Robert Ashley
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Wolfman (1965), 6/10
In Sara... (1973), 6/10
Private Parts (1977), 6.5/10
Automatic Writing (1979), 7/10
Bar (1981), 6/10
Music Word Fire (1982), 6/10
Perfect Lives (1983), 7/10
Atalanta (1986), 6/10
Yellow Man With Heart With Wings (1989), 6/10
Improvement- Don Leaves Linda (1992), 6/10
eL/Aficionado (1994), 6.5/10
Superior Seven and Tract (1996), 6/10
String Quartet... (1999), 5/10
Your Money My Life Goodbye (1999), 6/10
Dust (2000), 6/10
Celestial Excursions (2005), 6.5/10
Links:

Robert Ashley (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1930), active between Ann Arbor (site of the "ONCE" festival) and the Mills College, coined a new form of opera, that relied on layers of trivial verbal events to create meaning. It was more "sound verite`" than "stream of consciousness", because its source was the accidents of life, not the organic working of a particular psyche. Ashley's operas are garbage cans full of debris, but "revealing" debris, debris that contain clues about people's lives. Melancholy conversational operas for voice and electronics such as Automatic Writing (1979) and Perfect Lives (1983) seems obsessive analyses of urban alienation. The music is a sophisticated flow of unassuming melodies that borrow from centuries of musical repertory. The atmosphere retains something of the angst of expressionist drama, but the prevailing feeling of spleen and resignation are almost antithetic to the "shout" of expressionism.
This article was originally written for an Italian-language book. If English is your first language and you could translate the Italian text, please contact me.
Scroll down for recent reviews in english.
Robert Ashley (nato ad Ann Arbor, Michigan, nel 1930) e' uno dei padri fondatori della nuova musica. Studiato piano a New York al principio degli anni Cinquanta, si era poi trasferito all'Universita' del Michigan, dove la Bell aveva stabilito un laboratorio di ricerca sul parlato. Mentre studiava psico-acustica, Ashley approfittava delle apparecchiature elettroniche del laboratorio per fare della musica d'avanguardia.

L'incontro (1957) con Gordon Mumma e con lo scultore Milton Cohen, nella cui soffitta di Ann Arbor si svolgevano gia' concerti elettronici, fu determinante. Per sette anni lo studio di Cohen fu il loro auditorium. Insieme Mumma e Ashley (e Harold Borkin, architetto delle proiezioni) si costruivano i loro strumenti e gli impianti elettronici di cui avevano bisogno. Nel 1960 battezzarono la loro attivita' "Space Theatre", aggiungendo ballerini e cantanti. Quell'anno il Centro di Arti Drammatiche dell'Universita', dedito a piece sperimentali, decise di indire un festival di performance, chiamato "Once", per promuovere l'integrazione delle arti.

Organizzato da Roger Reynolds, Mumma ed altri, negli anni successivi il festival divenne un punto di riferimento fondamentale per la musica d'avanguaria. Molti degli organizzatori non erano musicisti e i musicisti, a loro volta, finirono per essere sempre piu' coinvolti nel teatro. La Sonic Arts Union nacque quando al gruppo originale si aggiunsero Gene Tyranny, David Behrman e Alvin Lucier.

Poi Ashley si trasferi' a San Francisco, al Mills College fondato e poi abbandonato da Subotnick e Oliveros. Ashley lo trasformo' in un centro pubblico di musica elettronica resuscitando il vecchio "Tape Music Center". In sostanza si trattava di venire incontro ai molti musicisti che erano troppo poveri per acquistare un sintetizzatore e le costose apparecchiature di cui avevano bisogno, mettendo a loro disposizione gratis un parco notevole di strumenti.

Per lo Once Ashley aveva composto musica nel modo convenzionale dell'avanguardia europea. In particolare In Memoriam (1963), la sua prima "opera", raccolta su Music From The Once Festival (Advance, 1964), consta di quattro pezzi dedicati ad altrettanti personaggi dell'antichita' americana: la sinfonia Crazy Horse (1964), un concerto, un quartetto e un'opera. Molti pezzi erano puramente elettronici: Fourth Of July (1960), Something (1961), Detroit Divided (1962), Complete With Heat (1962), for small orchestra and tape, Kitty Hawk (1964), Untitled Mixes (1965), Night Train (1966), The Trial (1968), Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon (1968), Illusion Models (1970). Altri erano colonne sonore di pezzi teatrali o cinematografici: The Image In Time (1957), The Bottleman (1960), Jenny And The Poet (1964), My May (1965), Overdirve (1968), Portraits (1969), Battery Davis (1970).

