Invisible Performer

[Ed. Note: Two years have passed since we invited longtime Robert Ashley ensemble member Jacqueline Humbert to describe the gestation process for Ashley’s operas. Her article focused on Ashley’s unique approach to developing texts and music that reinforces those texts. The January 2009 performances of three of Ashley’s operas in repertory at LaMama, have prompted us to re-examine the Ashley operas from a different perspective, how their electronic scores are developed and how the electronic processing of the voices is “performed” in real time. So we asked Tom Hamilton, who has worked with Ashley for nearly three decades, to attempt to describe exactly what it is that he does.—FJO]

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Tom Hamilton with Robert Ashley in Venice
Photo courtesy Mimi Johnson

The Inevitable Intro

The Man in Green Pants, Lucille, No Legs, Walnut, Now Eleanor, Junior Jr. – these are just a few of the almost-real characters that populate composer Robert Ashley’s unusual and colorful operas. The contrast of plain-spoken English sung in a highly stylized manner, combined with liberal amounts of electronic processing and set upon more layers of electronic music, pull us into a contemporary other-world where we glean truisms from a self-generated and ever-expanding lexicon of the imagination.

My goal in this writing is meant to discuss my own part in the Robert Ashley Ensemble and the evolution of my role there as an “invisible performer.” Because I am primarily concerned with developing the characteristic sound of the music through audio production techniques, I deal with the purely sonic aspects of the work over and above matters of textual content and meaning. And in almost all cases, in order for me to hear the sound correctly in a performance, I have to be physically located in the back of the hall—far away from the visual focus.

The Robert Ashley Ensemble members all have a long history with this group, and all have long careers in the contemporary performing arts that run parallel to their work here. The singers are Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, and of course Robert Ashley. “Blue” Gene Tyranny plays solo parts on electronic keyboards and piano. I perform the sound mixing and voice processing, and collaborate with Bob in developing the electronic orchestras. Performer Joan Jonas works with us in Celestial Excursions, and we are joined by company manager Mimi Johnson, visual designer David Moodey, and sound system engineer Cas Boumans.

The general performance practice of the Ashley Ensemble has accumulated collaboratively and essentially through an aural exchange tradition among members of the ensemble. That is, we talk about the music and change it as we are rehearsing it. Although there is much information on the printed page and much literal information to take into account, the style of the music remains unique to the specific ensemble that has been seen and heard for these many years. Bob did not design this music to be readily performed by strangers to the process. We all have developed our roles in equal measure by our ongoing dialogue with Bob and each other, by the specifics of each piece, and by asserting our own personalities on the material.


How We Work Together

The production timeframe for the last 18 years has been about the same from piece to piece. Bob develops the basic text by himself and at his own pace. Sometimes he has done this in stages over a long period while other work is being done. In most of the pieces—including Dust and Celestial Excursions—the text is set into numbered lines with the prevailing chord and pitch assignments for the singers indicated at critical points in the score. At that point, the framework for the electronic orchestra can be established, as Bob has indicated the tempo, meter, and harmonic progression for each scene in his score. Usually here is the point where I start to work on the piece—one to two years before the first performance—when there is tangible sonic material to be developed and produced.

Most of the time, Bob will transfer the written harmonic framework to sequencer files. He often listens to this sequence in a fairly neutral-sounding synthesizer voice, such as a sampled piano patch. When we have a session, we start by going over the immediate scope of the work. Typically he will characterize the timbre of the sound that he really wants, and we will shape an electronic voice to best fulfill that characteristic. In order to capture that sound, we will either record a MIDI or audio track into the sequencer. We often revise each track a number of times as the orchestral voicings begin to take shape. “MIDI programming” is the job title most-oft used for this, but it encompasses a whole range of tools, skills, and judgment calls. The nature of this collaboration changes from piece to piece, and sometimes from moment to moment. At times, I’ve invented oblique editing techniques, Max patches, and complex processor pathways that only get used to generate something for an immediate need (and then promptly disappear from my short term memory). I don’t keep track of what I might have done in a given session or piece, just an awareness that I have called on whichever of my resources I need in order to contribute to some aspect of the evolution of the material.

As soon as we’ve produced enough music to be useful, we make some rehearsal CDs and send them off to the singers. Sometimes it’s just basic chords with a click track and verbal line count mixed in, and sometimes it’s a more elaborate rendering of the orchestra. After the singers have the material for a number of weeks, Bob convenes the ensemble, in part to make a rehearsal recording of just the voices which we overdub in sync with the orchestra. This gives us a vocal template for the whole opera so that we can focus on more orchestrational details.

In most of the operas, we divide the orchestras into sub mixes that span 2 to 3 track pairs. This allows for spontaneous mix variation and spatial distribution. Once the orchestra is fully developed, we transfer it to the performance medium along with the various harmony cues, click tracks, and verbal line counts that are heard by the singers in their in-ear monitors. We have used many playback devices over the years, but currently a multi-track hard disk recorder drives the present versions of Dust and Celestial Excursions, with a backup system running in parallel. The recorder can also supply a corresponding timecode to the lighting people, who will sometimes run a cue in sync with points in the music.

