Robert Ashley: You Can’t Call It Anything Else But Opera
Hip-Hop, D.I.Y. and Sound-Mixing
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, let’s talk about hip-hop for a second… In rap music, text is supreme; everything is driven by the text: every beat, every sound, there aren’t melodic lines in the conventional sense of what a melodic line is. There are contours that are melodic contours, but they’re all derived from the text.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, the problem in discussing hip-hop with somebody who doesn’t like hip-hop is that they don’t hear the melodies. There’s no difference in the quality of the melody in any good hip-hop record now. There are so many I can’t even name them. But there’s no difference in the quality of the melody between that song and something like Billie Holiday for instance. It’s just that the world has changed, the street language has changed and now you have to tune our ears to be able to hear that the very best hip-hop singers are singing exactly in tune. It might be going a little too fast; the melody might be going a little too fast for you to perceive it as melody, but there’s no doubt that there’s melody.
FRANK J. OTERI: What struck me as so exciting about hip-hop in the 1990s was that all of a sudden there was a reintroduction of discernable melody in the old fashioned sense among some rappers, but it was still informed by the inflection of speech patterns. I’m thinking of groups like Arrested Development, P.M. Dawn, or The Fugees where the rapper will suddenly start rapping on a melody which is a clearly discernable tune as opposed to a sprechstimme speech-song-type thing, but it’s so derived from speech that it flows off the tongue like speech. Which is precisely what the best Italian vocal music does. In that sense, rap is like Puccini because if you speak Italian you’ll instantly be able to understand the words from the shape of Puccini’s melodies.
ROBERT ASHLEY: I’m not a hip-hop producer so I don’t know what drives those things, but I listen to hip-hop all the time. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of references now to black music in the 1960s, there are a lot of references to Motown, there are a lot of references I mean if you just turn on the top 10 hip-hop videos tonight at 6 o’clock on the Black Entertainment Network, you’ll hear at least one that’ll remind you of the Supremes or something like that.
Robert Ashley rapping in his opera, Perfect Lives
photo courtesy Robert Ashley
FRANK J. OTERI: They’re sampling earlier music.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, but they’re also singing in that style. So, the changes in popular music are… I don’t know what you’d call it… they’re design changes for consumer purposes, but I think that for composers, clearly, the most powerful force is to make the words rhythmic in the way you imagine that rhythm could express the words. I mean you distort the street rhythms in order to make them more beautiful or whatever. But at the same time you keep the street rhythms and you do that irrespective of whether you’re making a reference to Marvin Gaye or whether you’re trying to go way out there you know.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the interesting things about hip-hoppers sampling earlier music how it fits into the whole do-it-yourself aesthetic; it was born from limited resources. The first rappers didn’t have access to guitars or keyboards or anything like that so they rapped on top of earlier records. In a way, that situation is not very different from your own in the 1950s when you decided to work with electronics because you didn’t have access to an orchestra or an opera company. Of course, 50 years ago it was a lot different, but now people are creating MIDI symphonies. And so a piece of yours like Superior Seven is an “orchestral” piece, but there’s no orchestra.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, it’s an orchestra piece but it’s only rarely been played because it’s not conducted and it’s not structured in the orchestral tradition. In Superior Seven, which is the so-called flute concerto, the conductor has nothing to do with the beat, the ongoing time of the orchestra. The conductor functions entirely as a person balancing the different elements of the orchestra in the same way that you would do at a mixing keyboard. And so the music, the music, the rhythm, the mood and the feeling of the thing operate independently of the conductor. I mean it would not be as good sounding if there was not a conductor to bring the violins down and to bring the woodwinds up and these kinds of things. But the music could go on without a conductor at all. The music is entirely independent of the conductor. The conductor functions simply as a person who is at a mixing console.
FRANK J. OTERI: So has it been done with live orchestra in performance?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. We, we had a very good performance in Marseilles. It started with the usual problem of resources. It was commissioned by Barbara Held. We started with two pianos and I got the idea of layering the orchestra parts in the same way one would layer parts in an electronic orchestra. And we kept adding parts. And then Barbara moved to Spain… We had a beautiful performance a couple years ago in Marseilles with a wonderful America flutist named Lisa Hansen. And then I had another performance a year or so ago in Los Angeles which was conducted by David Rosenboom which used members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and faculty members from CalArts and that kind of thing. And when a conductor understands that…how should I say this… when the conductor’s of our time and he understands that he’s not conducting the orchestra, he’s balancing the different parts, you can get beautiful changes of character and changes of mood with the orchestra. I should say in that piece, there’s also the possibility that the orchestra could just stop and there are dozens of places within that so called concerto where the flutist, in collaboration with the person doing the electronic processing can insert a so-called cadenza into the middle of the piece which has nothing to do with the time of the piece. In other words, the orchestra could stop playing and the flute player goes on someplace else. And then when the flute player finishes the cadenza, they resume their activities for the rest of the piece.