Obituary: Robert Ashley

28 March, 1930-3 March, 2014
David Chesworth

Robert Ashley, 2006

Robert Ashley, 2006

Robert Ashley, 2006

In the early 90s I was composing several experimental operas with Douglas Horton and Chamber Made Opera. As I knew Robert Ashley’s work, Douglas showed me the score of Ashley’s Improvement: Don Leaves Linda, to see how a version might be created for a Chamber Made Opera production. A recording of the opera fits onto two CDs—some 90 minutes of music, however the ‘score’ was just a single page of text with lists of numbers. That was it.

Ashley was using processes other than score writing to make the work. This was revealing and reassuring for me, as I didn’t use traditional scores either.

Composers are often invisible architects who draw up plans (scores) and then step away to let others realise the work. Ashley, however, sat visibly and audibly at the very heart of his work. His own distinctive vocal cadences often provided the basis from which his work grew, with the music extending out from, or surrounding his vocal utterances.

Ashley’s operas and his early work, like Automatic Writing, are based around extended performances of language. Language is a technology that we use to inhabit all things that surround us, attempting to make some sense of the world. Ashley’s voices acknowledge this, as they provide an interface between flesh and technology in a way that is more interesting than Apple’s Siri or Samantha (the female voice of the operating system in the Spike Jonze film Her, see Philip Brophy, page 28) could ever hope to be. Where Siri and Samantha give a life force to technology, Ashley’s voices do the reverse as they flow into technology from life. Ashley’s matter-of-fact vocal deliveries are transformed into unworldly presences inhabiting spatial realms defined by resonance, echo and timbre. As a form of orchestration, these effects imbue the voices with a range of authoritative positions. Phantom doublings lend unnerving aspects to the allegorical utterances of his characters. His voices possess ambiguous orchestrated presences, which slowly become more personal and familiar, while paradoxically maintaining their acousmatic distance and mysteriousness.

While traditional opera tends to position the audience outside the world of the performers, Ashley draws you inside his work as an eavesdropping participant. You become intimately connected to the close-miked voices of the performers, each with their own unique grain of voice, which allow you to enter the inner imaginary of their self-obsession.

I have only ever listened to Ashley’s 2000 opera Dust twice, although I own the CD. It is one of my favourite works. To play it more would be like reliving a traumatic or emotionally charged part of your life once too often.

For traditionalists who have struggled with Ashley, I suggest that you listen to Ashley’s operas with Wagner’s Ring Cycle in mind. Ashley and Wagner share an amazing ability to weave musical detail around voice to such a degree that the music serves as a kind of textural and textual analogue of the libretto, adding depth while repositioning possible meanings. For both, the music is daemon-like, as it inhabits, doubles, twists, distorts and converses with a character’s vocal text. These labyrinthine flows serve to orchestrate context. They contribute to a soundscape that moves the voice beyond the everyday while complicating the intent of language, which is much more interesting than a music that merely steers and confirms it.

Ashley and partner and producer Mimi Johnson came to Melbourne in 1992 to help with rehearsing Improvement for Chamber Made Opera’s production for the 1992 Melbourne Festival. The performance consisted of a brilliant cast of local performers singing live to the accompaniment of the CD, with the prerecorded voices fed to each singer’s headphones. This should not have worked, but it did. Improvement was a great production and is still remembered favorably by many who had not encountered this kind of performance before. We should have seen more of this kind of work. Why didn’t we?

When Ashley was invited to talk to music students at the Victorian College of the Arts, he stood in uncomfortable silence for several long minutes. I have seen theatremaker Robert Wilson stand in silence deliberately at the start of his lectures to expose the performer-audience relationship, however in Ashley’s case, as a composer, he was struggling to find something meaningful to say to music students. Finally, he said something like, “I just don’t know what to tell you. I mean, what else can anybody write for a cello, or an orchestra? This is not where composition is now situated.” As a modern master within this confirming institutional context he implored his audience to look beyond the scope of musical museums.

A few years later I caught up with Ashley in Miami where his long-serving vocal ensemble was collaborating with the Florida Grand Opera on his new work Balseros. Ashley invited me into rehearsals where I witnessed conservative operatic processes rubbing up against the modern experimental. Both approaches were based on musicalising conversation and verbalising inner thought. Ashley was attempting to replace the powerful projected operatic aria and recitative with his introspective, characterful voice streams. The resigned condescension of the classically trained chorus and the lack of faith and comprehension from the creative hierarchy was palpable. The work was ultimately a very moving success, although it was a vivid demonstration of just how tough it can sometimes be to get your own ideas through bureaucratic and creative filters to production, especially on expensive productions.

In his own measured, deliberate way he told me, as a then younger composer, not to compromise on what you want to do. Don’t allow your work be taken over by directors and external interests. Never give in to those who try to alter what you do. Have the strength to stick with your own ideas.

There are many of Robert Ashley’s works on YouTube including Perfect Lives, a superb example of the composer’s wit and wisdom.

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 48

© David Chesworth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014