Thanksgiving: Thomas Buckner sings Robert Ashley

Wednesday 26 November 2014

I didn’t write about the last time Robert Ashley was in town. Sometimes you have an experience that gives you too much to think about, to write it down coherently and do it justice; not at first, and then you leave it later and later until it seems too late. For much the same reason, I didn’t write about when he died in March this year, either. So many of us have been slow in catching up to the implications of Ashley’s work.

Last night, long-time collaborator Thomas Buckner sang a programme dedicated to Robert Ashley’s music at Cafe Oto, to an audience of as many as twenty people. Much of it was in Ashley’s signature style of speech heightened to the state of music (not to be confused with sprechstimme), but Buckner’s virtuosic shaping of phrase and intonation and even melody from Ashley’s text revealed an aspect I had not fully realised before. The virtuosic speech which is Ashley’s most recognisable stylistic trait is more than patter, an overwhelming flow of information; there are pauses, hesitations, repetition which mould the semantic and emotional content of the words and the voice into complex states of thought and feeling as skilfully as any great aria.

For the record, Buckner performed a version of Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), consisting of the “Odalisque” aria from Act I, “Mystery of the River” from Act II, and the Anecdote “The Producer Speaks” from Act III. The first act was accompanied by piano, electric piano and synthesized organ, the third act by piano alone. “Mystery of the River” was a new electronic realisation, made only last year as it had never been performed before then. After the interval, Buckner sang Tract, a wordless melody with electronic accompaniment, and World War III Just the Highlights, for voice and chorus. Tract began as a setting of a Wallace Stevens poem for voice and string quartet until Ashley realised he didn’t want to bend other people’s texts to fit music and as for string quartets, well.

The music conveys a stillness of contemplation, containing an agitation of thought. Connections abound. Ashley rhymes his subjects like Ezra Pound in the Cantos. Like William Carlos Williams, he adopts Pound’s methods to articulate the fraught sense of an emerging cultural awareness in his contemporary U.S.A., wondering whether it will survive and grow, and in what form. “Mystery of the River” repurposes mythology into geography and family history, as any colonial community must if they are to find meaning in their environment. World War III Just the Highlights starts by dissecting the economics of an opera company staging the Ring Cycle before crossing the Atlantic to analyse the romanticisation of El Cid and the Italian condottieri: the subject matter, characters, their juxtaposition and the connections between them are all the stuff of the Cantos.

Every performance of Ashley’s music I’ve witnessed has been a revelation, leading always to bigger and better questions about the content of his work. It pains me how few other people were there to hear it for themselves.

The technique. Pateras, Toral, Frey.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Not much to report lately except for two gigs, both at Cafe Oto, about one week apart.

First night: two solo sets, by Rafael Toral and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard some of Toral’s music for guitar and feedback of different types, so this was relevant to my interests. He played three “pieces”, each using different sets of very simple equipment. After the first set I started to vague-out a bit. The first was the most interesting: holding a small powered speaker in one hand, he “played” it with a microphone/light in the other, moving it to and fro to create controlled bursts of feedback. It was reminiscent of a solo improvisation on a violin, in sound and gesture. Unfortunately, it also went on for too long – I think this was because Toral seemed more interested in extracting every possible type of sound out of his instrument than in shaping a musical experience. He later mentioned that he was thinking about jazz saxophone solos while playing, so perhaps this was the problem too.

I’ve known Anthony Pateras for a long time so it was good to hear him play again. He played solo piano, without preparations to the strings or other extraneous sounds (as is often the case with him). The difference in technique between the two musicians was striking, and not just in the obvious way of comparing Toral’s meticulous gestures with Pateras’ frenzied activity. The trademark hyperactive pummelling of the keyboard is nevertheless rigorously constrained, producing sharply defined contrasts in large harmonic blocks of sound as well as more subtle distinctions in texture. His technical agility keeps focussed on one musical idea, which is then expanded and elaborated upon. He also stopped soon enough for the audience to demand an encore.

A few days later I was back at Oto to see Jürg Frey and friends (or “personal army”, as they were described on the night). He’s a clarinettist and composer, another one who’s associated with Wandelweiser. Quiet, pulseless sounds: unlike my previous experience, the usual feeling of hushed stillness had additional depths. Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

Performance technique in Frey’s music becomes a matter of mastering a highly disciplined activity, to achieve the extremes of attenuated sounds demanded in the score. Looking back on the three different sets, it became clear that I was hearing differences of technique that applied equally to composition as they did to performance. The opportunity to hear Frey play his own music made this connection much clearer. A more extreme case of performance dictating composition was also presented at the Frey gig. Anton Lukoszevieze’s performance of part of John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings reveals that the harmonic structure of the piece is entirely produced by the systematic execution of a single, extended gesture by the cellist – conceptually simple, but physically difficult.

The same musicians had spent the weekend recording Frey’s music for another release by Another Timbre. It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.