This is one of several memoirs written as part of the Tribute to Robert Ashley on September 11, 2014, at Roulette in New York.
It is dangerous to let Robert Ashley’s epic operas overwhelm his numerous contributions to musical composition and indeed his challenges to the definition of music itself. Here are a few of them.
The first and the most well known was Bob’s discovery that human speech is music. Once, as accompaniment to a Merce Cunningham dance performance in New York, Bob gathered some of his old Ann Arbor friends for an unrehearsed conversation. All they did was talk. That’s all it was. It was compelling. It was music.
In Fancy Free Bob asked performers with cassette tape recorders to rewind in real time their tapes every time they perceived an irregularity in the performer’s speech. (The text contained a few dirty words that might cause the performer to hesitate.)
She Was A Visitor is a work for speaking chorus in which all the phonemes contained in the title sentence are detached and sustained for long breaths revealing hidden meanings and images: “sh” (hush); “oo” (delight); “ah” (surprise); ’“er” (hesitation), and so forth.
Wolfman (1964) was the loudest musical work one ever heard at that time. It was also the most ironic. Contrary to popular belief, the performer makes extremely soft vocal sounds. The loudness is produced by enormous amplifier gain, the feedback stopped only by the barely audible input from the vocalist.
One may also say that Wolfman is a work about room acoustics: the oral cavity (small room) is coupled to the performance space (large room).
In Four Ways, four performers raise and lower the lids of four attaché cases containing cassette recordings of speech. As they did so the acoustics of the cases would change, as if the ceilings of small rooms were being raised and lowered.
Bob invented several formal structures for various stand-alone works. In Wolfman he wrote out a set of instructions to guide the performer in moving through four parameters: pitch, loudness, vowel and closure. In order to manage the four components he invented a simple process of controlled improvisation. You could start at any point, then gradually vary one of the four parameters while keeping the other three constant. Then you would alter a second parameter, keeping the other three constant. You couldn’t change any of the variables until the others three had been changed. This produced an evolving structure that was always moving ahead. It was simple and effective way of preventing crescendos and diminuendos, risings up and fallings back, and other banal gestures that improvisers are prone to rely on.
Ashley does astonishing things with time in String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large real Bodies (1972). First he asks the players to bow slackened strings so slowly (one bow length up to ten minutes) and with such pressure that no continuous sound is produced, only pops and clicks. He then routes these signals through a series of delays of from 5 to 250 milliseconds (slow for computers, fast for humans), causing subtle shifts in timbre. These extremes of scale give the listener the uncanny feeling of slow and fast at the same time, as when a Boeing 747 barely moves, hovering, while landing.
August 24, 2014