Interview by Jason Gross (November 1997)
The last thing you'd say about composer Robert Ashley is that he's complacent. He brings a risky, unproven challenge to music today: creating American operas for television. Other artists such as Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson and John Adams have brought their theatrical work to the stage for years but none of them have decided that TV should be their prime medium. It may be that many serious artists see this as a crass place full of goofy sitcoms, mind-numbing commercials and all around lowest-common-denominator mush. Ashley sees it as a huge, unexploited canvas for his work, which is specifically geared for it. As he talks about below, Europe has been very receptive to this for a while but (like a lot of other American artists) he finds that his own country isn't ready for this yet. You'd think that his pioneering work in promoting other modern composers through documentaries, collective groups and festivals would make him ideal to present his work on television here in the States. Sadly, this hasn't yet but I do agree with him that the time will come when the stations finally see things his way. Let's just hope that he's around to witness this triumph.
NOTE: A treasure trove of Ashley's work is available from Lovely Music.
PSF: You grew up in Midwest. How did that area effect your you and your work?
I grew up listening to the radio and to records. I learned music mainly from that. Those records were mainly jazz and popular music. I didn't really get involved in serious music until I went to the University of Michigan years later. I tried to learn to play the piano when I was a boy. Then when I went to college, I began to listen to the traditional European composers. I was actually majoring in music theory because I didn't know how music worked. I wasn't studying composition. I was learning about the analysis of different forms and structures. My major instrument was the piano- I was a pretty good player. I learned a lot as I studied the traditional repertoire. I started playing a lot of contemporary music I suppose because so few people were interested in it. So I played a lot of contemporary music as a pianist and I got interested in composing.
PSF: Which composers are you talking about?
They'd be people on the faculty who were writing music. Some of teachers were composers. I played whatever I could get my hands on. At that time, you could get Copeland scores. I could also get Alban Berg and Schoenberg.
PSF: During that time at school, you also studied psycho-acoustics and cultural speech patterns.
I got involved with that because I thought that was a way to make a living. It was interesting to me for one thing because science and technology was a very practical living. I almost got a PhD in psycho-acoustics but then I decided that I didn't want to be a scientist. I was very interested in the subject matter though. Psycho-acoustics is all about the way you hear things. The most important thing about working in that laboratory was that there was this speech research going on. Bell Labs were trying to do speech synthesis. This gave me access to machines that I could not have gotten to otherwise. It gave me access to very sophisticated techology. That was very interesting to me.
PSF: Some of your first tape experiments came out on Bob James' debut (Explosions). How did you get involved in working with this?
Bob James was a student at the University of Michigan. He was a VERY good pianist and he was very sympathetic to contemporary music and what we were doing. He played a couple of my pieces for the ONCE festival. When he graduated and moved to New York, he called me and said he had a contract and asked me if I could give him some material to work with. So I gave him two compositions. We were good friends. I liked his playing and his attitude.
PSF: What about your work in the Space Theatre ('57-'64)?
That was with Milton Cohen, who was a faculty in the art department. He made beautiful theatre (pieces) out of various kinds of light projection that Harold Borkin designed. He had made a lot of very fancy instruments for projection light around a theatre space. It involved slide projector and movie projectors. All that stuff that turned into light shows, Harold was there designing that stuff. Milton wanted to have live music with it. So I made a electronic performance studio set up. It was a crude one. We had various input to the mix tapes.
PSF: Do you think that work influenced your later multi-media work?
It's hard to say how you get influenced by something. When you work on something for seven years, it's bound to make an impression. It was certainly beautiful, those performances. Milton's projections were beautifully made for those pieces. Milton had a studio, a loft kind of place. We build panels that would catch the light at various angles all around the thing so it was like a dome. In the center, there was this very complicated contraption that Milton sat in the middle of and manipulated all these things. External to that were the different performance instruments and all these sounds were amplified and they all went into the mix.
PSF: Could you talk about your later work with the ONCE Festivals?
It was a group of people who lived in Ann Arbor. We made a very famous series of festivals. Many of the people who worked on that are now famous, professional musicians in their own right. They were very good at the kind of work that I do. We became very close and they helped me a lot with my work. It was the first chance I had to work with an ensemble, a group of people and to compose for them.
PSF: What about your work with the Sonic Arts Union (with Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, David Behrman)?