Nel frattempo Ashley, sulla falsariga di Cage, studiava il pubblico e la parola. Per il primo aveva composto Public Opinions (1961), usandolo come esecutore ignaro, e per la seconda aveva registrato Wolfman (ESP, 1965) per voce, suoni d'ambiente e nastro (l'amplificazione e' prossima al livello di feedback in modo tale che il performer, parlando molto vicino al microfono, possa improvvisare i feedback), e She Was A Visitor (1967) per venti coristi duplicati quattro volte.

Nel 1967 comincio' ad ampliare i propri orizzonti con l'opera That Morning Thing di 75 minuti, che contiene monologhi filtrati su un sottofondo di suoni innaturali. Segui' In Sara (1972), per interazioni fra voce (Ashley) ed elettronica (Paul Demarinis), raccolto su In Sara... (Cramps, 1973), un'altra "opera" il cui arcano sviluppo (il testo e` un libro di poesia criptica che ispira a sua volta il modo in cui le brusche parti dissonanti di sintetizzatore sono state organizzate) si presta per una malinconica meditazione sull'alienazione nella metropoli.

Le opere di Ashley favorirono la rinascita dell'opera all'interno dei movimenti d'avanguardia.

Robert Ashley (Alga Marghen, 1999) comprises String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies (1972) and How Can I Tell the Difference (1974).

His progression towards a new form of opera continued with 14-hour video "opera" Music With Roots In The Aether (1975), which is actually composed of seven two-hour documentaries, each of which contains an interview with a composer (Pauline Oliveros, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Ashley himself) and a work performed by that composer.

Ashley giunse cosi' alle realizzazioni imponenti della maturita', a partire dalla radiotelevisiva Automatic Writing (Lovely, 1979) per circuiti elettrici e voce recitante. In un pullulare di rumori sconnessi, vagamente metallici, estremamente deboli, quasi impercettibili, il dialogo fra un bisbiglio femminile in francese e una voce maschile che emette solo monosillabi gutturali viene accompagnato in sottofondo da un juke-box che suona boogie-woogie e da un organo religioso, entrambi in sordina. Ashley ricorre inoltre a un espediente per amplificare gli impercettibili movimenti della bocca (lingua, labbra, respiro) che fanno parte del "parlare", in modo che questi "rumori", normalmente ignorati, vengano portati in primo piano e si mescolino con il testo e con la musica. Tutti i suoni sono debolissimi e deformati, in modo tale che il flusso risulti languido e anemico fino alla nevrosi, all'allucinazione, all'annichilazione dei sentimenti. L'universo di Ashley e' freddo e meccanico, privo di scopo. Le conversazioni sono monologhi di "scrittura automatica" che procedono per associazioni mentali, qualcosa che sta al confine fra il dialogo fra pazzi in un istituto psichiatrico e un conciliabolo di fantasmi al cimitero, e il paesaggio in cui si svolgono e' un accumulo casuale di oggetti inutili.

Il concetto di opera ashleyiana venne sviluppato ulteriormente nel monumentale melodramma di Perfect Lives (1977-1983) in sette episodi, concepito come un'opera per la televisione, i cui primi due episodi comparvero su Private Parts (Lovely, 1977) in cui il compositore fonde musica, teatro, poesia, attraverso spezzoni di interviste, brani di conversazione, e una scarna strumentazione elettronica (synth, piano e tablas) che esegue musica d'intrattenimento. In Park (1977) i due protagonisti sono il "cantante" (che recita senza emozioni) e il pianista di un cocktail lounge (il "perfect lives lounge"). Backyard (1977), con le percussioni piu' "presenti" e pattern minimalisti piu' riccamente colorati, e' meno alienante e accenna a un lirismo piu' umano. Monotoni e tediosi, questi brani sono oppressi da atmosfere psicotiche, ma in Bar (Lovely, 1981), il quarto episodio, il cinismo acquista un carattere parodistico e in Living Room la musica esibisce un cromatismo quasi Glass-iano. In Music Word Fire (Lovely, 1982), che costituisce il terzo episodio, culminano le sue ambizioni di "songwriter": suoni elettronici, testi liberi, armonie vocali pop, ritmi rock'n'roll sono fusi in maniera raffinata ed armoniosa. Gli episodi sono poi stati raccolti su Perfect Lives (Lovely, 1983).

