New York Press, April 14-20, 1999

Living In Television Time: A Conversation with Robert Ashley

By Kenneth Goldsmith

It's hard to think of a more challenging composer than Robert Ashley. In a time when once avant-garde composers have gone soft, Ashley--who will turn 70 next year-- keeps pushing the envelope. He's got a new opera called Dust that's opening at The Kitchen this week, which very well may be the crowning achievement of a 40 year career. It's the most accessible thing he's done in years and is slathered with twisted pop songs, sex and violence--not to mention sheer beauty and transcendence. It's also the first Ashley opera where you'll leave the theater humming the tunes. I spoke with Ashley a few weeks ago when he was a guest on my WFMU show. We yakked for a couple of hours about his new disc that was just released called Your Money My Life Goodbye (Lovely Music) and aired whatever sections of Dust that weren't FCC objectionable.

Kenneth Goldsmith: Bob, what can you tell me about your new opera Dust?

Robert Ashley: It's about five homeless people who live in a park some place around the world, probably in front of my house. The main character is a hero--a guy who lost his legs in a war. When he lost his legs, he was given a big dose of morphine in the hospital, which lead him to have a conversation with God. Now he's in a regretful mood because he didn't finish the conversation. He was hoping he would get a word from God that would stop all the killing and suffering, but he didn't get it because God talks too fast. Throughout the opera, the other four singers do rather long "arias"--I guess you'd call them--based on his memories when he was younger, before he went into the army. About an hour into the piece, he explains that when he was recovering in the hospital, he heard all these pop songs on the radio. He tries to remember the songs, but doesn't quite remember them accurately. At the end of the opera, the other four singers each sing one of those songs. They're kind of ghostly pop songs.

KG: What's really strange is that they do function as pop songs. After hearing the piece several times, I found myself humming them. Do you listen to much pop music?

RA: Not very much, but about a year ago I started listening to country music because I was spending a lot of time in Arizona and the only station I could get was a country music station. The production in country music is so beautiful, particularly the work of Daniel Lanois--he's not exclusively a country music producer--who did a great Willie Nelson record and a great Emmy Lou Harris record. I also like George Strait. I've been listening to straight Nashville and that wonderful clean production that makes that kind of music so beautiful. I listened to a lot of Hank Williams and Hank Snow when I was a kid and looking back on it, I realized that they had a lot of the same ideas about American English as I did. There's a clarity about what they're doing. They put the accents in the right places. It sounds like people are actually telling a story and they're not afraid to sing that story. There's no screen between you and that story. Half of the world thinks that's sentimental and the other half of the world thinks that's the only thing worth listening to.

KG: The 20th century avant garde has notoriously avoided narrative, but traditional opera has always embraced it. Some of your earlier work like In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women has a strict narrative which it shares with your latest disc, Your Money My Life Goodbye. It seems that from 1972 to the present your concerns with storytelling have remained the same.

RA: That's right. Your Money My Life Goodbye is a clear-cut narrative. It's such a straightforward story about spying, murder and international swindling. It was commissioned by German radio, but was originally written in English. They translated it beautifully into German, even down to the same syllable count. On the radio, the German and the English versions are playing alternately.

KG: In Atalanta (Acts of God) from 1985 you also had English and Italian lyrics playing at the same time.

RA: In many of my operas I have several languages going simultaneously. I like to mix up languages because it makes a good setting for the way I use English. You get a nice objective view of the sound of a language by putting it in the framework of another language. As a result, you become more self-conscious about what the various languages sound like.

KG: I always find it amazing that the Metropolitan Opera House is filled night after night with people sitting for hours listening to something they don't understand a word of.

RA: The Met and a couple of other places in the U.S. are a special case in the fact that they're so conservative. They don't do anything new. But one of the reasons that opera houses are filled is that it's interesting just to listen to another language when you don't have the demands of understanding it. My ensemble plays in Europe and, over there they love the pieces. When we first started doing it, it mystified me. Even Americans can't understand it, because it's going by so fast. The Europeans can listen to American English without being self-conscious of the fact that they can't understand it. They just hear it as music.

KG: With opera, you pretty much end up enduring the long stretches between the arias. You just wait for the next aria to hit.

RA: We're used to things going faster now. I tried many years with only half success to get opera produced on television so we could speed things up. That down time in those old operas is pretty boring. You go the Met and look around and half the people are asleep. The machinery of those big opera houses is so cumbersome that they can't go any faster than they are going, but if we could do opera in the style of television--like we do The Honeymooners or Cheers--it'd be a success. It's just that nobody has thought of it yet--except me.

