Ever since I attended the premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera Improvement—Don Leaves Linda, which is something of a showcase for the voice of Jacqueline Humbert, I’ve been fascinated by how she is able to make cutting-edge avant-garde music sound completely natural, if not downright friendly. In the quintet of voices that has been the basis of Ashley’s operas for decades—an ensemble which also features the otherworldly Joan La Barbara and Thomas Buckner, as well as Ashley himself and his son, Sam Ashley—Humbert’s voice has always struck me as the most immediate and down to earth. But it was pretty much the only context in which I’ve known her voice, the one exception being a 2004 Lovely CD called Chanteuse which features Humbert performing music by a variety of other composers—including Alvin Lucier, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, David Rosenboom, and herself—in addition to two selections by Robert Ashley. From her bio included with that disc, I learned that she trained as a visual artist and worked as a designer of sets, costumes, and graphics, but began her career as a performer on two albums created in collaboration with Rosenboom—My New Music (1978) and Daytime Viewing (1980). Both of these albums have both been long of print, and the latter was only ever available in a limited-run cassette edition.
So I was delighted that Unseen World Records has re-released Daytime Viewing, making it available for the very first time on CD as well as on LP! While it is very much of its time, a by-product of that brief window in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a fusion of experimental music and New Wave created numerous uncategorizable hybrids, it is also very much a harbinger of our own much longer-lasting “indie-classical” zeitgeist where musicians cross freely between musical genres, equally comfortable in all of them.
According to the notes accompanying the disc, Daytime Viewing is “based on the casual analysis of daytime television drama and the audience phenomena such programming addresses.” Having rarely been able to sit through an entire episode of a soap opera, I can’t really speak to Daytime Viewing’s effectiveness in capturing the essence of such fare and the people who watch it. However, even a non-television viewer can imagine the sordidness and quotidian angst of afternoon serials from some of the album’s lyrics, which include such lines as: “He’s starting to sleep in a different place every night,” “Where were you when our dear baby died?” and “Where were you when my moustache began to appear?” evoke both the sordidness and quotidian angst of afternoon serials.
Of the six tracks on Daytime Viewing, two of them—“Bareback” and “Distant Space”—both clock in at under five minutes and could easily be mistaken for quirky pop songs from that time. Had radio stations discovered those songs back when the album was first released, it might have reached a much wider audience. Remember this was the era when Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” wound up on the charts. In 2013, Daytime Viewing comes across as a blueprint for much of the so-called genre-defying music being made now. It is yet another reminder that no idea is completely new. Then again, it wasn’t even completely new in 1980. Listening to Humbert’s straightforward vocals against a wash of Rosenboom’s electronics calls to mind another such collaboration that occurred decades before that—the recordings of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Despite the wild experimentation of the Paul/Ford sessions, they were widely popular—in the 1950s no less. But hopefully with this re-issue, Daytime Viewing will assume its rightful place as the missing link between those fascinating duos and everything from The Fiery Furnaces’ Bitter Tea to Matt Marks’s Little Death.