on us through the labyrinth of meditation, and somehow I find myself blowing air into the shed skin of a life, watching it levitate like a balloon, becoming lighter and lighter.
I am thinking again of how I talk to myself using Bob’s words. I am one of six performers in Bob’s last opera, Crash, completed in December 2013, about two months before he passed away, and premiering in April in the Whitney Biennial. Crash is a kind of performed memoir with three levels of mediations: readings from the journal of an old man recounting his life, with thirty seconds of recollections for each individual year; talking to an unseen person about someone else—him, the old man, Robert Ashley, Bob—in the manner of something like a late-night heart-to-heart on the telephone with a dear friend; and a distanced and poetic narration of moments throughout the old man’s life when he has passed out; his "crashes." These crashes are brought on by "a fear of people who are/important to some people any people/a fear of people barely known/and a fear of a large number of people" (Crash, Act 1). The swirling heaviness and lightness of the importance of the figure of Robert Ashley pushes me onto my own brink of a crash. In the score, my parts are indicated with my name. I am never asked to be anyone but myself. But I am always singing of Bob.
Despite never being an official student of his, I learned a great deal from him in the short amount of time I knew him. Of immense influence is the idea that I should always follow my own ideas and musical instincts before trying to guess at those of others. The key to successful performances is a structure that allows each individual collaborator to use their strengths unhindered, keeping their musical ears open and instincts active, while being connected to the work of the others. He embraced the ambiguities of interpretation, and, furthermore, these ambiguities reflected those of sensibility in modern life. The secret to the power of Robert Ashley is that he not only had influential musical ideas but influential ideas in general. What makes the music better makes the life better. It’s hard to talk about the blurring of life and art within his life and work, without the same blurring occurring in my own. The realness of all of this makes the dialectic of heaviness and lightness glow.
The other most influential idea I gained from Bob was what he learned from examining his practice of talking to himself: that speech is music. Moreover, music holds a key to our survival in the face of the organizational drive of modern life to Make Sense. That which falls out of intelligibility, traveling beyond our ability to make sensible, coheres to and with musicality. The ambiguity of language, the excessive remainder inherent in the process of naming, performs itself as music, throwing a safety rope to our own sense of confusion in the face of a life never fully legible.
Many years ago a friend of mine remarked that sincerity is the new avant-garde. I have held onto this idea like a lucky rabbit’s foot. No wonder I was attracted to the rigorous sincerity of Robert Ashley. It stands as a monument to his enduring influence. The integrity behind his mundane occurrences of talking to himself remind me of how and why to do this whole music thing. When talking to oneself is music, and speech is song, and we’re all just lifting our voices in the glow of our own impenetrable mortal solitude, I’ll be singing this next one of you and for you, Bob. A grateful passing it on.
Victoria Keddie & Scott Kiernan (E.S.P. TV) in conversation with Alex Waterman on Robert Ashley's operas in the 2014 Whitney Biennial
We were asked to write about our collaboration with Robert Ashley for the three opera performances—Vidas Perfectas, The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer, and Crash—as part of the Whitney Biennial. Robert Ashley passed away the day before the Whitney Biennial opened. In Robert’s passing, we see our contribution as a work to honor a great man’s artistic vision. In place of a reflection, we chose to pay focus to the kinetic energy surrounding the operas as we near our performance premiere. We’ve asked Alex Waterman, director of the three operas and close collaborator with Ashley for over a decade, to answer questions surrounding the background, the program, and the decision to collaborate with both Scott Kiernan and myself for Vidas Perfectas. As Alex remarks, our collaboration with Robert comes from a shared embrace of the "impossible landscape."
Victoria Keddie & Scott Kiernan (E.S.P. TV): What is your background in working with Robert Ashley? How did this happen?
Alex Waterman: I met Robert Ashley in 2004 in Holland. I was producing a concert of instrumental music for a festival dedicated to his music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Bob had sent us a huge package of scores and I read through all of them and chose which works we would play. There were two sets of pieces from 1963 that blew me away. I hadn’t seen music like this before. I had worked on many experimental scores that employed graphic or verbal notations, but these were different. The first set of works were called the "in memoriams…" They were four pieces, each dedicated to a different historical figure from America’s dark past. They were a bunch of scoundrels, depending on which side of history you were on: John Smith, Esteban Gomez, Kit Carson, and Crazy Horse. All four were exquisitely detailed, hand-drawn graphic scores. Next to John Cage, they were the most beautiful scores I had seen. What was remarkable was the fact that they were blueprints for how to create a music that could exist "outside of time." They were a kind of drone music, but they were incredibly complex and full of instructions, rules, and strategy. The result may be a “drone” of some description, but the underlying structure was far too complex. Or was it? Why couldn’t a “drone” be a sonority composed of intricate waves and independent listening strategies? If we were to truly perceive a music outside of time, wouldn’t the code indeed be hard to crack? As Chris Mann would say, "with resistance comes the gift."
The other set of pieces was called "Trios WHITE ON WHITE." It was a set of three trios. Each trio was one typewritten page. The first of the four pages was a set of instructions for printing. The first line reads, "Imagine these trios to have been printed in the following manner."
Instructions follow on how to print three types of white ink on an off-white page. Bob wrote in a letter to me that this piece had been his statement against "sight-reading." He hated the fact that musicians didn’t rehearse new music but instead just tossed it off. Sight-reading was a negative value judgment of a music that was premised upon the attentiveness and creativity of the musicians. Classical musicians weren’t interested being involved in a creative process or in listening as a practice; they just wanted to play and be virtuosos. Bob was frustrated by this. His solution was to imagine a piece that would be printed with three white inks superimposed over one another. Each white was a different player. Remember, the three players are reading from one page! Imagine that…
I was captivated and this piece became a challenge that would keep me and my best friend and collaborator, Will Holder, busy for almost ten years. (We are just finishing the printing of the third trio.) Bobby Rauschenberg told Ashley that it couldn’t be done.
