We remember a person most acutely in the sharp period after we learn of their passing. After reading about Robert Ashley’s death on Kyle Gann’s blog Postclassic, I went scouring music and book sites to see what recordings and writings of his I might be missing. I found what was for me a surprise and curiosity, a novel titled Quicksand (2011)
Quicksand is, in Ashley’s own words, an opera in the form of a novel, a libretto that he would have liked to have produced on video as an opera (video, specifically television, was always his desired medium, and when I spoke with him in 2012 he seemed chagrined and even puzzled over finding that he had too little time left in life to take advantage of how inexpensive digital production has become). It is written in Ashley’s unmistakable prose, and having the knowledge of any of his work in your memory means that the experience of reading the book is that of hearing Ashley’s own distinctively dry, gentle tenor voice in your mind: he reads the book to you, like an extended bedtime story for an adult.
As a novel, it’s short and terrific, something like an irreverent, Americanized version of a nouveau roman. The protagonist is an unnamed opera composer who makes money working for the C.I.A., delivering and picking up clandestine packages around the world. He loves reading detective and crime fiction, especially Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane, but would rather just have the time and money to write and produce operas, like the story in the novel.
On a mission to somewhere in southeast Asia, he meets and becomes infatuated with a young tour guide who is a member of a group plotting revolution against the current dictatorship. She enlists the opera composer’s help, along with that of a group of American mercenaries whom the composer dubs the Pittsburgh Steelers on account of their physiques, demeanor, and teamwork. They kill or capture the generals of the ruling junta and free the political prisoners, and then the composer heads home.
The book is funny, the plot works, the characters are meaningful, and it goes by in a flash. It’s satisfying and also deeply sad. While it is a fantastic experience to read Ashley’s writing—he was one of the greatest writers of post-WWII America—the way his work should be experienced is through seeing and hearing. The story of Ashley’s composing career is one of underlying frustration, of the lack of interest in and money for his productions, of grant money denied because no one could understand what he was doing, of an overall lack of recognition even from a musical world that eventually learned to live with, and even amicably embrace, John Cage and Morton Feldman. He wrote Quicksand as a novel because there was no way to produce it otherwise.
Last month, the Whitney Museum presented three of Ashley’s operas as part of the 2014 Biennial. Already in the works at the time of his death, the operas were directed by Alex Waterman and curated by Anthony Elms. Each was an important touchstone in Ashley’s development: the early and highly experimental “speech opera” The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity (1968); Vidas Perfectas (1983/2011), the Spanish language version of Perfect Lives, which itself began as Private Parts; and Crash (2013 – 14), his final, complete opera.
His previous major works, like Perfect Lives (1978 – 83), Dust (1998), and the large-scale tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea—this last broken out into the individual works Improvement: Don Leaves Linda (1985), eL/Aficionado (1987), Foreign Experiences (1994), and the title piece (1993)—are made with multiple characters and the multiple branches of their stories. Taken together with Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982 – 91), the operas combine to explore the dauntingly ambitious, even frightening goal of representing:
The history of consciousness as Americans. The first of the operas, Atalanta […] [is] the earliest form of the American consciousness, with its […] white American Judeo-Christian consciousness. The second of the operas, Perfect Lives, is placed in a later period when [America’s] sense of roots is being eroded. Now Eleanor’s Idea […] is predictive. I’m actually trying to go as far as I can into the future, with what the American consciousness might evolve to, as one might go to the past to see where it all came from.
(So Ashley put it in an interview in The Guests Go in to Supper, a dense and fascinating collection of scores, texts, and conversations with experimental composers and musicians.)
The characters in all these works, a collection of rogues, miscreants, mystics, and innocents, make up America as the composer saw it: ordinary Midwestern people from ordinary Midwestern towns, each with some quirk or obsession; homeless people, lost in their thoughts; the elderly, lost in their memories. These are the people mostly ignored by political media and popular and high culture, but they make society nonetheless.
Society is not just the point of focus for the operas, it is their foundation. As radical, unexpected, and strange as Ashley’s methods may have seemed—and he was nothing if not the consummate avant-gardist, paring down his conception to one simple idea that he pushed as far as he could—at the core they are not just old-fashioned but ancient. Music, as Ashley knew inherently and as Waterman affirmed in a discussion we had, is a social activity: people have gathered together in groups since pre-history to make music, and Ashley’s operas are social in their nature.
