Moods For Moderns

I have a week of concerts coming at at Juilliard; this year’s Focus! festival is “California: A Century of New Music.” My week started last night, at LaMama, where I saw a performance of Robert Ashley‘s “Dust.” Ashley is not a California-composer born, but his method makes him very much a part of that musical culture. And his method is something that I have been putting time and energy into appreciating, and at which I’ve done nothing but fail.

Ashley makes what people call “operas.” I cannot call them that, although that’s no criticism of the music. Descriptive categories often fail in the particulars, but some are valuable for our own critical judgement, and opera is one of them; it is music drama, with structural elements that integrate the story, words and music into an overall compositional whole. That’s the key difference between opera and music theater. And it’s music theater that Ashley makes, he is a gentle avant-gardist of the genre.

His method is to write a series of character driven monologues for himself and others to recite. There is very little singing in his work, although “Dust” features gentle speech-singing by some of the performers. The series of monologues, presented in absolutely static staging, are accompanied by pre-recorded and live music. This can certainly be done successfully. The problem that I have with Ashley is that he is perhaps too gentle, too soft around the edges.

It’s a question both of sentiment and style. He emphasizes stories of “forgotten” people, often the elderly, the homeless in this piece. The stories are narratives about different people, but the narratives are written without any real context of character. That is, we see different people in costumes telling stories, but there’s no emotional attachment in the idea that the stories are their stories. Everything is at a remove.

The music accompanies but only occasionally supports the text, and the music is generally weak, slightly off-kilter mood music. The idea of Muzak is not far from the stage, although this may be a deliberate strategy. “Dust,” like all his works, is quiet and evenly paced, it passes by pleasantly and leaves very little impression in the end. I find the experience of listening to recordings of it quite dull, seeing it performed is interesting past the point of boredom, but not to the point of engagement. Ashley has done engaging work, like “Automatic Writing,” but his operas do not appeal to me.

I don’t argue with Ashley’s ideas, it’s his execution I find wanting. Dialogue and music can work together with exceptional force, and that’s proven by the great genius of Joe Frank. And he is a genius. With a carefully modulated, exceptionally dry delivery, and absolutely hypnotic looped music, Frank manages to convey a complex blend of surrealism, exceedingly dark humor, bewilderment and hostility. His use of characters is both more abstract than Ashley’s and more involving – he sets up and records improvisatory phone conversations for his actors/speakers. The results are absolutely gripping. Frank is originally a radio artist, and understand that you have to make people listen, that it can be more exciting than watching people speaking on stage. I don’t know what separates the two men. Perhaps a certain ruthlessness.

A note on the festival – I’ll be writing in depth about it later, but the question raised in the Times today by Anthony Tommasini strikes me as obtuse. There is an identifiable California music, but it’s not a question of form or style. Those are classic East coast questions about music, and the East coast critics seem to still be stuck within them. California music is predicated on rejected they way things are supposed to be done, and do them your own way. For all their importance in history and residency in Los Angeles, Schoenberg and Stravinsky did nothing to create or further California music. Lou Harrison did, Ingram Marshall, John Adams is doing it, composers who travelled to the edge of the known Americas, literally, to look out across the endless expanse of the Pacific. They realized that there were no constraints or borders and so had to make their art anew. California music is descended directly from Charles Ives and John Muir, and this is American music in every way. In New York, we note the passing of George Perle, and celebrate Leon Kirchner, a teach of Adams, and two composers who are literally part of a generation that is now a bit sadly limited in time and space, and mind.

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