In the Presence of Greatness? (Part 2 – Robert Ashley)

Thursday 28 May 2009

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.