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.