It started because each of us individually were getting letters inviting us to perform some place. We decided to work together because we could pool our equipment and make a concert that would be very difficult to make by yourself (there was no money of course). It wasn't so much an ensemble like the ONCE group or the things that I've been working with since. It was more just three or four people getting together to give a concert and pool the equipment and resources. You could make a piece where you needed two more performers and I knew that David and Alvin could do those performances. We gave a lot of concerts here in the States and in Europe with this co-operative. It wasn't a band, it was a co-operation between composers to make a good concert.
This was happening at the same time as the other groups I was working with. I would be doing the ONCE group and the Sonic Arts Union at the same time at different concerts with different people. Those things just overlapped. ONCE started around '64 and Sonic Arts was about '67.
PSF: What led you to go to teach at Mills college (1969)?
It was very difficult to see a future with the ensemble work I wanted to do because there was no money. There was no NEA or State Arts Counsel. The ONCE group got to the point that we did everything we could do with the resources that we had. When I got a chance to go to California, I thought it would be a good chance to try something new. It was a opportunity to do something different than what I did before.
PSF: How did your long-term work begin with Lovely Records?
Mimi Johnson started Lovely. It was her idea. It was the first really independent record company that was not devoted to just one person. Other people had made records companies or labels and they put out their music. Techologically, it became possible to put out records. Mimi's idea was to start an independent company that represented all kinds of new music. The first things she put out where by Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Jon Hassell. She had a very good vision of what was going to happen in music. I was just lucky to be there too.
PSF: How did you decide to make your works as all being operas?
In 1975, there were no operas in America. I was interested in opera and it seemed to me that the only possible theatre for contemporary opera would be television. So I started working towards a kind of television kind of opera. I started designed the work so that it would be usable on television. I think it's still true.
PSF: How did you see television as an ideal medium for operas?
It's contemporary. It's new. Many more people watch television than go to opera houses. There aren't any opera houses in the United States. The possibilities for contemporary opera are very small. I thought when I started, it looked more promising (to work with television). Now, in the last few years, television has become much more conversative. But I still think there's going to be a marriage of television and some form of opera. It might not happen in my lifetime but I still think it's inevitable. The whole idea of the opera house is so dated anyway. It's such a nineteenth century idea. Because of that probably, there aren't any to speak of (maybe 3 or 4). It doesn't really allow the idea of opera to really grow. I thought if I could get television interested in opera, it would make a kind of new thing that would allow composers to build a whole new repertoire.
It was more promising fifteen or twenty years ago than it is now. The first opera I did, Music With Its Roots in Ether (1976), has been broadcasted a lot. The next one I did, Perfect Lives (1980), was produced by Channel 4 in Great Britian and was shown there for two years and then throughout Europe but only parts of it have been broadcast in the United States. Now in '97, television is so conserative that it doesn't look promising. But I think it'll change back. I think it' inevitable that there has to be some new genre in television. Television goes through these periods of incorporating new things. First there was live comedy then there were soap operas then there was news and now there's a lot of television about sports. We went through a period of MTV with pop music videos too. Television always needs new materials and it's just a matter of time until there's the right audience for new work that's not just pop music. When that happens, it'll be a very good time for composers to do serious big, narrative pieces.
PSF: Why do think there has been resistance to this kind of idea in American television?
Because they're stupid I guess. Opera on television in Europe is very important. If you think about it in the broadest sense: a lot of the dramas made in India with music are practically operas. They're not sung but they have a very big appeal. I don't know why American television people are so stupid but at the moment, they just seem to have some sort of a block. They just do what they do and they do it for a certain number of years. Then it wears out and they try something else. It's just a matter of time I think.
PSF: Do you see any benefits or drawbacks with working with television rather than live performances?
There's no contradiction. What I had in mind for opera for television is actually live performance that would be treated as a live event in the same way that a baseball or football game is. I don't mean it as a documentary like 'Live From Lincoln Center' with pictures of people on stage. I meant treating it as a live television event. It just hasn't happened but it's technologically possible and I'm sure that it'll happen eventually.
PSF: What about idea of your work as theatre pieces?
Everything I've done for the last twenty years in television format. They're all timed in the way that they can be broken up as television pieces. I build them so that they could be live television pieces. In the meantime, you have to perform them and do something. So we tour with them a lot as performance pieces. We do them on stage, just like you do everything on stage with lighting and costume. But those performances are made for the stage. The costumes and lighting is designed for the stage. But the music is still constructed so that it can be a television program. That requires that some television producer takes that musical form and say 'let's make a program out of this.' Then it would be redesigned. There'd be a new way of looking at it because you'd be looking at it through cameras instead of sitting two hundred feet away in a theatre.