Ashley coined a new form of opera, that relies on layers and layers of trivial verbal events to create meaning. It is more "sound verite`" than "stream of consciousness", because its source is the accidents of life, not the organic working of a particular psyche. Ashley's operas are garbage cans full of debris, but "revealing" debris, debris that contain clues about people's lives.

Atalanta (1984), per tastiere, orchestra elettronica e tenore italiano, in parte pubblicata su Atalanta (Lovely, 1986), revisione moderna della leggenda di Atalanta e delle tre mele d'oro, esibisce la stessa languida e deprimente cantabilita' da cocktail lounge (le performance durano fino a nove ore).

Ashley si considera "scrittore di canzoni" piu' che compositore d'avanguardia. Tutti i suoi pezzi sono, in effetti, vocali. Ma piu' che alla canzone rimandano a una forma molto deteriorata di melodramma (quello parlato, non l'opera cantata). Ashley e' un attore-musicista che si pone in uno stato di trance: la scrittura automatica, di ascendenza surrealista, e' un delirio nel dormiveglia, un accumulo disordinato di pensieri, sogni, ricordi; il farnetico acquista il senso di coscienza del privato, l'esatto opposto degli esperimenti sui media di Cage, che esploravano piuttosto la sfera del pubblico. I climi alla "Aspettando Godot" e i labirintici flussi di coscienza fanno delle opere di Ashley una perfetta colonna sonora delle crisi interiori del suo tempo.

The tetralogy Now Eleanor's Idea, whose main characters already appeared in Perfect Lives, includes Improvement- Don Leaves Linda (Elektra, 1992), composed in 1984, eL/Aficionado (Lovely, 1994), premiered in 1987, Now Eleanor's Idea, composed in 1988, and Foreign Experiences (1994), and is a glacial, dark, ominous journey through the collective psyche.

Improvement includes The Argument, in which a robotic female choir recites a litany amid gurgling electronics and wallclock-like ticking, The Airline Ticket Counter, in which a neurotic female voice introduces herself like in a breathless psychotherapy over sparse piano and violin sounds, the lengthy The Contents Of Her Purse, in which a monk-like tenor joins the plain female recitation like an otherworldly echo, the gasping confession of Golf Left-Handed in an oneiric soundscape, the liturgically-inspired recitation of The Offering Of Images with a background of psychedelic guitar reverbs, as well as musichall-like skits such as Mr. George Payne and Tarzan.

eL/Aficionado (1987) is about a Kafkian trial in which a number of interrogators elicit confessions from an "agent". This "protagonist", like all the other characters in the opera, is identified by a pitch, around which the singer can "improvise" the musical persona of the character. The melodies are clearly scored by the composer, but the singer's contribution is more similar to the contribution of an actor to a film. The music is a sophisticated flow of unassuming melodies that borrow from centuries of musical repertory. The first movement, Personal, sets the quiet, powerless, conversational tone of the opera. From the very first seconds, one feels the oppressive tone typical of expressionist dramas. My Brother Called (six scenes, interrupted by three scenes) displays the intensity of a medieval hymn over a simple electronic score. He is replying to the interrogators in a secret code, a code of newspaper adverts read by a female voice. The first interruption, A Simple Border Crossing, a mini-opera in itself, uses a vocal style that is more traditionally operatic, but the music is disorienting, bordering on atonal, and the various voices interact in a more convoluted manner. The second interruption (also very long), An Answer Is Expected, has a minimal accompaniment and relies mostly on the dialogue. The core of the opera is really represented by the six mournful episodes of My Brother Called. The melody, the voice and the electronic craft a desolate poem of resignation. The opera as a whole is a poignant fresco of post-industrial urban angst, a horror parade of Freud-ian analyses.

