PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 45-60
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Defining American Opera
Arthur J. Sabatini
Since he began composing and performing in the late 1950s, Robert Ashley has created a wholly original body of work. Continuously productive, his oeuvre encompasses nearly all versions of music and music/sound performance from instrumental and electronic compositions to film music and music videos to multi-sectioned, intermediated staged operas. Ashley has also written essays and scores, and published books as well as dozens of audio and video recordings. A founding member of several ensembles and bands over the years, since the late 1980s, he has surrounded himself with a core group of players and invited artists (videographers, sound designers, etc.) in the development of a series of elaborate, interconnected operas. Over seventy, Ashley's accomplishments are remarkable in scope and significance. He is an unacknowledged influence on a generation of musicians and performance artists and, with new productions yearly and reissues of previous material, it is time to catch up with his ideas and work.
Throughout his career, Ashley has steadily focused on several recurrent themes. As a composer, he is dedicated to the music of sound and language, particularly American vernacular speech and its reworkings into songs, narratized singing, and performance structures. As a theatre and media artist, he has created musical stories on stage (and in recordings) in complex, vividly mediated productions that, as I will suggest below, are in a genre of their own—American opera. As a composer/writer, like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and John Cage, he has thought extensively about America music, culture, and performance. Conceptually and in practice, he has consistently approached music as a form of collaboration that involves a variety of creative relationships. The idea of making music, and the theme of relationships among musicians, between couples, and in communities is also key to his thematic sense of American music.
Ashley's music, particularly his large-scale work, transcends boundaries. Generically, works like Perfect Lives (1980) and the recent pieces Dust (2000) and Celestial Excursions (2003), are at once musical, theatrical, operatic, novelistic, and highly intermediated. Stylistically, they draw on staging and performance practices that are recognizable from the post-war Euro-American new music in its experimental and avant-garde traditions. With a preference for tangled, allusive plots, Ashley's music [End Page 45] consists of dramatic songs delivered by characters, singly and together, who spin long narrations sustained by live and electronic music and subtle or soaring choral passages. Compositionally, Ashley's music emerges from the speaking and storytelling features of American speech (male and female), which he recomposes into forms that become a type of American sprechstimme (speech song). Ashley songs are not tunes (although he has many), but musicalized recountings, meditations, and metaphysical analyses. In Dust, for example, five singers, who represent street people living together in a small city park, stand on stage behind clear glass shields that occasionally fog over or admit shards of light. Their stories revolve around a legless ex-soldier who recounts his ordeals while the other voices intrude on his ramblings, telling of their losses and regrets. One of the women once stood in for Shirley Temple; another wanted to be a country western singer. Some of the extended passages in Dust contain commentaries on subjects ranging from theosophy and vegetarianism to gay sex and street fights. As in most of Ashley's works, the characters' psycho-narrated musings overlap and the voices echo each other in passages comparable to those in a William Faulkner novel. To complete the mise-en-scène in Dust, there are several video monitors and, over the stage, a screen gracefully fills and dissolves with images (conceived by Yasunori Kagegawa) that float like the thoughts of the characters. (Celestial Excursions, described below, has a similar structure.)1
Ashley's approaches to staging, musical characters, storytelling, and processes he uses for producing his work have evolved over decades. Aligning himself with dozens of artists, groups, and musicians he has followed and set...