Charles Dodge, “He Destroyed Her Image” (1973).
(1’57″, 4.47 MB, mp3)
I found out at the last minute that Robert Ashley was appearing at the ICA (a friend saw an article about him in the trashy free newspaper they hand out at train stations) and so I rushed out to see for myself a live performance of one of his operas. This time, my reason for going was clear to me: I needed to understand.
For years I’d been interested in Robert Ashley’s work, heard recordings of some of his operas, and generally tried to avoid listening to his music until I had the ideal conditions for doing so, because I always felt that it was beyond me. What I’d heard was an unremitting treadmill of ideas – musical, linguistic, philosophical – presented in such an undifferentiated fashion that there was no way for the mind to latch on to any particular reference point to gain an overall perspective. It was an immersive experience, but in a way that made me feel like I didn’t pay enough attention.
So a live performance of his 1994 opera Foreign Experiences (part of a tetralogy called Now Eleanor’s Idea, itself part of a larger trilogy) seemed a perfect opportunity. This was a “chamber” adaptation, for two voices instead of seven against a backdrop of electronics, staging non-existent instead of minimal. Sam Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert performed outstandingly, creating a seamless patter of speak-singing, virtuosically incanting their texts in lock-step unison or call-and-response, casually slipping from one accent or speech pattern to another as they shifted between characters.
The texts of Ashely’s operas have always felt like novels. In this case, the setting is a modern American suburbia like that of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or more particularly the Vineland of Thomas Pynchon’s southern California. The opera’s story revolves around similar themes of rootlessness, ignorance, paranoia, remoteness, mediated experiences, thwarted radicalism and spiritual quests – all trapped in the paradox of living a life of modern materialism within a legacy of religious fervour. The narrative approach often feels similar as well, switching from closely reasoned metaphysical arguments to the banal and the vulgar, revelling in the lucid inarticulateness of American vernacular (“Naw shit no.”)
Why present all this as opera? There’s the music, the voices, the thrill of the performances, of course; but so many details fly past without allowing the mind to linger over their portent. (Earlier pieces like 1968′s Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon forced listeners to dwell upon the disturbing implications of what they were hearing – that same piece gets a fast-forward reprise in the middle of Foreign Experiences.) Then I remembered Perfect Lives, the instigating work in this opera cycle: it was conceived as an opera for television. This must not be confused with televised opera.
It seems that all of Ashley’s operas are best approached as television: a constant barrage of information, presented indiscriminately and dispassionately. There are people, voices, background music, all telling different stories and exposing different anxieties to which one may tune in or tune out, but can never fully grasp. Not in one sitting, anyway.
It’s the last day of the English football season, so The Guardian is giving minute-by-minute updates on its website, tracking the fates of teams facing relegation. Naturally, reporter Scott Murray is decribing the action through an extended conceit of likening the tail-end of the Premiership season to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (with some John Cage coming in for stoppage time), right down to the concluding section of his epic opera cycle Licht: “Sunday Farewell”.
A friend has just been visiting and travelling around Europe, seeking out ageing and obscure musicians and filmmakers from the previous century, meeting them and, if possible, interviewing them. I wonder if there’s a similar impulse in what I’ve been doing since I arrived in London – catching up on history. I’ve been more interested in seeing old, established artists than in seeking out something new.
I’m starting to feel like a type of collector. I tell myself I’m going there as a witness, but I’m not sure what it is I think I’m witnessing. Personality? Magic? An insight into how they work?
A couple of weeks ago I went to Conway Hall to see Christian Wolff, last survivor of the co-called New York School. He was performing selections from his series of Exercises, a set of pieces begun in the early 1970s, which allow musicians to find their own ways to follow each other through a common set of shared melodic material. It is, in effect, music born out of consensus.
Accompanied by the Post Quartet (reduced to a trio due to illness) and occasional percussionists, Wolff sat at the piano, balancing a melodica on his lap, and… did nothing, except make sounds. His onstage personality was as self-effacing as his music. The material is so “poor” and undistinguished it directs attention away from itself, toward the gently ragged, meandering sounds produced by the ensemble. At worst, the Exercises are bland and lulling, at their best (as in the spare, ephemeral piece for microtonal sounds) they unfolded like a benign force of nature – affirming John Cage’s belief that art should aspire to nature. Wolff, however, achieves this through social interaction, rather than through Cage’s reliance on the impersonal*.
