Reviewing Robert Ashley's Music with Roots in the Aether the First Opera for Television
Sabatini, Arthur J., Millennium Film Journal
FROM PORTRAITS TO OPERA WITH TELEVISION
By the 1970s, Robert Ashley, nearing 40, had been involved in composing, performing and producing new music in all types of emerging and experimental media contexts. Over the years, Ashley scored films with filmmaker George Manupelli, for events in Milton Cohen's Space Theater, and for his own business (which made training films for companies in Detroit).1 As one of the founders of the ONCE Festivals (Ann Arbor, 1962-68) and a member of the touring group, the Sonic Arts Union, he regularly collaborated with other musicians and artists. When, by 1970, he became the Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, he built a new music studio there and began investigating, notably with Paul De Marinis, electronic systems for sound production and performance. Ashley's collaborative efforts during the ONCE years underscored his inclinations to create a form of opera which included theatricalized multi-media musical performance. He also wanted to return to making films. He was well aware of artists working with video, but, as with many artists of the period, video and television were evolving more in relation to visual and performance art than cinema.
Like Cage and other composers of the time, Ashley was deeply involved in thinking about and theorizing new music, art, theater, and performance. More directly, some of his work reflexively addresses creativity and the status of a composer in contemporary society. His Manoeuvres for Small Hands (1961) is a piano piece that uses playing cards and draws upon styles and notation techniques of well known composers. Another work, Morton Feldman Says (1965/1970), is a scored transcription of a part of a conversation Ashley had with the composer (actually, it is mostly a monologue by Feldman).
Ashley's experiences with the ONCE Group and his life among musicians, composers and artists-in America and overseas-provided him with enduring personal relationships and an ever expanding knowledge of the lives and creative directions of his contemporaries. At Mills, his work centered on teaching, as well as musical, technical and conceptual projects. A series of pieces called Illusion Models explicitly dealt with displacements of sound, motion, visuality and perceptions. Then, in the early 1970s, he recalls, "I sort of instinctively turned toward the two most public forms I could find. I wanted to make these large scale video portraits, which took my interest back to theater and very large scale handling of sound materials."2 Hearkening back to ONCE Group performances, he again became concerned with speech and talking, audiences, and forms of public address, both rhetorically and in practice. He also wanted to resume explorations with theater, multi-media, and using film and video in performance.
By video, Ashley actually meant television in a more conventional sense. The medium appealed to him as a logical apparatus for theatricalizing music and for possibly reaching different audiences. Like other composers, he had long since realized that his grand ideas for opera, or any large scale productions, were unlikely to be realized in the existing musical situation in America, with its symphony and opera halls and their institutional agendas. (This was well before acceptance of "cross-over" performance or the emergence of Opera-music-theater'). Using televisions on stage, he thought, could lead to thinking of the mise en scène for music beyond the concert stage model. Essentially, he said, "the theater of the music would be television... It's not so much the television imagery, but what the audience sees is the operation of some sort of recording medium in the presence of the piece. The theater is not just that you see the pictures, it's also that you see the camera persons and all the equipment that goes with the recording."3
At Mills, Ashley had had the idea of simply bringing together a number of his favorite composers and artists "to perform in one place for a long period of time. …