Robert Ashley: You Can’t Call It Anything Else But Opera
The Compositional Process
FRANK J. OTERI: The whole notion of compositional control in some ways is really absent from your work. Getting back this notion of musical theater and jazz, I think your music grows out of a result of collaboration and from not necessarily having a fixed form. It’s very much an open structure and you work with the performers and in some ways you allow the performers to create a lot of the content, what the listener is hearing, whether it’s the melodic line or the rhythm or even in some instances, the harmonic progressions, I’m thinking back to Perfect Lives where all the harmonic progressions were provided by “Blue” Gene Tyranny.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: And in some of the orchestrations where the MIDI orchestration is done with Tom Hamilton. You share that part of the process with other people, which is very unusual for a composer to do.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, it’s very important to me, because I never wanted to be a solo musician. I enjoy more than anything in life making music with people. So that when I come to a situation where I write the piece, where what I’ve composed needs some sort of deep collaboration, it’s very easy for me to just give that idea over to somebody else so that it refreshes the piece. I mean it’s a better idea than my idea. You know. In other words, when we started working on Perfect Lives, I said to Blue Gene, you know I can write the chord changes, but then you have to spend a year learning the chord changes, and then you have to improvise on my chord changes, which might not be so interesting to you. So why don’t you write the chords because that’s what you’re gonna improvise on. I mean it doesn’t have anything to do with the template of what pitch the singer is singing on or where the chorus comes in or anything like that. It’s totally based on the idea of making it possible for Blue Gene to be as fluent as he can be. And that’s actually a great pleasure. I mean, it’s more interesting for me than for me to write the chords and for him to struggle with those chords.
FRANK J. OTERI: So then if someone else were to perform the work other than Blue Gene it would be a completely different piece on some levels.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, we could take the template, we could take the basic template of the piece and we could make it into anything. It could be a different chorus. In fact, it could be a totally different size.
FRANK J. OTERI: So what is fixed? If you heard a performance let’s say of Superior Seven or Improvement: Don Leaves Linda, could you ever wind up thinking “Wait a second, this is not my music.” Where is the line?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Uh, well in the case of Superior Seven all the notes are written, it’s just a question of whether the people can actually play the notes and whether they follow the instructions, but when we get into the operas… I don’t know how to answer your question without saying in the most practical sense, when I finally finish matching the words to the tempo, the chord changes and that kind of thing, I make a rehearsal tape for all the singers and I send the rehearsal tape to the singers and then we get together. I take any idea that anybody’s got, unless it’s wrong, I take any idea that anybody’s got because it adds something to the piece that I had not thought about. The only way you get the character of the opera out of any one of the singers is by letting them take over that notion of character.
FRANK J. OTERI: Have the operas ever been done with different singers than the original singers of each production? And what have been the changes?
ROBERT ASHLEY: No. Perfect Lives had a certain ensemble, and then when we started doing Atalanta, that ensemble wasn’t working so certain people dropped out and new people came in. So there was a certain ensemble for Atalanta. And then when we started doing the group of four operas: Improvement, eL/Aficionado, Foreign Experiences, and Now Eleanor’s Idea, I needed other kinds of voices because of the nature of the text. So I just started picking people that I knew or thought could do it. And even that changed. We started with one group of people and by the time we got to the end of it, two or three people had dropped out and two or three people had come in. But the basic ensemble I’m working with now is the happiest situation of my life, working with Sam and Jackie and Joan and Tom Buckner and Tom Hamilton doing the processing. It’s sort of a dream come true. And I don’t expect it to change, unless, unless one of them gets tired of me and wants to go someplace else.
FRANK J. OTERI: But what if you envision a work involving more characters?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Then I’ll just have to find some more people. [laughter] That’s another problem…
Robert Ashley’s Ensemble,
photo by Yukihiro Yoshihara
FRANK J. OTERI: Atalanta has more roles.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah when we went from Atalanta to the quartet, I had to have new voices because there were new characters. Possibly in the next opera. I’m working on one now called Celestial Excursions and I must admit, I don’t know how many voices are involved. I know that I’m going to use the four voices that I’ve been working with for the last ten years, but I might add another two or three voices. I don’t know yet.
FRANK J. OTERI: What starts first, the music or the text?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Oooh, that’s the hardest question that has ever been asked by anybody. The simple answer is that when you’re a songwriter, the music and the words come at the same time. But they don’t come exactly the same, I mean sometimes you have an idea for a sort of harmonic mood or a rhythmic thing or sometimes you have some words that don’t exactly fit with that so you adapt the words to that plan. I mean in other words you might, to take an example from Now Eleanor’s Idea, after having worked with the harmonies and the words and the rhythms and everything else for a year or something like that, I finally discovered that one of the operas had to have 15 syllables per line, but I already had the text and I had the music, but the text wasn’t in 15 syllables per line. So I had to edit the text, trying to make the text have 15 syllables per line. Sometimes you start with just a phrase, maybe just two lines and those two lines may not even make it into the final version, but those two lines in the rhythm and the way they’re said and the way they sound, those two lines start making the music happen in your imagination. So sometimes the words come first, sometimes the music comes first, but they never come independently, I mean for me.
FRANK J. OTERI: Why did those lines have to have 15 syllables?
ROBERT ASHLEY: I don’t know. I’ve forgotten now what the reason was…
FRANK J. OTERI: So words and melodies come together… I’m a little confused. I always got the sense that the melody sort of evolved in the process of working with the singers, that the singers actually shaped the melodies.
