The cliché of the visionary artist is of someone like William Blake, so involved in the worlds in his head that his wife said of him, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company, he is always in Paradise.” This is the idea of vision as hallucination, a mystical third eye seeing into dimensions and universes beyond human experience. If you visit the composer Robert Ashley, as I had the honor to do recently, you have a very different experience. The open-air elevator that runs through a central shaft in his building requires some skill and experience to operate, so he gladly comes down to greet you at the door and, eagerly pulling you inside, brings you up to his calm apartment to talk. His straightforward courtesy belies that fundamental vision of his work.
Ashley was in the midst of preparing The Old Man Lives in Concrete for a four night performance at Roulette, in Brooklyn, NY. It’s the latest in what is now a substantial body of dramatic music, pieces that are absolutely operas and are also absolutely unlike not only any other operas, but unlike what anyone imagine the form to be. He is an avant-gardist in the true sense, not in making an obnoxious racket in order to épater les bourgeoisie, but in discovering a fundamentally simple idea and spending his career exploring every permutation of it. It is a vision that Ashley has, and the vision is the flickering of the television screen.
He makes opera for television, although only one of his numerous works, Perfect Lives, has been fully produced for that screen. And why not? Ashley’s generation is the first one that came of age in the TV era, and just as my daughter sees the touch-screen of an iPad as a natural part of her environment, so Ashley saw TV as another common component of life in an economically advanced country. He also saw it, as any sensitive viewer at the dawn of the broadcast era would, as a stage. Before ABC, CBS and NBC knew what they could sell to advertisers, they tried all sorts of things, and so along with a vast wasteland, there is also the legacy of Omnibus, Ernie Kovacs, Groucho Marx hosting one game show and John Cage appearing on another.
It’s a difficult niche, with pressure coming from, culturally, above and below. From below is the commercial goal of appealing to the lowest common denominator, from above the knee-jerk snooty attitude that TV is inherently declassé. It’s a medium, and what is made for it, like for the printed page or the compact disc, is mostly inane, disposable and dull. Don’t blame the screen, just turn it off.
Ashley and television are a sympathetic fit, because his dramatic and technical interests suit a platform that, by putting a stage into the home, emphasizes intimate ideas and expression. Dramatically, he’s interested in people at the fringes of society’s attention, like the homeless subjects of Dust, or the elderly, especially those living in care facilities. He’s fascinated with their internal sense of time, and how it leads to a tendency to speak, to tell a tale, then fall silent, oblivious of the accumulation of seconds. Technically, his work is based around speech — an early personal and academic interest — and his characters primarily speak to the audience, their voices frequently processed through electronics and mixed in with more electronic music. While it’s common now to have a media system set up so that music coming through the television can be played on a proper set of speakers, the built-in audio of the screen (and many computers) is poor for the type of singing that is standard in opera. But the speaking voice, the storytelling voice, is perfect.
Ashley told me that “American composers want to tell their stories, structural ideas have never been of primary importance.” Through his characters, he is one of the great storytellers, and television is the great storytelling medium. The breakthrough concept of The Sopranos, and the superb craft, demonstrated the power of long-form, episodic storytelling, the kind of thing that Dickens used to do. Ashley’s work takes hours, not years, but there’ll be something of that feeling at Roulette, where The Old Man will be parsed out over two sets of two nights, substantial and episodic but far more intimate than a Ring Cycle and most likely inspiring rather than exhausting.
The performances are part of a process that will create the final work. The Old Man showed at La Mama in 2009, and Ashley has added a substantial amount of new material. After the Roulette performances, he’ll take the recorded audio and splice it together in the studio into the final form that he wants. It’s “another step in my desire to write for television,” although the only way to experience the live action will be in person. That’s been frustrating for him, producing televised work or video recordings was usually too expensive in the past. But with digital tools and web-based distribution, the costs have dropped dramatically, and the expense of distributing television opera is essentially nothing (you can watch Perfect Lives on YouTube). And the laptop, iPhone and iPad have made television portable and discrete. “I’m confident that the young generation will be on television” with their work, Ashley told me.
He’s eighty-two, so the limit of how much more produces is perhaps visible. The legacy of avant-garde composers in the post-WWII era is that of finding a voice, finding a dedicated group of musicians to realize that voice, then finding that other musicians want to reproduce it as well. Ashley has been working with mostly the same performers — Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner, himself — for decades, and it has been an open question of whom might pick up his work and further it, but in the past year especially a cadre of young musicians and composers have begun to reproduce his work in their own performances. Most prominent are Paul Pinto and Gelsey Bell, who performed Perfect Lives last year with their group Varispeed, and the ensemble Thing NY, musicians who clearly have Ashley excited about his legacy: “I was desperately worried, now I’m not at all, I’m ecstatic. There has to be that continuity from one generation to the next that allows music to change.” And it will allow Ashley’s work to endure, whether or not on television.