Made Out of Concrete has required a new way of building the orchestra, in that the singers are not furnished with regular pulse, bars and beats, numbered lines, or pre-determined harmonies. The orchestra was originally made with many long strands of music that were passed through several generations of effects processing, then set into the Ableton Live computer-based looping and mixing environment, where each scene could be further modified. In the original performances—just titled Concrete—Robert Ashley’s role was to mix this electronic music on the computer differently for every performance, and my role was to integrate this into the overall mix, just as I have done in the other operas. Now, as this piece has evolved, the orchestra has become fixed and is derived from a composite of several different original performance mixes, allowing Bob to add some additional sections where he sings onstage. Since Made Out of Concrete has a freer relationship between the voices and orchestra than earlier pieces, and calls for many spontaneous timing decisions, the stereo orchestra is set up to be played from 2 CD players that I trigger manually, alternating scenes by cross-fading.

At the point where we start to rehearse and eventually perform, my role in the production gradually shifts away from the specific orchestral content. I start developing ideas for the vocal processing, generally using a variety of audio effects processors such as delays, reverbs, and pitch changers; experimenting first through improvising with a library of complex presets that I have accumulated, then modifying what I have to shape it for a particular scene. In performance, I will control the sonic interactions of just a few of these effects at a time, through flexible and unusual routings on the mixer. This gives me the resources to perhaps locate a singer in an entirely different aural space then the person next to them, or to change the sonic characteristics of the room itself at a variable rate. Sonic architecture “not found in nature.” So much of what is then heard combines a foundation of pre-produced orchestral elements with spontaneous treatments of the singers’ voices through effects and live mix choices.


Sawdust in My Veins? (Oh sorry, wrong stage)

During an actual production run, I try to stay focused mainly on the performance and musical issues. Although I have built up sound systems for many productions by interacting with rental houses, stage managers, and the crew, in the Ashley operas, the coordination and assembly of the sound system really is a separate talent and a different job. We have been very fortunate to have Cas Boumans, a veteran of European musical and theatrical sound, as our sound system engineer and technical coordinator. He possesses that level of professional stagecraft that is so critical to our endeavors, devoting much of his time with the company to developing and installing our sound systems in a way that gives me the freedom to concentrate on the music. Although I need to interact on a technical level during the planning and setup, on a performance day I’m able to just manipulate the flow of ideas, largely because of Cas’s work.

The overall sound of the ensemble has evolved over time, and the listener perhaps finds that the Ashley singers appear to sound “different” in these productions than they do in other settings. Of course, so much of this has to do with the music itself and the way the singers deliver the lines. But in our productions, the audience ultimately hears all the music through loudspeakers, so Cas Boumans and I work for a sonic signature that overrides what we may find given to us in a hall or sound system. Although I add a liberal amount of effects to the mix when appropriate, the characteristic timbre of the group comes as much from the initial tuning of the system, which is adjusted to match an idealized and unique idea of the sound. It is very much akin to developing a personal sound on a musical instrument: You start with having a concept of the sound itself and then you develop the techniques that will help achieve it. There are a number of items employed to assist with this, starting with the initial choice of microphones, continuing throughout the signal chain with equalizers and compressors at critical points, and of course ending with the actual loudspeakers used and their placement in the hall. During a dress rehearsal, I move around the house quite a bit, making sure that I am getting the most of what I have in mind from the sound system—even from the most extreme listening positions. Very often, Bob, Cas, and Mimi Johnson are in the hall, and I can rely on them to give me feedback as well.


So Who Do I Think I Am?

In my previous work-life, I concentrated in two distinct areas: electronic music composition and performance, and commercial audio production. In those days, the former discipline sat somewhere in the contemporary art world, the latter in the business world. In practice, the goals are very separate despite the mixed aspirations of some of the participants and despite the borrowing of techniques on both sides of the art/commerce divide. But working in the commercial world gave me the discipline to operate from the other guy’s point of view. I don’t easily get mixed up for wanting something from a piece that’s different from what Bob wants; in the main, we both want the same thing. As a composer/performer working for another composer/performer, I know fully well that there will always be his unique vision to be preserved, and it’s part of my job to articulate it. It’s really about how to best work towards a shared goal.

So I don’t have an easy “elevator description” of what it is that I do in the company. (“Utility infielder” seems like the wrong label, too.) In printed programs, I am usually credited for “sound mixing and voice processing,” and that covers a lot of my role in a given performance. But in the year or so leading up to that performance, I will take on many other tasks, depending on what’s needed in a particular phase of production.

I’ve always seen what I do in the Ashley company as being a unique manifestation of performing electronic music. Because we work exclusively with amplified sound, it’s both my pleasure and my company role to deliver the impact of the music to the listener. It feels as if all the music is first going through my fingers and that I am physically touching it on its way to the audience. I have consistent goals to make the musical material stand out as clearly as possible: there should be a good sense of the diction, a changing sonic ambience that the listener can identify, and a good integration of all the sound elements. The overriding demand seems to be to use my musical sensibilities in all cases (and especially in tight spots). Acquiring the techniques specific to my role are equivalent to the training and preparedness that any musician faces. I learn these things so that I can forget them while I play—even as an invisible performer.

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Tom Hamilton is a composer/performer of electronic music and an audio producer/engineer. He lives in New York City, and has been a member of the Robert Ashley Ensemble since 1990.