Robert Ashley (1930–2014)

Robert Ashley.

But among the friends it’s just like we are right
next to each other all the time.
I can hear everything.
I can hear them singing.
I can hear them telling their stories to get the stories right.
You have to tell a story many times to get it right.
At first the parts don’t go together right.
It doesn’t say what a story is supposed to say.
So you have to keep practicing on it.
You have to get it right, so that it says
what you know it says, but it doesn’t say yet.
Keep practicing.
Move this part. Move that part.
Take out this part. Take out that part.
Remember something that wasn’t there when you started.
Add a little something here and there, maybe not even true,
to give it a little local color.

—Robert Ashley, Dust, 1998; lines 227-244

IN ROBERT ASHLEY’S OPERAS, the characters rant, chant, curse, and croon at the edges of the liminal; they tell other people’s stories as their own, sing stories in unison, interrogate each other, interrupt, and then back each other up. Ashley and his band are always singing, but they sometimes give the illusion that what they are doing is just some variety of speech. Illusion is the important part.

In Ashley’s vision of television opera (fully realized with the Channel Four production of Perfect Lives in 1983), the camera moves through what Ashley referred to as an “impossible landscape” opening onto an “intimate immensity” of spaces and temporalities for the seated viewer. We travel through imaginary landscapes that we could not otherwise pass through, and we reconstruct these landscapes in our imaginations as we receive them, allowing for a new manner of composing—not just stories, but music.

As John Cage wrote in Silence (1961):

My intention in putting the stories together in an unplanned way was to suggest that all things—stories, incidental sounds from the environment, and, by extension, beings—are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not over-simplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.

We can’t really say that nothing was ever “unplanned” in Ashley’s stories, but the notion that “all stories, sounds, and beings are related and part of the same complexity” is certainly a quality of Ashley’s work. Like Cage, Ashley was a master of structure. What may sound simple to the ear is based on intricate numeric and/or metric relationships that determine the breakdown of lines and the distribution of parts among singers. These same numeric structures often determine overall structures of the acts and even the templates for a piece’s visual elements.

Ashley’s musical structures are perceptible to the listener and when we catch on to them, they can make us aware of relationships outside of our mind and make prescient our relationship to our own listening through the listening of others. We discover new ways of listening alongside as we engage with his operas. If we, as performers, listeners, or readers, sit together and read his words from a book or a score, we can get even closer to the workings of the songs in ways that a lot of other music—or experiences of reading together for that matter—cannot.

Music reminds us that what enters our memory comes from another’s memory. There is no thought without memory. All thoughts are a kind of remembering in some way, and music is the way that we can tell a lot of stories—sometimes all at the same time—and transplant these stories into the minds of others. We may not be able to tell back the story of any of Ashley’s operas but we can sing whole phrases and get stuck on the beauty of the differences in the way the words sound to us after hearing him sing them.

Ashley believed that music wasn’t fundamentally about sound, but about the presence of people. As a practice in being present, it is a truly remarkable sensorial opening to the world. Music is a way of being together, a way of thinking, a way of telling stories, a way of remembering, and a way of passing things on. Music and speech can produce ways of being in time and outside of time with one another.

Being in time is where our voices and our stories are in harmony with each other. Being outside of time can occur while we are still in time. It happens when the rhythmic patterns produced by the voices or the musical accompaniment produce drones or circular times that make the stories seem to lift off the page, bringing us into the memories of the singers and the listeners simultaneously. That is Bob’s great gift to us. He asks us to imagine another way of being together and gives us a new way of remembering what we thought we already knew.

Alex Waterman is an artist and musician based in New York.