This weekend, a freak storm of performances and releases mark the career of avant-garde composer Robert Ashley
Alex Ross has called him the “musical counterpart of David Lynch.” The critic, composer and scholar Kyle Gann once described him, in The Village Voice, as “the only original opera composer of the late 20th Century, the first since Harry Partch to tell the European tradition to go to hell.”
Why don’t you know more about Robert Ashley, then?
Even if you don’t often follow developments on the experimental fringe of opera you’d be well advised to look into Ashley’s work, if only from the angle of contemporary theater. For one thing, the 81-year-old’s works are spoken as much as they’re sung. And, unlike many an opera libretto, the words underneath his music are worth visiting on their own terms, music to the side.
This week, the Dalkey Archive press—publishers of the late experimental novelist David Markson, among other American mavericks—has reissued the libretto to Ashley’s most famous work, Perfect Lives (1983). This newly available text comes at an opportune moment, as November marks an unusual freak storm of Ashley-related activity in the city.
The highest density downpour comes this Sunday, Nov. 6, when the recently constituted ensemble Varispeed will spread out a rare performance of Perfect Lives over the course of 13 hours, at seven different locations in and around lower Manhattan. The music only lasts about four hours, a span of time divided among seven half-hour-ish acts. (Ashley originally conceived of his stage pieces as “television operas,” and made each act about 22 minutes long, accordingly. So far, only England’s Channel 4 has taken a bite, one time during the '80s. A D.V.D. of that production is available from Ashley’s own Lovely Music label.) On their site’s F.A.Q., Varispeed says their full-day, multi-site programming is meant to provide “plenty of time to hang out with the performers & fellow audience members. We’re trying to foment large fun community feelings, people!”
Attendance will be free of charge all day long—a rare thing for any operatic event (even an outsider one). And so the ensemble’s stated goal of community, conceived on behalf of a composer with long ties to New York’s avant-garde, feels like an invitation for viewers to occupy seven city locations on behalf of an anti-corporate cultural underground. (“The first thing to go in a money crisis is optics,” one character muses to another in the second act.)
Perfect Lives tells a fractured, out-of-sequence story that revolves around a conceptual bank heist in the Midwest—in which a lounge singer, his piano playing partner (who owns some unruly dogs) and a quartet of other accomplices remove all the bank’s money for a single day, before putting it all back. (The only goal is to alert everyone to the money’s absence in the meantime.) The crime is described principally through the eyes of the bank tellers, while, afterward, the local Sheriff pieces together the correct sequence of events, under some indirect questioning from his wife.
Wrapped up as well in the drama are questions of politics and industry, the difficulties of realizing romantic partnerships in a nursing home, as well as references to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s an information-rich mix that’s impossible to fully absorb on a first encounter, but also one that wears its complexity with a pleasing lightness. Ashley, who voiced the opera’s narrator role on the 80s-era video production, has a mellow method of speech-song that informs a great deal of his mature work. Contra the extremity of other avant-gardists, his music derives propulsion from extended vamps of sprightly, jazzy chords that, after great length, come to feel like the happiest drone music you’ve ever encountered—quite a distance from Ashley’s '60s-era status as a noise pioneer.
Another portion of this month’s unusual Ashley-fest has already given New York a rare hearing of those early works. Among performances this week at the Incubator Arts Project, at St. Mark’s in the Bowery in the East Village, was the composer’s 1963 string quartet, entitled “in memorium…Esteban Gomez.” Unique in the Ashley catalog, this acoustic piece feels for all the world like a path-breaking electronic work. Credit for realizing that trick, at last Tuesday’s performance, went to the perfectly balanced playing of the FLUX Quartet, which spun Ashley’s soft glissandos, ostinatos and bridge-bowed harmonics into an otherworldly texture. (The program with that piece repeats tonight at the Incubator Arts Project.)
On Thursday’s program, due to repeat on Saturday, the rising young avant-jazz trumpeter Nate Wooley dropped by to contribute note-less blowing through his horn on the second movement of a trilogy of instrumental trios. Ashley’s music, especially some of the early conceptual works, does not always call for virtuoso chops. Though as a matter of inspiration, it’s clear that Ashley’s innovations still matter to a younger generation of players. (In Wooley’s case, the debt to Ashley can be heard on his 2011 album with sometime-Björk percussionist Chris Corsano and violinist C. Spencer Yeh, entitled The Seven Storey Mountain.)
The Incubator Arts run of Ashley performances is set to conclude tonight and on Saturday with a new arrangement of the composer’s early tape work “Automatic Writing.” Judging by the crowd that has shown up to Incubator’s space for the first two nights, this new version will appeal most directly to people who are already Ashley aficionados. Theirs is a crowd that has been under-served over the last couple of seasons in New York. But for any potential new initiates, the best bet is still to catch Varispeed perform however much of Perfect Lives as proves possible, on Sunday.
Even if you can’t make it for the whole thing, there is the possibility you’ll leave with eyes widened (or possibly dilated). And if that should happen, you’ll then want to get the Perfect Lives D.V.D.s from Lovely Music. You’ll want to pick up the libretto-as-epic-poem from the Dalkey Archive. On that latter score, please accept a consumer guide hint: The St. Mark’s Bookshop, recent recipients of a rent reprieve from Cooper Union, have the new edition of Perfect Lives on their shelves. The bookstore opens this Sunday at 11 a.m.—or, the same time that the first act Varispeed’s performance kicks off at Washington Square Park. Visit the store to pick up the text ahead of time, though, and this weekend could be the perfect opportunity to discover some new aspects of the good life.