It’s hard to try to piece together a coherent introduction to Robert Ashley’s huge amount of work. Like with classical opera, Ashley’s compositions are a challenge, maybe even more so than the former. He strips away the grandeur, the snobbery and pathos of the classical form and turns it either into a plastic pop television ideal (as in Perfect Lives) or into an avantgarde noise construction (Automatic Writing), but neither lessens the need for concentration, openness and most of all patience when trying to get into his art. So if you’re expecting grand gestures, huge vocal ranges and classical scenarios, turn back now, before being sucked into the surreal murky subconscious that is Robert Ashley’s work.
For an easy start, there is a collection of three pieces released in 1996 under the name Automatic Writing. The collection includes the title piece, a 46 minute experiment in involuntary speech and to extracts from his 1967 opera That Morning Thing, namely Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon and She Was a Visitor. All of these pieces focus in some way or another on human speech, Ashley’s favorite instrument, but treat it in completely different ways, the end result being either hardly recognizable, or an immense wash of noise.
Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon is the easiest of the three, although it might need some taking used to. The ten minute piece is the story of a woman’s rape, told in a monotonous voice by Cynthia Lidell, in an extremely detailed and raw manner. The narrator tells of her experience focusing very insistently on her partner’s brutal actions and tries to remember very precisely what had happened while accompanied only by extreme tape hiss, some small bells chiming and some deep whale-like bellows which used to be a choir. Every element of the piece works towards an unsettling mood, the story, the extreme almost disgusting detail, the repetitive chimes, and the bellows from the depths of hell all send you to this dark dark place where something is very near, very fierce, and you don’t know which direction it will come from, but you know escape is impossible. Her voice becomes the vessel of menace itself, fear incarnate, your most terrifying place.
She Was a Visitor, stems from the same opera as Purposeful Lady… and is its closing act. The main voice of the piece repeats the title sentence endlessly, while the other singers are set up in different groups, each with its leader. The leader picks up different phonemes of the main speakers sentence and replicates them in the length of one breath, and each member of his group has to do the same. The title sentence truncates the possible narrative of the piece into a never ending prologue or epilogue, transforming itself into a very existential mantra after a while. It’s lack of narrativity makes it maybe a bigger challenge than Purposeful Lady… but the very innovative almost electronic (just think of granular synthesis) process is so incredibly fascinating that any initial dread of hearing the same sentence again and again for at least ten minutes quickly dissipates, leaving room only for the immense ambiance the piece creates.
Lastly, Automatic Writing is Ashley’s way of turning the human voice into the vessel of subconsciousness. Ashley suffered from a mild case of Tourette’s Syndrome, having occasional bursts of involuntary speech, moments which he used for his 1979 piece. His involuntary phrases are firstly manipulated into mostly unintelligible gibberish after being recorded extremely closely and loudly, so the effect is that they actually come from within your head. Before being turned into mulch, the phrases were translated into French and read as whispers. These two interacting instances are also accompanied by an organ and synthesizer, one playing sporadic chords and the other sounding like an overly tense string about to burst. Ashley tries to access the most primordial and unconscious level of sound by employing these involuntary moments of speech, a feat which after a couple of listens turns from grim and dense into a very charming experience. The more you listen to it, the more the organ in the background befriends you and assures you that the parts of your mind that you are not in control of are not that evil, and would not work against you, although they very easily could.
As with most avantgarde pieces, you first have to get over the impression of fright, and unease in order to start appreciating what is actually going on (in the case of Purposeful Lady… to get to the actual fright), and Robert Ashley is no different. But after you get into his kind of storytelling, it’s hard to get out, and as was the case with classical opera, the story itself is not that important, it’s the music that counts. Only with Ashley you get Grade A, top shelf minimalism instead of predictable overly emphatic build ups. And what a good deal that is.