Robert Ashley: You Can’t Call It Anything Else But Opera
America and Popular Culture
FRANK J. OTERI: I would venture to argue that there’s something very inherently American about what you do as a composer. I know that you referenced European composers working with sound and texture, but I think that the road you followed would not have been possible for a European composer to do.
ROBERT ASHLEY: I think that’s true. I think it’s true because I think that a typical European composer in those times, we’re talking about ancient history now but, typical European composers would have had all the resources at their command so they could expect to work with an orchestra or they can expect to work with an opera company; whereas, for American composers that was simply out of the question. So what happened was that, for better or worse without assigning any cause to it, there came to be for me, at least, a new kind of music which was focussed on the sound of the instant–without respect to any sort of structural form that you expected to satisfy in the next twenty minutes or the next hour and a half. You didn’t expect the chord to change; you expected to continue listening to the sound and the very subtle changes in the sound so that the listeners’ interest was more focused on the sound at any instant.
FRANK J. OTERI: I think that one of things that seems to inform the path you took was that you grew up listening to jazz and watching The Tonight Show.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well that was only thing I knew.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, but that’s so inherently American! The classical tradition, Beethoven, Brahms and all of that is not necessarily what you would have had all around you. What you had around you was popular culture, recordings, television, our popular culture, our commodity culture which if anything is our largest and most visible contribution to the world at large, and I think even now, 50 years later, your music is still engaged in a very interesting dialogue with popular culture. Like Dust, which I was so amazed by when I saw it at The Kitchen a couple years ago. There were moments in it that are almost pop songs.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, that’s because of the particular subject of that opera. That opera was about people who are on the margins of society. The opera actually moves through different groups of people who are marginalized until finally, when you get to the last four songs, you get to people who are marginalized because they’re old. I mean they’re old people. So the reason for me making those kind of popular music productions of those words was that in the plot of the opera, this is what the hero of the opera heard on the radio when he was in the hospital. They’re not popular music in the strict sense because they’re too long to be popular music, they’re too narrative to be popular music because the hero of the opera has been thinking about them for a long time so he’s made a little drama around each of those songs. If those songs were made today, there would be a statement about the reason why the song is being sung. You know: “I’m in love with you,” or “You’re not in love with me,” or something like that… And then there’s a hook and then you return to that. You keep reinforcing that image, that simple, simple image of the thing. Whereas in Dust when we get to the last four songs the hero has been thinking about these energies for a long time so he’s made little narratives of these. So it’s a little different than popular music.
FRANK J. OTERI: There are definitely popular song hooks even in many of your other operas. I’m thinking about “I Would Do It Again,” in the Bank scene of Perfect Lives, or “Hold Me Tighter” that little chorus in Atalanta…that’s very much like a Beach Boys song.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well it’s true. In the 1960s I was working in Detroit, and I had good friends who were trying to produce at Motown and one good friend in particular asked me to write him some songs that he could produce. And so it was very natural for me to write those songs because I had been listening to those my whole life. So I simply wrote the songs. And then, when I got to Perfect Lives, which had this… How do you say it? It recapitulates a series of moments in my life. I put those sounds in as kind of landmarks or labels for that time. I mean I purposely put the song in because it serves as a kind of label for that particular moment in my life.
FRANK J. OTERI: So were those songs that you had written earlier?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Oh yeah, I wrote all those songs in the 1960s, hoping that they would be produced for Motown, but they never were….
FRANK J. OTERI: Well that’s too bad. That would have funded all the operas!
ROBERT ASHLEY: That would have funded everything I ever did.