Friday, April 3, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "An American Original" (on the death of Robert Ashley and a performance of his work in 2015)

an american original
by Douglas Messerli

The Southland Ensemble The Southland Ensemble Plays Early Robert Ashley / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at the Disney Center, April 1, 2015

The 2014 My Year volume, subtitled “conversations with nature,” was originally perceived as a forum to focus on some of the issues of global warming and to more closely observe the natural world around us (including the nature of the human mind and heart). But it is gradually turning into a kind of necrology—a momento mori, if nothing else, perhaps appropriate given what mankind is doing to the earth. 
     Today I heard of the death of yet another acquaintance, the noted American composer Robert Ashley who passed away on March 3rd. The cause of death, at age 83, was cirrhosis of the liver.


 I did not know the man or his music well. I had listened to his “Automatic Writing” of 1979, in which he used a backdrop of electronic sounds upon which he projected his involuntary speech—some of it incomprehensible—caused by a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, from which he suffered. And I listened to parts of his TV opera Perfect Lives (1977-80), where again he used a background of electronic drones, this time along with Indian tabia drums over which a voice recited a kind of Raymond Chandleresque story-like chatter.

     In April 2015 I had the opportunity to hear several of his early compositions, performed by the Southland Ensemble, at Redcat Theater at the Disney Center.
     I attended only the first part of the concert, feeling ill by the intermission (presumably unrelated to the music, and perhaps more related to the rich dinner and wine I had consumed previously). For I did experience some rather powerful works, including The Entrance (1965), performed via video by an electronic pianist in which the subtle variations of sound depended upon the gradual transposition of small circular-like metallic objects, moved into different chordal positions which slowly transformed the long musical phrases, that, as the composer himself expressed it, helped to move “something…to get into another, different frame of mind,” which led as a seeming introduction into the following pieces.
     In She Was a Visitor a singer repeated, again and again, the words “She Was a Visitor” against chordal patterns that literally kept shifting the relationship of the speaker-singer to the musical structures. A program insert suggested that the audience should “choose a sound that you hear, and vocalize that sound quietly for the length of one breath,” repeating hard sounds such as “T,” spoken, but repeated continuously. Unfortunately, I did not observe or hear any audience participation, but the effect the emphatic plaint of the obviously “visiting” participant had a truly haunting effect.
     The long patterns of feedback, performed as a sort of cry from the cavity of the performer’s mouth, created a shifting resonance that literally echoed within the ears, creating precisely The Wolfman (1964) kind of cries one might imagine from the humanized beast.
     In memorial….Esteban Gomez (1963) might have suggested what the composer has described as his “reading of European musical history and social history,” including a kind of abbreviated symphony with a bassoonist, violinist, saxophone player, flutist, cellist, and other individual instrumentalists. The long repetitions of each instrumental introduction once again gradually shifted, over time, with slight gradations in tone and echolalia-like imitation, moving over the course of the piece to create a kind of sonic overlaying of voices that often challenged the ear yet resolved in aural satisfaction, without utterly sweetening the tonal disjunctions.
     I wish I’d been able to experience some of his several notable operas, which included In Memorium…Kit Carson (1963), The Morning Thing (1967), Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982-1991), the Now Eleanor’s Idea tetralogy of 1985-1994, Balseros (1997), Your Money My Life Goodbye (1998), Dust (1998), Celestial excursions (2003), and Concrete (2006). He had also just completed a piece titled Mixed Blessing, Indiana before his death. I do plan to visit several sites this week to hear more of his fascinating music. I look forward to these in the future.
     With Gordon Mumma, Ashley also co-founded the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in 1958.
     I met the man once, and we had a short conversation, when he won the John Cage Award for Music from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in 2002, the same year I won the Foundation’s award for poetry.

Los Angeles, March 5, 2014, April 3, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment