Magazine article Artforum International

Hearing Voices: Alex Waterman on Robert Ashley

Magazine article Artforum International

Hearing Voices: Alex Waterman on Robert Ashley

Article excerpt

IN AN INTERVIEW LAST YEAR, composer Robert Ashley recalled a story about his Uncle Willard, who called the police one day to report a UFO in his living room. When the officers arrived, they asked him where the UFO was. He pointed toward a peach pit on a windowsill.

"Willard, that's not a UFO, that's just a peach pit," the Sheriff
"Well, it may look like a peach pit to you!" Willard replied.

The figure of Uncle Willard, with his divergent take on collectively perceived reality, speaks like one of the characters from Ashley's operas. We can imagine the sound of his voice coming to us from the hills of Tennessee more than sixty years back. It's a voice with the timbre of poverty and drinking, a voice that tells stories almost the same way every time, always working out the details again to get it just right--stories whose punch lines can make you laugh one time and cry another. It's a voice that might seem unlikely at first, given Ashley's beginnings during the early 1960s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his earliest compositions, including his first opera, were multimedia productions experimenting with graphic notation, electroacoustic composition, drama, and film. (In fact, several of these were produced for Ashley's annual ONCE Festival of avant-garde music, theater, and film, which featured an impressive range of participants, from Gordon Mumma and George Manupelli to Pauline Oliveros and David Behrman.) But Ashley's compositional interests would, during the '70s, begin to center on the voice and, in particular, the patterns of involuntary speech--a compositional shift that culminated in 1979 with his classic album Automatic Writing. For the forty-six-minute piece, Ashley combined four layers of material: two voices (Ashley's, speaking in fragmented English, and Mimi Johnson's, whispering French words that seem to be teetering between a waking and sleeping state), an electric organ, and a Moog synthesizer (whose barely audible tones sound as if they might be coming from a next-door neighbor's apartment). The creative breakthrough helped position him as an important new composer, and his subsequent work--the innovative "television operas," productions (such as Perfect Lives [1979-83], which premiered on British television in 1984) designed to be filmed and broadcast episodically on network channels--similarly confirmed his role as a pioneer in both electronic media and vocal music.


This past January, three of Ashley's most recent television operas appeared at New York's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (presented live but recorded here for future programming), all of them featuring the kinds of characters underrepresented in the contemporary arts--the elderly, the homeless--in addition to loners, gamblers, and composers. Dust (1998), for instance, is set in the park in front of Ashley's TriBeCa studio and tells the stories of the itinerant people who used to gather there; Celestial Excursions (2003) takes place in an assisted-living facility; and Made Out of Concrete (2007-2009) consists of stories from Ashley's life, sung by four actors sitting at a card table and reading the libretto aloud from decks of oversize cards. (Ashley himself appears in the last work, often obscured by darkness, and delivers his lines from a comfortable chair with a reading lamp beside him.)

What brings these particular works together? Of these productions, Dust and Celestial Excursions clearly present people for whom the rules of society--specifically, those binding us to home, property, and participation in everyday life--no longer apply. Yet this remove, as portrayed in Ashley's works, still revolves around the question of language long of interest to the composer. In Dust, the characters are homeless not only because they have no home to go to but also because they've lost any means of communicating: While they talk to themselves and at one another, there is no reciprocation; no one outside their space seems to hear them. …

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