Well… it just takes some time.
After producing that concert and beginning work on the Trios, it became apparent to Will and I that we should work on a longer-term project. This became Yes, But is it Edible—a sung biography of Robert Ashley for two or more readers. We are in the final stages of making this book. At the same time, Will and I also produced three other books on experimental notation, the "social act of reading," and conversation as a mode for production in the arts and music: Agape, Between Thought and Sound, and The Tiger’s Mind.
In 2010, Zach Layton asked me to produce a new version of Perfect Lives as a chamber-music performance at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn. We applied, together with Robert, for a grant from the NEA, and, to our surprise, we got it. It wasn’t enough money to even produce a chamber-music concert, but Bob and I decided that we shouldn’t "sell the audience a used car, we should build a new one." This became Vidas Perfectas. A Spanish-language translation had already been made, so I took that and reworked the setting and made new scores, templates, and conducted the dramaturgy. We gathered an incredible group of musicians and artists, and through fundraising and bank loans, I managed to produce three of the episodes with beautiful staging, lights, and projections of language at the Irondale Theater in 2011. The piece traveled to London, where we performed at the Serpentine and Cafe OTO, and then we were on a hiatus until this year’s Whitney Biennial, where we are presenting the whole opera as live television inside the museum.
How did the idea culminate to do three operas for the Whitney Biennial?
Anthony Elms called me and asked if I would be in the biennial with Robert Ashley. The original idea was to do Vidas Perfectas. I wanted to do a couple of other pieces, so Bob started pulling things from drawers. We talked through a bunch of options before I asked if I could present his early opera, The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer. I had spent two years archiving documents from the ONCE Group and the ONCE Festival, which took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, between 1961 and 1966. A lot of those documents were Anne Opie Wehrer’s letters, minutes from meetings, grant applications, correspondence, photographs and ephemera of The Trial.
I was sitting there one day when I realized that Anne Opie Wehrer and I have the same initials: AOW. Then I looked to see where she was born: sure enough, we were both born in Norfolk, Virginia. I felt that she put her hands on my shoulders. We were in contact (Anne died in the late 1990s). Later that day I found the letter to Marcia Tucker where she asked Marcia if she could present The Trial of Annie Opie Wehrer at the Whitney Biennial. The letter was written in 1974. Forty years later, we are finally presenting the piece. We are presenting Anne’s life as "living sculpture," just as she wanted.
The third piece came out of our discussion of in memoriam…John Smith. I had been working on that piece for the book, and I was having trouble with it. It’s incredibly difficult, to the point that it may actually be impossible. Bob started reading through it and working out its problems. I proposed that we use the score to stage a series of stories in different locations throughout the museum. The score would tell us where to move and when, and when to start and stop the stories. Bob liked the idea, but then a couple weeks later said, “Hold on, I’ve gotta keep working on this.” Next thing I knew, he was writing from Arizona to say that he was nearly finished with a ninety-minute opera, called in memoriam…John Smith, of course. By the time he got back to New York, it was called Crash, and it is the last opera he ever wrote. It’s a piece in six acts, each act fifteen minutes long. It tells the story of his life year by year from three vantage points, by six voices. There is no music, just voices, light, and images.
The three operas are a kind of retrospective of Bob’s work, but better than that they are a grand arc that describes the incredible richness of his cosmology and the brilliance of his vision. It’s a celebration of Bob in every way.
And then you reached out to us to get involved in the production…
I reached out to you [Victoria and Scott] because you are really into making live television and making it with a range of equipment that explores the history of the medium as well as the tactility and sensibilities that only television can truly explore. You understand Bob’s idea of television as an impossible landscape. You also know John Sanborn and Dean Winkler’s work well, and respect the original version enough to want to do something completely new this time. We are not re-making Perfect Lives—we are telling the same story in a different language and bringing it into a new landscape. That’s the spirit of Bob’s work. As he used to say, “I only work with geniuses…it pays off in the end.”
Was Robert aware of E.S.P. TV?
I talked to Bob about E.S.P. TV and showed him some of your work online. You didn’t get a chance to meet in person unfortunately, but he approved of my choice. He trusted all my decisions, which sometimes made me nervous. I would sometimes repeat the same question multiple times and do the same with my ideas, just to see if he would answer differently or come up with a disagreement… In this case, he had no qualms at all.
How do you envision Vidas Perfectas or Ashley’s works in the future?
We are creating a sound stage and live television environment in the Whitney Museum. This is a huge undertaking. We are bringing in everything, building the sets, lights, sound installation, screens, setting cameras and monitors, and composing the video live. It’s a huge job.
We will be working together in Marfa, Texas; El Paso; and Juarez, Mexico this summer to complete the live television version and film the remaining footage needed for the final television episodes, which will compiled in the fall.
How important was video and broadcasting for Ashley?
I’d refer you to the BOMB article (118/Winter) where Bob and I talk specifically about the landscape of television. His comments are incredibly clear and brilliant. He understood that television enables us to tell stories in new ways and to re-present landscapes in ways that are not possible in any other medium. Television changed music and how we compose narratives. Bob wanted to compose for television because of the speed and complexity of the medium, but also because it was a technology best received by two people on a couch sitting together. The living room as the new concert hall was one of Bob’s utopias. It happens to be one of mine as well. I guess this also explains why I am working with E.S.P. TV: They live their professional lives like they live their lives at home. They know how to entertain an audience and they know how to entertain guests. For them it’s the same thing. I relate to that.
Why would you want to play a concert for people who you wouldn’t invite to your house for dinner?
All images: Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing, 1967. Performance view, 2011. Photos by Paula Court.