PSF: A lot of modern composers have different ensembles do their pieces. You've almost always been involved in the performances of your work. Why do chose to work that way?
I've almost always written for my own ensembles from the ONCE group to right now. I've always had my own ensemble of people that I work with all the time and understand my work and that I don't have to explain things to them. It's not that the work is complicated but I've been interested in going around the convention of writting things down on paper and having people read it and they learn it and so on. In the way that I work with my singers, we have a kind of special set of ways of studying and learning the music that are not in the traditional notation and not produced in convetional, old-fashioned ways.
PSF: I read an interesting quote that you had about your work. You said that you didn't see any of the characters in your work as being heroic.
I don't think there's any heroism anymore. The heroism has to be created out of the medium itself. Going back to the idea of television, all the current heros are sports heros because the medium creates the heros. There's nothing essentially heroic about being a good pitcher. I just don't think there's any possibility of creating a heroic character without the co-operation of the medium that you're making it in. In the nineteenth century, you could create heroic characters on stage because that was the medium for the opera. Now, I think that in order to get a hero, that hero has to be created by the medium that you're working in. I don't think it's possible to make the hero on stage anymore. That's out-dated and literally impossible. There are heros in pop music but I don't think there's anything 'heroic' about them. They're prominent and celebrated but in the kind of music I'm interested in, the story is rather complicated and it uses a lot of people to tell it. The idea of the story is not to create a hero. It doesn't focus on one person on stage.
PSF: What is the idea for them then?
I use the medium and the all the techniques of television to bring out the aspects of a character for a particular piece or even just one act of a piece. You bring that character forward. You can't do that on stage. It doesn't suffice anymore just to have the person walk downstage and address the audience. It's very easy to do on television. For instance, right now, a lot of people are watching baseball on TV and they're paying a lot of attention to the pitchers. That doesn't make the pitchers more important than anybody else. We just pay a lot of attention to him and that makes the pitcher 'heroic.' That's just where the attention goes, where the camera goes. It's just a matter of what you do with the medium.
PSF: Do you like to use any kind of special techniques with your singer?
I like a very close-up take on the pitch inflections of the singing. I like to hear a very subtle kind of selection of pitches that is possible by using microphone techniques. It seems to me that it's very good for the English language. English sounds better than way than when you try to adapt it to the old-fashioned opera style. I think it's peculiar that the English language that we hear on television is so lively compared to trying to set English to a contemporary operatic orchestration.
PSF: You try to go to go for a more naturalistic approach with your work then?
I don't think any of the singers think it's natural. It's a matter of restricting the pitches. It's like a close-up of pitch changes so that the microphone becomes a kind of close-up version of singing as opposed to a wider (selection) of what you're hear at the Met.
PSF: What's your thoughts on other modern composers who do operas like Philip Glass, John Adams, Meredith Monk and Robert Wilson?
I don't want to criticize anybody's work. I think it's been very good for the music scene that more and more people are getting attention for their work. It just reinforces what I said about the audience and the people at large want to hear something contemporary. Anything you've got to offer is probably more interesting than going to the museum.
PSF: Laurie Anderson's multi-media work seems to be influenced by what you've been doing. Any thoughts on her work?
Older people always influence younger people, that's one thing. On her side, since I'd been doing it since the '60s, everybody gave me credit for it. A lot of people were becoming interested in multi-media. People just get interested in something for reasons that they don't even understand themselves. However, I do take credit for doing this early on.
'Multi-media' doesn't really have a meaning though. At the time, there were people working in video art, doing amazing things. There were people working on audio design, like designing sythesizers. Those people knew each other and worked together. For me, it was natural- as soon as I could get my hands on a camera, I wanted to put it in my pieces. I think that 'multi-media' became kind of a journalist term for something that was much more complicated. It was shared by a lot of people. I happen to be one of the first people to do it because I was older. (laughs)
PSF: With your work, you use theatre, music and video all together. You think that it suited you to melding these together?
