YOu believe in life after love?" asked Cher in her 1999 dance hit "Believe,"
the track that made Cher, then 53, the oldest female ever to have a chart-topping
song. Robert Ashley, a pillar of the avant-garde community for over half a century,
may be able to offer some insight into this mystery of life after youthful love.
opera, 1998’s Dust, wove together the language of several different
marginalized characters, many of whom were dealing with the aging process, which
in our youth-obsessed society often means a process by which people slowly become
invisible. A woman who used to be beautiful, someone who used to
be a stand-in for Shirley Temple, an old man who is lost since the death of
his brother. It is the last character, sung by baritone Thomas Buckner, who
laments, "I want to fall in love just one more time. I want the world of
magic one more time. Look forward to tomorrow one more time…"
this is what life after love is. When there is no longer a future. When life
is reduced to waiting. Waiting for family members to visit, waiting for friends
to die. We corral our old people into nursing homes, visiting on holidays and
talking to them out of obligation, but rarely listening. Ashley’s newest
opera, Celestial Excursions, listens.
As a young
man, Ashley worked at the University of Michigan’s Speech Research Laboratories,
studying psychoacoustics and cultural speech patterns. Since then, his highly
conceptual, multimedia stage works have been driven primarily by his obsession
with listening to, analyzing, and recreating the linguistic and vocal patterns
he hears around him. This fascination with language formation also informs Celestial
Excursions, and the voices of the elderly are his main focus.
ways, this newest work is a thematic continuation of what he was doing in Dust,
focusing on a group he calls "the most marginalized of the marginalized."
But as with most of his works, the music is unpredictable. Only Ashley can use
the same core ensemble (himself, his son Sam Ashley, Thomas Buck-
ner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara), and a similar creative procedure
(scores that loosely indicate lyrics, beats and chord progressions) for each
work and manage to turn out something completely unanticipated by audiences
each time. Ashley’s operas tend to suspend clearly articulated vocal lines
in stark electronic soundscapes (with the occasional acoustic instrument mixed
are also moments in which simple lines and rhythms begin to multiply and cross
each other, creating maximalist knots from minimal strings. In Dust,
the last four songs were just that–songs pulled out of Ashley’s memory
of the days when he lived in Detroit and was trying to get Motown to pick up
some of his songs. (As a composer, he claims he learned more about music from
Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys than Puccini and Wagner.)
Excursions is a carefully constructed jumble of memories, thoughts, nostalgia,
regret and fear. And while "carefully constructed jumble" may seem
like an oxymoron, it isn’t. We are not dealing with linearity or simplicity
here. We are dealing with an artist who wants to boil down characters to their
truth, but who realizes that truth is often muddled in emotional memory and
often compromised by oversimplification. But Ashley is able to strike the balance:
Even at its most complex moments, the emotional drive of the piece is at the
forefront. Between the sleek design of the stage and the music that blends ambient
electronica, nostalgic wafts of Motown and vocal lines that skip along in a
small range of melodies similar to hiphop, Celestial Excursions seems
anything but geriatric.
I can’t imagine that the very people that Ashley is trying to serve, the
elderly, would be at all impressed with the plot-defying, eccentric smorgasbord
of words and music that Ashley has assembled to represent their experience.
I could just see my grandmother getting angry at the fact that she doesn’t
understand it and dismissing it immediately. Then again, my grandmother is really
the only person over 70 that I know, and I don’t see her all that often.
Perhaps this is just one of many misconceptions about old people that have arisen
from the isolation of young American people from their elders. After all, Ashley
is 73, and he is a hundred times hipper than I am. And who’s to say that
my grandmother has no curiosity left? Only Ashley can successfully reconcile
these contradictions, which could easily undermine the clarity of artistic goals.
And only Ashley could make me think so much even before I’d seen
something unnerving about Ashley’s ability to produce clarity from confusion.
As in chemistry, when you combine two cloudy liquids that react to yield a translucent
one. Although one would be wise to avoid any analogy that associates Ashley’s
work with "experimentation." He, like many other artists who have
been lumped in this category, is adamantly opposed to the use of this word in
relation to art. Experimentation suggests a random element; everything Ashley
does, whether or not it comes across this way, is completely intentional. He
envisions it all, directing like God, bequeathing tapes of what he wants the
vocal lines to sound like to his singers and then trusting that they will add
their own creative spin to it. But even the latest press materials from The
Kitchen refer to him as "the godfather of experimental opera." "Experimental"
is an easy out for the person who says, "It’s really neat, but I don’t
really understand it." In fact, "experimental" seems to be an
audience-centric word. It’s much more of an experiment to go hear something
that you’ve never heard before than it is to create it. Artists have vision;
audiences go in blind. But the best art, like Ashley’s operas, shares the
Ashley’s stream-of-consciousness words are swirling frenetically, one hears
clearly that they were carefully harvested. Yes, the plot seems to slip in and
out of focus as the mind tries to figure it all out, grabbing on to one phrase
and becoming so deeply involved that the next five minutes are spent deciphering
them, but it doesn’t matter. Go and see it again. In a world in which composers
often complain that their pieces don’t have a life after the premiere,
Ashley must be applauded for making us want to go again, to understand better
and more deeply. People never seem to get tired of seeing or hearing the greatest
works of art. After last month’s world premiere in Berlin, word is that
this could be Ashley’s best work to date.
Excursions, Wed.-Sat., April 9-12 & Wed.-Sat., April 16-19, at The Kitchen,
512 W. 19th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-255-5793, ext 11.