Later that evening AMM played, in their current lineup of John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost, accompanied by Wolff, John Butcher on saxophone, and Ute Kanngiesser on cello. They improvised for an hour without a break. At first, Wolff sat beside Tilbury at the piano, making small noises in the highest realms of the keyboard, before moving to an electric guitar resting on a table. And, of course, there was the melodica.
A feeling of stasis and troubled quietness was maintained for the hour, yet with each musician producing occasional passages of restless activity. It was a far cry from the witless freneticism that has become a cliché of free improvisation, but it never found a period of the sustained immobility which has become prevalent amongst many improvisers in recent years.
These later static-and-silence musicians are the descendants of the style AMM developed over forty years ago. At Conway Hall the musicians were very skillful, but the music never lifts me the way the greatest moments of improvisation can do. Should I be disappointed? Of course not, no-one expects every gig like this to be transcendent; but on the other hand should I feel privileged to witness this particular grouping of musicians playing together? Why was I sitting there listening to it? For a sense of history, or for the music?
* Wolff did impose at one point to suggest they all start over on his latest piece, which came adrift early on. The impersonal interposed during the last piece, when the cellist’s microphone toppled over the edge of the stage and crashed to the floor, where it remained for the duration. Watch out for this if you find a recording.
I’m cheating, I’m watching this on iPlayer, which means I’m (a) fast-forwarding through the boring bits and (b) drinking alone. As must all large-scale events these days, it begins with a warning:
Ah, for the innocent days of being fifteen again, when I couldn’t look at strobe lights without succumbing to impure thoughts and popping a boner.
And right from the start we have a Fine Cotton with the now-dreaded Cirque du Soleil setting the tone for a night of po-faced, state-sponsored whimsy. Score One for iPlayer. Then last year’s winner comes on and sings what I assume is The Toilet Song again, as the last two winning songs have been hopelessly unmemorable. The male singer looks dead earnest while pulling the same writhe-around-on-the-floor moves Madonna used to do twenty years ago. Hang on, is that a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus flag?
Keep that guy away from the Greeks!
This is the dawn of the bold, new, post-Wogan era, so sadly he’s missed his chance to bring out his old Masha and Pasha jokes one more time when the hosts take the stage. He also misses out the chance to point out that one of the hosts is your granny’s toilet roll cover lady grown to full size and come to life.
Lithuania: A stage school boy with a tragic hat sings out of the corner of his mouth to disguise his accent. So far, so blah, but it wouldn’t be Eurovision without a stupid gimmick and meaningless attempts at profundity thrown in at the last moment. (ITE?, DKC)
Israel: This much-touted Jew-vs-Arab throwdown counts as a Don’t Mention The Wall, so that’s another drink along with their tried and tested English-chorus/Foreign-verse formula. Two charming divas in requisite softcore dominatrix gear warily eye each other off before bonding over their shared love of kerosene tins. (DMW, ITE?)
France: Kicks it old-school with a standard chanteuse act, whose only concessions to Eurovision are to wobble about a bit at the end in a small bit of awkward choreography, and to have her makeup done by Tim Burton. Professional, tasteful, the crowd seem to love it – this won’t win. Bonus points for not having an accordion on stage. Points off for having an accordion in the mix. (LKW)
Sweden: Yet another Swedish disco anthem sung by a burly blonde diva. This one’s an opera singer, so they have to bog the song down with lots of high warbly bits, only to have her struggle on the normal, breathy parts. By the end, she’s swapping ranges so often it sounds like a tribute to the late Yma Sumac. Didn’t every second future-dystopia sci-fi movie in the 90s tell us we’d be listening to this stuff right about now?
Croatia: Darko and the Pantene Ladies serenade you with their smoky charms, until one of them starts wailing uncontrollably. I think it’s one of the women. The singer stage right is getting visibly annoyed with the wind machine.
Portugal: There’s a fine line between being cheerful, colourful, and sweet, and being The Wiggles. With an accordion.
Iceland: This is as standard as Eurovision gets: a mid-tempo power ballad, sung in nonsensical American English, with a Dramatic Key Change for the last chorus, and utterly incongruous visuals. First a ghost ship for all the Pirates of the Caribbean fans, and then, more perplexingly, Ghost Flipper. (DKC)
Years of hanging around Lonsdale Street
and watching Eurovision have convinced me that modern-day Greece is just one giant discotheque. The singer dude shows how his country has moved with the times by leaving his shirt unbuttoned, revealing neither medallion nor chest hair. Acrobatic hijinks ensue around a bedazzled travelator that metamorphoses into the Giant Stapler of Greece. “Feel it in your heart when you are winning this race!” (DKC)
Armenia: “Chop it up! Bring the noise!” That’s just what their Armenian sounds like; their English makes much less sense. You know those old movies where the Sultan calls out the exotic dancers to entertain his guests? This is sort of the reverse, like watching an Armenian movie set in an American R’n'B club. (ITE?, DKC)
Russia: A sourpuss in a shower curtain bums everyone out with a dirge and a reenactment of The Jumbotron of Dorian Gray.
Azerbaijan: We’re just happy to be here, so let’s raid the TV studio’s wardrobe, grab as many flash pots as we can find, and crank the wind machine to 11! See, you don’t need a theme to make the crowd happy. (WM)
Bosnia&Herzegovina [sic]: Firstly, congratlulations to this country for entering under almost the same name for two years running. The first white suits of the night, albeit retro-uniform type things, looking a bit like Coldplay’s stupid outfits would if they weren’t colourfast. One young man furiously strums an electric guitar while a piano plaintively tinkles over the speakers. Then they turn on the wind machine. It’s a grim trudge, this one. (WM)
Moldova: A girl in purple boots does the singing-and-yelling thing to show how passionate these Slavic types are. She is accompanied by four Moldovan morris dancers who inexplicably break into the Dance of the Little Swans near the end, and a distant, shouty man brandishing a traditional Moldovan ceremonial mop.
Malta: It’s nice to see Chiara coming back every five years or so. It’s so reassuring. She stands there and sings, throws out her arms occasionally, and almost wins. With no video screens to back her up she gets lost on the vast stage, but she knows most of the voters are watching on telly and gets the nuances right.
Estonia: A Eurovision fake-violinist sitting down: is this a first? There are also two (2) cellists, also sitting, two backup singers standing still, and a lead singer standing still but ominously clutching a violin as well. In the instrumental break she stands still and pretends to play the violin a bit. This must be the most inert use of onstage prop instruments ever.
Denmark: A Danish Ronan Keating impersonator arises from his barstool to sing a Ronan Keating song. Why? Why? He keeps going into a half-squat like he’s been riding a horse too long. Does the real Ronan Keating do that? (2xFC)
Germany: Reverting to goofy kitsch again with an unappetising mélange of 20s, 30s, and 40s jazz clichés, squelched into a stiff pop ditty. In lieu of a decent song, they bring onstage legendary German pop icon Dita Von Teese (of the Friedrichshafen Von Teeses) and loudly announce her presence for the benefit of all the non-Germans who didn’t grow up watching Gummi porn. (FC)
Turkey: Haven’t they done this one before? Not that I’m complaining. The most substantial item of clothing worn by the ladies is around their ankles, for some reason. Don’t get any ideas, because halfway through a shirtless guy bounds onstage and starts showing off how he can totally kick you in the head like it ain’t a thing. (2xCR)
Albania: I’m guessing Albania got into the finals on the sympathy vote, because they’re trapped in 1983. A girl with crimped hair and a bubble skirt struggles with the English language while one of the mimes does a headspin. Oh yeah, there’s a pair of scary mimes. And Gumby, who’s become a creepy, middle-aged stalker who just won’t go away. (DKC)
Norway: A gurning fiddler is backed up by a pair of singers teleported in from the 1976 contest, and some stray tumblers from a travelling production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers who commit gratuitous violence against hats and generally looking this close to walking over and planting one on the singer. (WM)
Ukraine: A committee job, surely. Techno set? Yep. Ruslana-type chick? Of course. Lving statues? Why not. Gay Mardi Gras centurions? Uh, OK. Karen Carpenter impression? You mean she does a gratuitous drum solo or starves herself? Too soon! (2xCR)
Romania: A hen’s night overruns the Troll King’s throne. When is someone going to fling their skirts off?
