Robert Ashley has made a career out of exposing private details. Maybe that
sounds ambiguous, but what other explanation is there for his work?
Automatic Writing consists largely of whispering, of the percussive smacks and small tones made from a mouth being millimeters away from a microphone, while a muffled, slow motion pop song plays in the distance. It purportedly has to do with involuntary speech, but what becomes audible in "Automatic Writing" are the flaws the manifestation of hidden thoughts, the foggy, but blank palette that drives us through life. The other two pieces on the Automatic Writing album are excerpts from an opera, dealing with the similar territory. "Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon" is a recollection about a sexual experience that makes your throat tighten; "She Was a Visitor" uses a similar surreal unconscious approach to "Automatic Writing". The opera, That Morning Thing, covers no less a personal topic than suicide. The entire work, like many of Ashley's operas, remains criminally unavailable.
Other operas follow with the same preoccupation. Perfect Lives, about the desires
of several intertwined Midwesterners, narrated by Ashley's simultaneously
sharp and aloof musings. To emphasize Ashley's proclivity for the strictly
confidential, several selections from the opera were released separately, with
subdued orchestration, on the aptly titled Private Parts. Then there is eL/Aficionado,
described as a "group of scenes about the life of an Agent", and Improvement
about a couple who separates on one level, and allegedly exhibits an allegory
for the Spanish Inquisition on another. As recent as several weeks ago, Ashley's
work Celestial Excursions is essentially comprised of five different people,
aged and reflecting on all of the minutiae of their lives. Lost love, recollections
of dreams, places, and songs, among other things.
It would be easy to misconstrue these descriptions and assume Ashley's work was either comfortable as granola, yet Ashley's work is incomparable and emotionally wrenching. Its secrecy, ritual, and ability to convey the private subconscious of unique lives is so singular, so indescribable, so imbedded in the work itself, that any description is simple misinformation. Ashley's operas, despite being documented, despite the librettos being available, will never be accurately performed by anyone else. All of his words are indivisible from the voices that deliver them.
To understand it better, consider composer Harry Partch, who developed a 43-tone to the octave scale. Partch wanted to write operas for the average human delivery, so that people could sing naturally, and emphasize the mannerisms, sarcasm, mocking inflections of our language. He tried to avoid the overzealous, worn-out drama of placing thought and idea in an easily recognizable melodic system. After all, those things had nothing to do with the America (or Greece, or China, for that matter). Now, for the sake of argument, let's say Partch failed. Not to say he didn't do great work, just that the operas he wrote never really conveyed a sense of conversation, or English speech, in a musical sense. This is precisely Ashley's strength.
His early experimentation with peers like Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma showed a group of very unique composers, concerned with similar issues regarding both the machine-like and electronic world and the purely organic world of the human voice. Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room has long been hailed a classic from the time period, yet Ashley's work became cautiously and progressively more accessible. As he integrated popular music, off-center narratives, and a sense of surreal middle-class life (many Lynch analogies have since been made), his colleagues continued to base their work in the alienating, vague world of psychoacoustic sine waves and "progressing" electronic experimentation. For his successful crossover, I have an immense respect for Ashley, yet here on Alga Marghen's newly released Wolfman, its almost as if the listener gets a chance to revel in the work of a different, aggressive Robert.
Taking several of Ashley's earliest pieces, dating back as far as 1957, Wolfman is downright antagonistic. The title track, "The Wolfman", is a brutal combination of tape collage noise and vocal feedback that easily rivals Merzbow's oeuvre for sheer grimy terror. The more-than-adequate liner notes include the score, revealing Ashley's intentions for chaotic overdrive. The piece is meant to be performed by a "sinister lounge singer", showing clearly Ashley's predisposition for taking a comfortable appearance and exposing something uncertain about it. Ashley would later make characters from housewives, criminals, actresses, veterans, and children, comprising a Sears catalog of American stereotypes. Yet, everything we take for granted every normality, every consistent trait is somehow made abnormal in Ashley's gaze.
The procedure for creating the piece has another repeating characteristic in Ashley's work. The microphone is placed at an incredibly high volume, so that the smallest sounds trigger different strains of feedback. The privacy, intimacy of language and voice is echoed by the first piece on the recording, "The Fox", a rare, very early glimpse of Ashley, quietly telling a story beneath jarring, malfunctioning electronic sound. There is also an overwhelming intimacy to the sounds on the edge of comprehension that appear on the final piece of Wolfman, "The Bottleman."
The 43-minute piece for a film by George Manupelli is a masterful and subtle tape manipulation, using contact microphones, electrical hum from speakers, and distant, hushed recordings of voices and music in the background. Ashley changes the pitch by speeding or slowing the magnetic tape, yet remains at a consistent amplitude throughout. This is one of the most barren, enigmatic pieces I can recall ever hearing. It's not particularly ominous, not overtly comfortable, just somehow completely bleached, with only faint whistles and memories of voices lingering in the air.
Perhaps the most significant piece, however, for a contextual reading of Ashley is in the piece "The Wolfman Tape". Whereas the version of "The Wolfman" appearing here uses a backing tape entitled "The Fourth of July", "The Wolfman Tape" appears without the vocal addition, to show, surprisingly, just how much of "The Wolfman" is actually mouth-generated (I imagine Ashley would take some pleasure in the convoluted construction of the last sentence). It is the only piece that begins to show Ashley's flair for idiomatic expression. "Uh Oh, we're in big trouble. Two miles from shore and no beer opener", Ashley samples from a beer commercial. "If his leg is fractured, dislocated, or broke, everybody running over there is gonna mend it" comes directly from a car racetrack. While most of the piece lays in distorted, heavily splintered sound, those two fragments give such an accurate sense of Ashley's focus, his use of popular peculiarity, that the listener can hear the beginning of his life's work so clearly.
"The Wolfman" might be the sole composition of raw noise from Ashley's circle of composers, and it certainly ranks as Ashley's only outwardly violent composition. Ashley eventually outgrew the ambiguity of the pieces on this record, yet to call the work embryonic would be to miss the point. Ashley closes his recent Celestial Excursions, with different inflections "the river deepens when it gets down to the sea" gradually becoming more and more convinced, and eventually ambivalent to the fact, this is a chance to hear the river. How is that possible?