KG: In 1984 you said, "It's okay to sit in your room and listen to a record over and over again when you're fifteen, but if you do that when you are forty, people think you're crazy. But the funny thing is that we've actually allowed ourselves that free time for television." Later you go on to say that you like to just lie in bed and let hours slip by watching television. You claim that the television is a great place for American focus.

RA: The television is a wonderful place for music because of its intimacy and because the technology allows the story to go by very fast. One of my operas could easily be shot in the style of ER, with the scenes changing every fifteen seconds. When television people finally wake up and actually realize the musical storytelling potential of the medium, it's going to be a real boon for all of us. I don't know if it's going to happen in my lifetime, but it's definitely going to happen.

KG: MTV style videos often layer several narratives at once. In some way it reminds me of your work. What are your feelings about MTV?

RA: I've always wanted those 3 or 4 narrative layers in my own work. In Perfect Lives, which was a television opera, there were 7 half-hour episodes with several layers of narrative: the verbal, the musical and the video. I'm sorry that they don't show music videos on MTV too much anymore--they just show histories of 1970s rock bands. But the rap guys still produce wonderful videos. You can still see them more on cable, not as much on MTV.

KG: If television is the perfect medium for your work, then why perform live at all?

RA: It's for very practical reasons. I can't get enough TV productions to keep the work coming at the pace that I want it. It's like the movie business--you can wait years to get your movie produced and musicians just don't have that kind of time. I try to do one opera every year. If I had a producer that could guarantee me that something was going to keep on happening, then we could turn them out forever. What happens, though, is that you propose an idea. Then you have to produce it--get the singers together, get rehearsal time, get an orchestra, etc. Because of the conventions we've inherited, the only way to do that now is to go on tour. We have to do live stage performances. It's not bad--I like playing for an audience--but you have to make the visual appearance of the piece very static and calm because you simply can't change things on stage at a 30th of a second. What will happen at The Kitchen will be a very beautiful still image where all the ingredients keep changing, which is quite different from what you might do if you took the same narrative and produced it for television.

KG: The spectacle that used to thrill people at the Met--like parading elephants across the stage in Aida--now strikes us a slow and clumsy.

RA: Yes. Everything is speeded up for us. We live in television time now. What's happening in the opera house--especially in the US--is that it's becoming a kind of museum. You see things that are 200 years old. Opera houses are music museums. Everybody's writing an opera now, but the problem is that everybody is writing conventional operas. We seem to have not quite come around to real time yet. I'm criticizing my colleagues here, but it's a very bad, old fashioned time.

KG: Tell me about the sets for Dust.

RA: The designer and video artist Yukihiro Yoshihara has created very large windows that are in front of each singer. They're a laminate that becomes opaque when you apply an electrical voltage to the window. You can get everything between complete transparency and complete opacity. It's an extremely beautiful effect. Above each singer is a television monitor that has Yoshihara's interpretation of the narrative on top of the singer's interpretation and my interpretation of the narrative. It's very layered. On yet another large screen, above the stage set, is a video projection that fills the whole back wall of the stage, so there are several video narratives rolling at once.

KG: You've been working with your ensemble for a long time. It would be hard to imagine your pieces without these people.

RA: Once I get a band, it's like getting married: I never want to lose them. I've been working with "Blue" Gene Tyranny for 35 years, Jacquline Humbert for 20 years, Sam Ashley, my son--I've been working with him since he's been alive. I started working with Joan La Barbara in the 70s and Thomas Buckner in the mid-80s and I've been working with Tom Hamilton, who does all the live mixing, about 10 years ago. It's pretty hard for me to imagine writing pieces for anybody else. When I start thinking about a sound, I automatically start thinking about one of these voices. Other groups have tried to do versions of my works and they sound terrible.

KG: What will happen to the performance of your works 50 years from now?

RA: I don't know what will happen and I don't care because I won't be here. All my works are recorded and scored; they're also on computer programs. If you needed to learn them, you'd learn them just like you'd learn Beatles songs. I've had people do doctoral thesis's on my works and they've sent me perfect transcriptions. But it's hard for me to be interested in posterity. I try to focus on having fun, which means that I have to be involved. I didn't start this stuff so I could be a famous composer--I started so I could have fun.

Dust premieres at The Kitchen April 14-17, 8pm. There's also a Saturday matinee at 4pm. There will be a symposium on collaboration with Robert Ashley and Yukihiro Yoshihara on April 15 at 4:30. (The Kitchen: 512 West 19th St., (Btw. 10th & 11th Ave.), 255-5793).

For more info on Ashley and his recordings, check the Lovely Music website: www.lovely.com.