“Performance Oriented” Music
FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve actually never heard your music done by another group. Everything I’ve heard has been something that you’ve been intimately connected with.
ROBERT ASHLEY: That’s almost always the case.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting to hear what happens when you take yourself out of the mix.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, it’s not as interesting. I mean, the only reason I became a musician as opposed to a banker or a civil servant is because I wanted to perform music. I can’t live without performing music, so it’s always interesting to me in those rare cases where somebody performs my music and I’m not in it. But it’s not very interesting. It’s most interesting to me when I’m with the ensemble and we’re making music together. That’s what I call living.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s another sort of generation shift. It’s not about writing notes on paper and then getting someone else to do it. It is “performance-oriented music.” This phrase sounds weird because how could you have music that isn’t performance oriented? But I think there’s something about your music from the very beginning that really is keyed into the notion that you’re a performer and that you have experiences as a performer. It’s like Galileo coming along and dropping heavy and light objects off the Tower of Pisa to prove they’d land at the same time. Before people believed the heavier object would land first because no one ever tried it. And I’m thinking that your music is so much what it is because you’ve actually tried things yourself as a performer. There’s always a kind of “what if” quality to your music. Even back in a piece like The Wolfman… What happens if you play around with feedback? That’s something you couldn’t conceptualize on paper without physically having done it first.
ROBERT ASHLEY: You can write the instructions on paper, but unless the person who’s reading those instructions has some experience with feedback in different situations, it might as well be written in some other language. Taking The Wolfman as an example, in most performances including my own, because we were doing it in a relatively small space, in order to get the level of feedback with movements of your voice, contrary to what you’ve read in the paper, the actual vocalization of the The Wolfman is probably the softest, vocal piece every written. But those soft changes in your voice, by modulating the feedback as it were, make the music. Just a couple of years ago, Mimi Johnson and I were in Barcelona and we went to one of the enormous cathedrals in Barcelona and we got there just as the mass was supposed to begin and the sound engineer for that cathedral made the level of the sound wrong so as soon as the priest walked up to the microphone and as soon as he closed the microphone with his voice, there started to be feedback, but because of the huge space of the cathedral, the resonant feedback of the thing was actually in the voice range. So he was doing The Wolfman without knowing it. And, and I said, it sounded like Gregorian chant, because all of the feedback was actually in the pitched range of his voice, and I whispered to Mimi like that this is the way The Wolfman would sound if I did it in this cathedral. You know, it wouldn’t sound deafening or anything like that. It would sound like somebody was singing along with him.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow!
ROBERT ASHLEY: Oh yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: So then the trick is imparting these ideas to other people. Certainly, in working with Tom Buckner and Joan LaBarbara and Jacqueline Humbert and your son Sam, your core ensemble, you can do things that you probably couldn’t do if you said, “OK, take five people and do a performance of Your Money My Life Goodbye. Other people probably wouldn’t get it if you’d never worked with them.
ROBERT ASHLEY: My ensemble is a dream come true. I’ve said as a joke to Tom Hamilton that I never write anything that I can’t do myself, but of course I can’t sound like Joan LaBarbara, I can’t sound like Tom Buckner, and I can’t sound like Jackie Humbert. But it’s all very practical in the sense that I actually perform music before I send it to them. If I could tell you a little anecdote… We started doing a concert…We had just done the first performance in Cologne. I started doing a concert of two of the longer sections of Atalanta with just Jacqueline Humbert and me and Tom Hamilton producing the sound. In the case of one of those things, it’s called “Empire,” I had made the rehearsal track for Jacqueline and myself in 5 beats per measure. And when she came and we started rehearsing, it was clear that five beats per measure was not enough. I mean even though I had been sort of conceptually rehearsing it in five beats per measure, I never actually had the time or had taken the trouble to try to do the whole thing myself in five beats per measure. And when we did it a couple of times, we realized that five beats per measure was just wrong. And so Tom Hamilton added one beat per measure for each, for the whole song. So, in a sense, we recomposed a very important part of that song, of that aria or whatever you want to call it right here in the studio as a result of performance. I mean as a result of working with it and seeing that we didn’t have enough room because it was crowding the English.