United Kingdom: The Toilet Song for this year. X-Factor warbling of a dreary Diane Warren ballad. Oh god, and Andrew Lloyd Webber simpering over a white piano. Score Two for iPlayer. (FC, LKW, DKC)
Finland: If I asked you to name the two most obnoxious things in the world, you’d probably say white guys rapping and fire twirling. Guess what this trainwreck’s got for us?
Spain: Another case of “will this do?” from one of the big nations. At one stage the dancers hold up a sheet in front of the singer, usually a Eurovision cue for a costume change. Instead, she disappears completely. And then, um, pops up again a few metres to the left. This isn’t a lame magic show, it’s a lame song contest! (ITE?)
The voting: Norway wins. Why do the Israeli fans have large, inflatable hammers with the Star of David on them?
I’m busy right now, so here are some headlines from the official Eurovision website to give you some ideas about (a) how the contest is shaping up, (b) the shape Europe’s in, and (c) WTF.
It’s Eurovision week! Previously: Meet The Losers, The Eurovision Drinking Game Rules.
Incidentally, the voting system has changed this year. Over the past ten years Eurovision voting has moved from jury-based decisions to popular phone votes in every participating country. This year, after growing disquiet over blatant block voting by particular countries, each country’s vote will now be weighted fifty-fifty between the phone vote and a jury vote.
Yeah, that’ll work. I’m sure that every nation’s appointed jury will be completely impartial and unaware of any political agenda with their neighbours, and utterly unconcerned about the gas being switched off again next winter.
It’s Eurovision week! Previously: The Eurovision Drinking Game Rules.
As always, we look to the Eurovision entrant with the longest odds of winning, in a futile attempt to seek out the most rewarding piece of kitsch before the Big Show itself*.
This year the honour goes to perpetual underdogs Slovakia, which returns to the contest after a 10-year absence. Discouraged, they gave up in 2000 after all their previous entries only got into three finals, never coming higher than 17th. Their comeback, “Leť Tmou” by Kamil Mikulčík & Nela Pocisková, is an unauspicious 150-1 longshot.
The Slovakian performers are “a group of musicians with impressive CV-s. Some of them teach in universities and some are very famous from local TV-series!” Pocisková is a “popular actress and singer”, and is joined by Rastislav Dubovský “the piano master”, and Jan Pospíšil “maestro on the cello”. Mikulčík, on the other hand, is billed merely as “the male voice on stage”, so he’s obviously neither a master nor popular but they needed a guy and he happened to be around.
Of course, this song is also the least likely to make it through to the final, so the longest odds on any country guaranteed to be in the final is, surprisingly, last year’s winner. “Mamo”, sung by Russia‘s Anastasia Prikhodko is a dubious 40-1.
Anastasia has an interesting and rarely low deep voice like that of an opera’s diva. She has graduated from a music academy, the department of folk vocal. She sings quite unordinary minor songs and folk songs in both the Russian and Ukranian languages.
A minor song, sung by a diva with an unusually low deep voice? Have economic troubles forced Russia to pull a My Lovely Horse?
* As a purist, I prefer to see all the final acts cold, and ignore the previews and semi-finals. This method of checking the betting has, to my knowledge, never worked.
Is it that time of year already? The Eurovision Song Contest
is just next week, and I’m not sure yet if I’ll be free to watch it. Nevertheless, here are the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game rules for 2009, slightly revised for world gas reserves and punctuation.
Phase I: The Performances
A. Every instance within a song:
I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).
I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.
B. Once per song only:
I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.
I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.
I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2 the Fine Cotton.
I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.
I.B.5 The Wandering Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.
I.B.6 The Greeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)
I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. In the past few years it seems that I.B.7 has been supplanted by…
I.B.8 Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.
I.B.9 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.
PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
I.B.10A The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.
I.B.11A The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…
Phase II: The Voting
II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.
II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus, and when Germany gives twelve points to Turkey.
II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets null points from France.
II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast to any country left with zero points at the end.
II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.
PHASE II SOBER PLAYERS ONLY: The voting now moves along too quickly for most people to keep up with the following by this stage of the evening, but you can try.
II.6A The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points.
II.7A The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a relative watching at home.
II.8A The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.
II.9A The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.
II.10A The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.
W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why Italy isn’t in it; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?
W2 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.
W3 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.