At Roulette, a presentation of work from radical composer Robert Ashley shows an oeuvre in flux

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Robert Ashley. (Joanne Savio.)
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Inimitable art has a way of inoculating itself from any critical approach that relies on analogy. Potentially evocative points of reference can seem halfway correct though also not quite right.

When it comes to the radical American composer Robert Ashley, reporters have to try, because his work—by turns dreamy and frustrating—wants to be described (even failingly), the limitations of our aesthetic language be damned.

As part of this necessarily detour-strewn effort, the texts of Ashley’s theatrically conceptual and electronically manipulated chamber operas have been compared to the writing of James Joyce, most clearly because of the stream-of-consciousness fog they drape across any stage wherever they are performed. Instead of a gnarled, astringent modernism, however, there’s a Midwestern sense of calm that persists along the banks of Ashley’s mental tributaries; in his lackadaisical-but-present rhythms, there is an implicit rejection of Continental approaches to complexity and abstraction.

The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has described the sing-speak Ashley vocal style—one employed both by the composer/performer as well as the storied members of his long-running company—as the sound of the “the world’s mellowest rapper.” This is true, even though most of the line breaks pass without offering anything even close to rhyming.

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Nothing about this slippery form of “opera” is made easier to define when the composer takes such formal liberties with his own work, over time. Concrete, a work that made its premiere at LaMama in 2007, and saw a revival there in 2009, has now been totally re-imagined as The Old Man Lives in Concrete. Presented at Roulette’s new, gorgeous Brooklyn stage through Saturday night, anyone who saw the previous iterations will recognize precisely how much Ashley has revised the earliest version (which has also been released on C.D.). The answer is a lot—and mostly for the better.

While the original Concrete drew on a conceptual framework of telling the hidden life stories of now-aged gamblers and criminals, promotional materials for The Old Man Lives in Concrete reference instead new arias about “ordinary people who did extraordinary things for which they’ll never be recognized.” It’s a looser concept, one that affords Ashley—who is still the narrator, and who still channels his memories of these stories through a cast of four singers—more thematic ground over which to roam.

The electronic “orchestration,” composed by Ashley and realized with in-performance tweaks by his longtime collaborator Tom Hamilton, has been pared back while also becoming more direct. (There’s less reliance on reverb now.) And while the backing music does not feature the strict pulsation of Ashley’s masterpiece, Perfect Lives, there’s still a tighter sense of mystic groove in this new version of Concrete, in addition to a distinct palette of sounds reserved for each of its five vocalists (all of whom now speak in sequence, instead of talking over one another, as in the premiere version). That means skittering, gamelan-like timbres supporting singer Joan La Barbara—most recently heard singing John Cage’s songs at Carnegie Hall’s “American Mavericks” festival—and Gregorian chant-like motives that sound as though put through a stark decay filter before allowed to anchor the new solos Ashley has written for Thomas Buckner.

On Wednesday night, two of the new long-form pieces stood out as welcome additions to the Ashley catalog of half-remembered capers besieged by the vicissitudes of memory. (The new additions to the opera are distributed among different performances during this week’s four-night run, ensuring that every night is different. Score another one for Ashley’s resistance to canonizing his own practice.)

In the first of these, Jacqueline Humbert recited an absurdist aria about watching and waiting for Princess Diana’s exit from a charity hospital event, while musing on the difference between British Royals culture and America’s fascination with Donald Trump and the history of the American mob (with a spare thought or two saved for hypotheses about the possible snipers on the roof of the hospital). Bruckner’s closing recitation about a joke that it took 40 years for him to understand—“must be a world record”—drew a succession of belly laughs from the audience, despite never quite finishing in a way you’d expect a multi-decade quest to properly resolve.

The crowd at Roulette on Wednesday reflected Ashley’s gradually expanding demographic fanbase. Though luminaries of the '70s-era Downtown New York scene—like vocalist Shelley Hirsch and reedist-composer Henry Threadgill—were among the expected sightings at an Ashley premiere, they were joined by a younger set of the city’s avant-gardists who have attended, and also staged new versions, of the composers’ works in recent months. Along with the recent re-publication, by the Dalkey Archive Press, of Ashley’s libretto for Perfect Lives, the mixed-age crowd pointed to the continuation of a development that would have seemed fanciful in the middle of the 2000s: New York is turning into a town that might be developing a language for talking about this composer, completely on his own terms.