Other operas include: Balseros (1997), Dust (Lovely Music, 2000), composed in 1998, which first stages five homeless people telling their stories and then indulges in four catchy songs.

Odalisque (1984) and When Famous Last Words Fail You (1997) are works for orchestra and voice.

Ashley has also composed dance music: Ideas from The Church (1978), Son of Gone Fishin' (1983) and Problems in the Flying Saucer (1988).

Yellow Man With Heart With Wings (Lovely, 1989) is fundamentally a tape composition that manipulates the human voice as well as electronic sounds.

Tract and Superior Seven (New World, 1996) collects two works (the former, a voice and string trio, from 1992, and the latter, for small ensemble and chorus, from 1988).

Wolfman (Alga Marghen, 2003) collects four early works (the oldest dating from 1957) that experiment with different techniques. The Wolfman (1964) is the noisiest (and probably one of the noisiest in Ashley's career): a savage tape collage that blends (or, better, juxtaposes) dissonant electronic sounds, vocal fragments and lots of feedback. The 43-minute The Bottleman (1960) is subtle and atmospheric, therefore more similar to his "operas". The distant voices and hushed noises evoke a landscape in the mist, but the hissing and burbling of his treated, filtered, dissected sources (mostly sounding like noises captured at the level of the microphone) eventually destroy the haunting allure of his filigree. While it contains the embryonic germs of his future masterpieces, it is still fundamentally a naive and confused work.

Your Money My Life Goodbye (Lovely, 1999) is unusual because it relies on a straightforward plot, although the text is, as usual, drowned in all sorts of sound manipulation and fragmentation.

Lois Svard has premiered Ashley's Van Cao's Meditation, a piano piece that is a fractured and solemn stream of consciousness, that builds up a hypnotic sense of nostalgy.

The opera Celestial Excursions (Lovely Music, 2005), that premiered in 2003, is about the kind of irrational endless chatter in which elderly folks engage. In Ashley's interpretation, the language of elderly people summarizes both the individual and the collective subconscious (both the "private" and the "public" parts). Thus childhood reminiscences and ancestral proverbs coexist and fuel each other. The characters speak sometimes all at the same time, creating a sort of rhythm to their existence. Other times one voice leads the conversation, although it would be inappropriate to say that the others merely "listen" to it. Voices cooperate all the time, even when they are merely humming. The "singers" on this edition are: Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara and Robert Ashley. "Blue" Gene Tyranny plays piano, while electronic keyboards are manned by Robert Ashley and Tom Hamilton. As usual, the cast matters very little: the music is sparse and subdued, and the "singing" is a variant of casual gossiping. The three acts are divided into brief sections. Some of the sections are marvels of atmosphere sculpting. For example, Subaru plunges the male speaker into an eerie landscape of piano dissonances and periodic echoes of wordless female vocals. By far the most intriguing and driving moments are when the voices join together in a rhythmic flow of words, such as Characters and Mr or Ms or Mrs N. The second act ("Asylum") is particularly fragmented, perhaps to reflect the very nature of aging, losing one's memory, being incapable of focusing and retaining thoughts. Most of the sections are barely a few seconds long. By contrast, the sections of the third art ("The River Deepens") are longer and more complex. The monologues and conversations reached their psychological apex (Therapy). The third act also boasts some of the oddest instrumental pieces in Ashley's career, from Prelude to Therapy, a sort of neurotic version of Terry Riley's minimalist repetition, to Prelude to Nightmare, that sounds like ethnic chamber music heard through a hallucinated brain. As difficult as it is to compare one Ashley opera with another one, this one sounds more organic and better designed than Dust, although the "musical" part is more skeletal. Both lack the dramatic tension of eL/Aficionado (1987).

Concrete, that premiered in january 2007, is a variation on the theme of Celestial Excursions. Again, it is about a conversation with elderly people, but this time there are four nameless characters. The score is conceived in a free manner that is the exact opposite of Celestial Excursions's rigid programming: the four characters are free to decide how to sing their parts, while Ashley assembles the orchestral score from a repertory of samples stored in his computer.

October 25, 2001 (2007), a split album with Walter Marchetti, contained Ashley's Yes But Is It Edible for piano and voice.

Robert Ashley died in 2014 at the age of 83.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

Se sei interessato a tradurre questo testo, contattami

What is unique about this music database