I've always thought of my work as opera. I recognize that it's not 'traditional' opera. I thought my goal in music was to tell stories. I thought of myself as an opera composer, so I put something in front of people to see. That's what opera is. Opera is some sort of musical drama. That automatically means that you incorporate whatever visual elements you can and whatever staging elements you can and whatever narrative elements you can. That's been my life-long interest. Many of my favorite composers are not interested in that at all- they're interested in music that's much more abstract and it doesn't have ANY visual elements or word elements. That's just been my work- opera.
PSF: You said that you don't do traditional opera. What do think of that tradition that goes back centuries?
I admire European opera whenever the composer has made music that matches the language. I was always disappointed in American opera because the composers were, except for Rodgers and Hammerstein, trying to work in larger scales where they were relying too much on European musical traditions. English doesn't work that way. My job has been to invent a kind of music that matches the English language. In the simplest terms, you have to allow the English to be sung faster- English doesn't sound good when it's slowed down to pretend-to-be-Italian or pretend-to-be-German. In order for the beauties of the English language to come out, you have to make a musical, instrumental style that allows the singing style to be fast.
PSF: Do you find there's metaphors in your work where relationships between people are political commentaries?
I don't think so. I think that anything you do can be taken as a metaphor for a political or social situation. I don't start from that point of view. I start from the poetry of the language. I start from the question of how this character speaks and communicates with other people. Then the characters are as different as any five people in a room. I start with the point of view of a novelist. First, you have to find out who the character is that you're writing about and then the character sort of takes over. If you're loyal to the character, you can't really predict how the novel is going to come out. You'll let the character have his or her say. I'm mainly interested in the characteristics of speech and how a certain character expresses himself or herself.
PSF: You think it's a psychological study then?
It's purely a study in narrative technique. I don't think that it's smart to think of speech styles as having psychological meaning. You could always do that and find psychological meaning. From the point of view of the language, you're interested in something that's much more deeper and fundamental. It has to do with the way people express themselves.
PSF: The tone of your work seems to be philosophical.
I think that when you start doing opera, the characters have to say something. There's not an easy relationship between a character and action. You can't sing and jump off a stage at the same time or drive a car. You can't do things when you're singing that you can do when you're acting or in the movies. Your action is very restricted when you're using your voice. The character becomes more verbal, more philosophical and meditative. You can't just duck and shoot someone every five minutes- that just doesn't work in opera.
PSF: I've thought that your work has a bemused quality to it. You think that's fair?
Yes, that's very fair. The characters are sort of light-hearted. I think all of them are.
PSF: In the notes to Automatic Writing (1979), you said that you were depressed at that time because 'the world wasn't interested in the kind of music I was interested in.' Do you think that's changed now?
Well, it hasn't changed enough. It's changing gradually. I think it's inevitable that contemporary music becomes the music of our time. There's been a long period in American concert music (say, the last hundred years) where the orchestra or the opera companies were very nostalgic about where they came from as immigrants. We've had a lot of looking back at Europe. I think if orchestras don't want to just fade away, there can't be very many successful orchestral museums where they keep playing the old music. Basically if you want to have an orchestra in any place in the United States, they're going to have to play contemporary music in order to get a contemporary audience. I don't think the audiences are interested in that repertoire anymore. They were maybe fifty years ago for historical reasons or whatever but I don't think they're interested anymore. I just think that orchestras and opera companies going to have to face the fact that people want something that's contemporary. When Beethoven and Verdi made their music when they were alive, the audience was there for them and the orchestras played their music. It's inevitable that it'll happen again unless the orchestras just fold up and go away. I think it's inevitable that they'll start playing contemporary music because the audience wants it.
PSF: David Behrman quoted you as saying that you felt disappointed with your work if you didn't have the audience leave. Is that saying you want to get a rise out of people?
(laughs) I think we were saying that as a joke. I think what we were talking about was the idea that composers, young composers feel they have to write pop-type music in order to appeal to the audience. It's not a one way street. It's not like the composer is supposed to be making a consumer product. There has to be an interaction between the composer and the audience. If that happens, then part of that is that somebody is bound to dislike it. I've had this experience my whole life. Some people don't like it and other people think it's the greatest thing that's ever happened to them. I think that's part of the dialog between the composer and the audience. What the joke was is that if nobody walks out, then they're just there for some other reason. If you actually get an audience involved in the music, you're going to get people who don't like it as much as you're going to get people who think it's the greatest thing that ever was.
See Robert's favorite music
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