PRINT April 2019



Robert Ashley, Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), 1985. Performance view, the Kitchen, New York, February 6, 2019. Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, and Amirtha Kidambi. Photo: Al Foote III.

OPERA, CHARLES ROSEN ONCE WROTE, is governed by “the expectation of essential lunacy.” Its unrepentant feeling, its curling decor, its warbling inheritances, all these gilded artifacts of empire seem so far from the word’s Latin root, opus, which translates to “work,” that favorite American religion.

The late operas of Michigan-born composer Robert Ashley (1930–2014) are staged with a dignified efficiency that seems at once to point backward to this etymology and to push the genre forward into the twentieth century. To begin a new presentation of Ashley’s 1985 Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) this past February at the Kitchen, six performers—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—walked briskly onstage and took their seats at identical black desks, as if clocking in for a nine-to-five job. The men wore ties, the women gauzy blouses. An actuarial confidence hovered.

Ashley was a giant in the world of experimental music, yet the full significance of his legacy has remained recalcitrant, his pairing of laborious formal rigor with a grizzled eccentricity a tough swallow. Ever attentive to technology, and with a keen interest in television, Ashley wrote Improvement with the express intention of its being recorded. Nonetheless, a live performance came first, in 1991, with an album following in 1992. Regarding Ashley’s innovations, his phrase “speech as music” is the common refrain, though this expression could also be applied to the operatic form itself. Accentuating the diphthong and the indurated a particular to English as it is often spoken in the United States, Ashley’s composition has much of the dialogue sung in counterpoint, and with overlapping sequences that strain the audience’s capacity to direct their listening. Careful attention is rewarded, however: His use of language is rarely as “ordinary” as it is sometimes designated. Few speak as beautifully as Ashley’s characters, who refer to “little injections of regret” or, when wistfully describing the conversational faculties of a lover, confess, “I got drunk on the abundance.”

Facing us, the performers were connected not by an imagined veil delimiting the audience’s world from theirs, but instead by tiny monitors, the name of which is delicious for its oily vowel sounds and bludgeoning description: in-ear. The six sang for eighty-eight minutes, during which time they addressed, but never looked at, one another. They remained at their stations, without rising, for the performance’s duration. Behind them, a lit backdrop by David Moodey sketched a mountainous horizon line; the changing hue of that landscape’s sky—from teal to violet to tangerine—registered, like a mood ring, the narrative’s subtle shifts.

An immense task was before the performers, who synchronized their diaphragms and larynxes and lips to the metronome’s tick, as if a finger pulsing on the tympanum. They counted three to four beats per line, seventy-two beats per minute, all perfectly divided from a 6,336-beat template. In the composition, order reigns.

Robert Ashley, Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), 1985. Performance view, Carey Playhouse, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, November 16, 1994. Sam Ashley, Adam Klein, Joan La Barbara, and Jacqueline Humbert. Photo: Dan Rest.

But in the libretto, weirdness rattles. Don (McCorkle) leaves Linda (Bell), and, as the chorus trills early on, “leaves is certainly the word.” He peels away while she is in the toilet at a roadside rest stop. (The opera’s setting is stubbornly, unglamorously American.) She hitches a ride to the airport, fakes her name, moves to an unspecified city, changes her life. She meets a man, meets his mother, has a son, plays bridge, remembers and misremembers.

A man leaving is a hero; a woman left is a tragedy. This narrative convention is one of opera’s oldest. Sowed in gerunds and past participles, agency would seem to flourish or curdle, but Improvement’s action betrays Ashley’s title: It is Linda who is left, yet it is her story and, ultimately, her show. The motor propelling the opera and its wisps of poetry is an immodest allegory: Don represents Spain in 1492, the year of the Alhambra Decree, which exiled Jewish people from the empire, and Linda those who were so violently displaced. What is allegory’s function here, and how does it tinge the mundane scenes at an airline ticket counter, of long discussions of pasta, tap dancing, golf? As Ashley’s stage directions admit, “Every point seems to portend more than can be justified.”

Bell was not the typical concupiscent diva. Instead, she juxtaposed her extraordinary vocal command and doe eyes with the conspiratorial raising of her brows and a slight downturn of her mouth. As the composer described Linda, “A sense of self satisfaction, given off, follows everything she does.” Bell gave no indication of the cumbrous vocal task before her. I did not see her sip from her glass of water until late in the second act.