ROBERT ASHLEY: That’s true. That’s exactly true.
FRANK J. OTERI: You don’t present singers with staff-notated melodies, you present them with tapes of you singing your vision of what those melody are?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. I send them a demo tape, a demo tape of me singing the song and then a few weeks later or a few months later they come here and they have their own idea about that song. Obviously it can go from being extremely crude, as in the first four songs of Dust. I mean I can’t be Jackie Humbert or Joan LaBarbara, I just sing those songs the way I sing, but in the last four songs, those actually have a melody because they’re supposed to be memories of pop songs. Joan LaBarbara has to adapt the melody to what she can do with her voice and Jackie and Tom and Sam have to adapt those melodies to what they can do with their voices. But it’s actually not any different from me deciding to cover a Chuck Berry song or a rap song. I mean, I couldn’t possibly make it sound like the original, what is that, karaoke or something like that, I couldn’t do that so it would, in other works I would take the material of the original song and I would make it into my own version.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well the last two Dust songs–”It’s Easy” and “The Angel of Loneliness”– have great melodies. They have great hooks…
ROBERT ASHLEY: Thank you.
FRANK J. OTERI: So they were your melodies?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but for instance in the melody I wrote for “It’s Easy,” the first note was too high for what was comfortable for Joan. So she had to adapt how she got to that first note from rehearsing in the studio and it wasn’t until she had done it for I don’t know, 15 or 20 times that finally that adaptation of how to get to that first note, which I had made a mistake on because I thought that was an easy note for her. It turned out to be a hard note for her. It wasn’t until she had done it 15 or 20 times that she came up with a way of getting to that first note that sounds like it’s right. You know. But you would never know that.
FRANK J. OTERI: So what happens when you’re doing a work like Balseros for the Florida Grand Opera? How did you work with those singers? It’s clearly not the intimate relationship that you get to have with your ensemble. What happens?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, I must say that Balseros was not a very happy experience for me. I’m telling tales out of school… When I was commissioned to do the piece, I was told by the Florida Grand Opera that their singers would not be available except in the chorus parts. And so I started writing music for the four, well I said you can’t have an opera with any less, I’ve gotta hire the soloists. And they said OK, go ahead and hire ‘em. So I hired my ensemble and I wrote the melodies for my ensemble and made the orchestra work with my ensemble. And then, not long before the musical deadline, I was told that in fact the Florida Grand Opera singers had to have some solos so I spent a couple of months, talk about technicalities, making 18th century sort of canons for the Florida Grand Opera singers to sing the same melodies twice as fast. In other words, Jackie would have a song that lasted four minutes, two minutes of that would be given over to one of the Florida Grand Opera singers who was singing almost exactly the same melody she was singing, but twice as fast and at a different interval, so it was in harmony with her. And the other two minutes of that solo would be given over to a male and female pair of Spanish speaking persons. So they were speaking; they were acting. So Balseros started out as an opera for my ensemble with the orchestra on tape which would accommodate a couple of Cuban type drummers and would accommodate a couple of people speaking in Cuban-Spanish explaining what was going on. And then at the last minute, the last two or three months, I had a different assignment and so I had to think of some way to put the Florida Grand Opera singers in as soloists. And the only way I could figure out how to do it was as I said this canon-type of thing.
FRANK J. OTERI: And you didn’t really have any opportunity to work with them?
ROBERT ASHLEY: No.
FRANK J. OTERI: So they were never able to feel an ownership for the roles…
ROBERT ASHLEY: No, I just wrote the notes, I just wrote the notes and they learned the notes as best they could.
FRANK J. OTERI: I was listening recently to Automatic Writing, which is probably the most personal piece you’ve ever written. And it’s something I can’t imagine anyone else ever being able to do.
ROBERT ASHLEY: [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s so personal. You’re dealing with a very sensitive topic. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only piece of music ever written about Tourette Syndrome. It really fleshes out what that means and what it means as music.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, well, I was coming from California to New York to see Mimi and I got so interested in the people on the street. They’re gone now because Giuliani put ‘em all in prison, but there were these strange people who were talking to themselves, and I got so interested in what appeared to be some connection between music and what they were doing that I tried to learn how to do that. It was practically impossible. And I did dozens of performances where I used different sorts of shields to keep me from being effected by self-consciousness on stage. And then finally the record that you’re referring to, as it says in the liner notes, was simply the last stage of having worked on the piece for two or three years, maybe more. I set up the studio at Mills so that I could go in there and I didn’t have to change my mood. All I had to do was push one button. I just had to push the on button and everything started working. I was living by myself then and I got myself into the mood of that involuntary speech. And when it finally took, I walked from where I was living to the studio, which was about a quarter of a mile at like 8 o’clock at night and I just pushed the on button and it actually worked. I mean I actually got something that was totally beyond my control. But then the layering of the piece started and the next thing I wanted was to put some synthesizer music in it so I asked Paul DeMarinis to design some sort of a triggering to give me something from the synthesizer that would accompany the talking and then we had another occasion to do it in Paris and I asked Mimi to read the French translations of these sort of meaningless things without her listening to the tape at all. I would just cue her when to say the French phrase. And so I had three characters and then I finally realized that there was a fourth character needed and it took me another few months to find that fourth character on that kind of organ sound that goes all through it. Then I knew the piece was finished. Then I knew the piece…because I had enough screens between me and the audience so that I was not embarrassed to put it out on a record.