Waterman said: “The work itself does the work of what it means to gather together and produce something collectively.” Ashley himself wrote: “Contemporary opera—my work in particular, but that of a lot other composers, too—is usually a gathering of characters with stories to tell.” The storytelling, certainly, is about the society of a microcosm of lives, the characters’ fates intertwined. And the way the performers make the music is deeply social, not just in the music of their ensemble voices but in the frequent simultaneity of their speech, which comes off as an allusive conversation.
And, like society, the operas can be confusing. Many of them require a thorough read-through of the programs before the piece starts, because if you don’t know the players and their stories you might become hopelessly lost in the accumulating moods and details of the singing and conversations. But the late works, the last works, The Old Man Lives in Concrete (2006 – 12) (there is a previous, inferior, though still worthwhile version recorded as Concrete) and Crash, have just one character: Ashley himself. The Old Man uses four voices; Crash, which premiered at the Whitney on April 10, uses six. Each is a different timbre, vocal range, and cadence of Ashley’s mind.
The late works are especially great: tremendously beautiful, mesmerizing, and emotionally affecting, they distill the essence of his career. Like Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111 and the late Shostakovich string quartets, Ashley takes his long-standing compositional technique and applies it to a slightly but crucially altered goal. He moves from organizational intricacy to simplicity, and ends up achieving an expressive complexity and depth.
With one idea, one unifying story, comes exponentially greater clarity, and the emotional expression is like an arrow shot through the chest. Musically and dramatically, the result is a kind of fugue—even a fugue state—with every moment derived and related to Ashley himself. The composer was fascinated with memory in the elderly, how recent and ancient events collapsed together into an eternal now, how their conversations are punctuated with both repetitions and long pauses.
The way these two operas tell a story is like Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, a collection of seemingly unrelated events and reminiscences that seem to gather wool, when they are actually gathering weight. The accumulation of details coheres into a gut-punching whole at the very end.
What these late operas reveal is Ashley’s own ambivalent feelings about his own life. They are stories about being happy and lonely; about making things and being creatively adrift; about success, failure, and the frustration of not getting the proper chance for either. In Quicksand, the protagonist says: “Composers get old and out of fashion like baseball players. Younger audiences want new ideas. I’m practically retired.”
Those sentences are heartfelt; their truth resonates in all his work, especially the late pieces. The sad thing, too heartbreaking to be ironic, is that his work remains the most radically fresh thinking in opera. Despite the number of great composers who have worked in the form, nothing much has really changed in the way current opera is staged. Technology aside, it’s not much different from Monteverdi’s 17th-century Venice. The music plays, people sing, plots move in one linear, temporal direction. Other than Alban Berg showing a film in the middle of Lulu, and Einstein on the Beach, what’s new?
Opera composers don’t seem to live in society as the rest of us do. They seem to have seen neither Last Year at Marienbad nor Pulp Fiction; they haven’t read comic books or Elmore Leonard and they haven’t ever gone to a baseball game. Opera has become the most prominently bourgeois musical form: its expense has come to dominate the classical music scene, making it the realm of stars and fandom. And money, as it often does, brings safe, conservative thinking.
The musical tradition of opera—save for a handful of experimental composers and the achievements of Berg, Einstein, and The Rake’s Progress—has not moved forward at all since Verdi. The social context since that time—Verdi’s work was deeply rooted in his society and the music he wrote for his characters does more to express their fundamentally complex humanity than to show off the singers’ voices—has not moved forward at all.
Ashley is the lonely exception, and the sheer humanity of his conception, the stark relief in which it stands from the rest of traditional, modern, and contemporary opera, has a subliminal and substantial moral weight.
His characters—the Dons, the Lindas, the Buds, the Old Man himself seen from his prismatic faces—are not the cogs in a story, they are the storytellers. His operas are not about Romantic era plots but about our romantic self-images, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and how they might lead to satisfaction or disaster.
At the beginning of his 2003 opera Celestial Excursions, a voice comments that:
A group of so-called fictitious characters is just as bad as a group of so-called real ones. They cause arguments among themselves, (and curiously among the so-called real ones). […] You can’t trust them at any time or anywhere to be telling the truth. The real ones are the same way, so, there’s no difference, except that we are used to the behavior of the real ones.
That, ultimately, is the sound of his operas, people convincing themselves they are making the right decisions, finding the best in a bad situation. They are alive, like the rest of us, just as full of grace and just as fucked-up as all of us. The voices soldier on, the mind never turns off, there is always the burnt toast, the car running out of gas, the job you didn’t get.
The operas don’t conclude, they stop, the characters as puzzled as we are about how their lives turned out the way they have. The last word leaves a hanging sense that there’s more of the story still to come, like the last line in Concrete: “You know what I mean?”
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.