A man leaving is a hero; a woman left is a tragedy.

On the 1992 recording of Improvement, the voices (of Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Adam Klein, Joan La Barbara, and Amy X Neuburg) are irradiated with the crackles and chirps of reedy synthesizers; the instrumentals and vocals are entwined. For the iteration at the Kitchen, music director Tom Hamilton re-created the sonic landscape to impressive effect, lifting the vocal levels above the backing track’s cool plinks and murmurs. The score offers the performers pitch assignments and words, leaving all else open to their interpretation. Bell’s voice was more resonant, silkier, than Humbert’s, which is mineral, clean, and strange on the recording. Contrasting angular patters with rounder lilts, Bell luxuriated in her elongation of syllables drawing them out like a lounge singer’s knowing coos.

Improvement is the first part of Ashley’s Now Eleanor’s Idea tetralogy (1985–94), which theories of consciousness permeate. Drawing from Frances A. Yates’s The Art of Memory (1966) and Giordano Bruno’s philosophy of mnemonics, Improvement thematizes reminiscence. Yet the act of retracing opens onto the ways that an individual not only recalls information but also unintentionally reenacts that which precedes her. As the father of the Unimportant Family, who picks her up and drives her from the rest stop to the airport, tells Linda, with his clipped, alien syntax: “You are convinced of your uniqueness. What has befallen you has befallen you alone. Is this not true? Let me tell you, you are wrong.”

Uncanny repetitions intrude: Don’s initial abandonment of Linda climaxes at an airline ticket counter, where he is questioned by a customer-service representative (in a kind of Inquisition); soon after, Linda has that same conversation in that same location. Particularly effective were the role reversals of Bell and McCorkle, each appearing as the representative who grills the other: Why did Don desert her? Slowly, the reason—another person—emerges. Both are asked, “Is that person a woman?” There’s a grim humor in the way Linda, echoing Don’s earlier reply, responds with a ringing “Yes.”

After Don leaves Linda, he also vanishes from the opera itself. We do not hear from him again, though late in the production Linda thinks that she perhaps glimpses him. Much of the libretto is written as “interrogation dialogue”; Ashley developed this compositional device in his 1968 The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity. In Improvement, Linda is always made to explain herself, to answer. She is asked to account for the contents of her purse by her new lover, Mr. Payne (McCorkle), who memorizes them to win kisses; for the contents of her body, by an unnamed Companion (also McCorkle); and, more than once, for the contents of her mind. First she shares her reaction to her husband’s leaving, then a dream, and finally her memories.

In a section titled “The Good Life,” our unruly heroine catalogues everything she consumes over the course of a day: toothpaste, tea, cigarettes (both tobacco and marijuana), lettuce laced with some kind of oil. There was something deluxe in Bell’s purred articulation of “little bit of c-oh-caine,” an admission that was also an enjoinment. During this audit of her ingestions, Linda also asks, “What about the smells?” and, “What about the pictures?” She wants to include the newspaper she reads in her inventory, with its “headlines, pictures, astrology, recipes with guilt.” These passages seem tuned to the poststructuralist revelations that selfhood is not just that which sprouts from one’s inner being, but rather constituted by what seeps in from the outside.

Such an approach to character marks, to my mind, Ashley’s most radical departure from operatic convention, about which Wayne Koestenbaum has illuminated the queer pleasures and Catherine Clément the hazards. For Clément, opera relies on a woman punished: dead, domesticated, or otherwise undone. Instead of devo punirmi, se troppo amai, Linda describes how she has “driven my husband from me by my complacency and my indifference.” Moreover, she wins the lottery. She neither loved too much, nor was she penalized for doing so. Thus, the titular “improvement” is perhaps not of the protagonist’s “inner” self—her skills, her wisdom, her emotional maturity—but rather of the structural, material conditions of her life. Linda’s story is more picaresque than plot driven, filled with unhappy contingencies but also felicitous encounters. Toward the conclusion, the chorus, narrating in unison, cautions that “what follows is a record of rewards without sweetness.” There’s nothing saccharine about Ashley’s work; instead, it is something at once mouthwatering and hard to digest. Words are held in place by the strictures of composition, with morsels of sound splayed out and suspended like hunks of meat floating in aspic, the din of existence treated delicately and experienced obliquely through molded form—at once firm, sliceable, and lucent. 

Catherine Damman is an art historian and an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Humanities in Middletown, CT.