Music

In His Final Opera, a Composer Presents a Divided Self-Portrait

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Robert Ashley’s ‘Crash’ at Roulette (all photos by Paula Court)

The late composer Robert Ashley (1930–2014) produced some of the most difficult music of the 20th century — and now also of the 21st. Ashley’s final opera, Crash (2014), a work completed posthumously, had its second public performance last Thursday at Roulette in Brooklyn (following a premiere at the 2014 Whitney Biennial). The experimental opera, while difficult musically, is most challenging psychologically, as it traces the composer’s memories, both pleasant and painful, up until his death. The experience was disturbingly meditative and rife with the palpable anxiety of an aging musician.

Crash is written for six voices and divided into six sections. Unlike traditional opera, there is no orchestral accompaniment; the music is completely vocal. At Roulette, the performers sung before a backdrop of three asynchronous digital projections showing photographs of landscapes, abandoned human architecture, and scenes of industrial infrastructure — images that had no direct connection to the opera. Ashley included the scored photographs (by Philip Makanna) to “allow the audience to hear the singing and the texts without typical visual distractions, creating an ideal situation for a special kind of meditation.” While the photographs provided no specific connotations to the composer or the opera itself, their simplicity did release Ashley from the set design tribulations that plague traditional narrative opera — one did not feel distracted by illusionistic scenery or failed set changes. Furthermore, each performer sat still throughout the evening, singing from his or her own spotlit desk rather than moving decorously around the stage.

The performance is divided into a series of solo performances, each sung over a continual, murmuring harmonic base provided by a chorus of three vocalists. The chorus summarizes the libretto, but combined no one voice overpowers another, resulting in a rhythmic wash of unintelligible speech patterns. Meanwhile, each singer from the soloist group reads through the libretto, which itself is divided into three voices, or characters. The first offers casual musings on religion, philosophy, cultural history, and the reality of living with good and bad neighbors; cool and detached, “as if speaking on the telephone,” the character ends each sentence with the simple affirmation: “… yeah.” The second character offers a less structured persona, seemingly doped-up or sedated, and provides rather lethargic, abstruse commentary on metaphysics and perspective accentuated by flares of digital reverb and echo. The voices are foils to each other, and are meant to embody conflicting aspects of the composer’s sense of self: one rational, the other speculative.

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Dave Ruder performing Robert Ashley’s ‘Crash’ at Roulette (click to enlarge)

The third character exists somewhere between the first and second, exhibiting self-awareness without confidence, existing in a lucid but anxious state. This voice delivers matter-of-fact biographical information, often deeply personal, and runs through each year of Ashley’s life (ages 1–83). This character is the clearest embodiment of Ashley as a person, and is easily the most affective of the three. It’s the voice that carries much of the opera’s narrative and dramatic weight. In a confessional tone, the character offers numerous anecdotes — e.g., the composer’s first sip of coffee, the details of failed relationships, and the advantages and disadvantages of a career in avant-garde music — and speaks with what the program refers to as “an unnoticeable vocal tic, a kind of rarely heard stutter.” This tic is particularly exaggerated when the character relates moments of emotional distress, professional disappointment, and deep-seated melancholy. Notably, Ashley struggled with stuttering, a subject broached by the third voice when discussing childhood education and instructions to “speak slowly,” a technique used liberally in the languid demeanor of the second character.

Musically, the opera is a feat of endurance for both listeners and performers, more so for its formal eccentricities than its length. Each voice is performed in what we might call an affected sprechstimme, a vocal technique where the recitation of a libretto (text) is delivered in a style somewhere between speaking and singing. While sprechstimme has been used in opera for a century, Ashley’s adaption of the technique is both immediately recognizable and uniquely challenging. Listening to the atonal, quivering sung speech of the score can be a difficult experience, but it is one that becomes naturalized as each section passes, in part because the rhythmic and harmonic mantra from the chorus provides a steady, continuous sonic ground.

The strangeness of the sprechstimme technique is especially felt in the libretto: the onslaught of memories, emotions, and ideas are voiced through a deliberately stilted frame, one that continuously shifts between the voices of each performer, resulting in an uneasiness of comprehension and meaning. Despite their continuity of source (the life of Robert Ashley) the characters each have specific formal characteristics that are unique in tonality, timbre, tempo, and rhythm — only the voices embodying each state of mind are not limited to one singer. Groups shift between soloist and chorus roles, and the subset of three soloists also swap characters, meaning that each performer portrays all three characters by the end of the opera.

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Robert Ashley’s ‘Crash’ at Roulette

The contrast of conflicting characters, performers, and voice technique is the basis of Crash’s musical structure, alongside the unfolding of a modular system (calling to mind minimalist music and process art). The multiple voices provide an interesting portrait of the composer, one that is conspicuously fractured, even out of grasp, reflecting the reality that we all show different sides of ourselves throughout our lives. However, the diverse vocal styles simultaneously highlighted disparities in the performance, especially in the third character: the scoring of stuttering and verbal tics, vocalizations that are unintentional if not entirely uncontrollable, were at times noticeably awkward or forced.

Nonetheless, the opera highlights the incredibly rich poetic tongue of the composer, who not only composed the music but also the libretto (traditional operas often split the role between composer and librettist). Introspection reigns in this confessional work, where characters repeatedly offer errant observations such as, “The ruins of ambition are everywhere” and “Poverty is how you become an artist.” The conflict of artistic ambition and economic hardship is a recurring theme pulled from Ashley’s own biography, as is the uniquely collective, collaborative structure of music: “Painters do their art alone, not like musicians.”

Indeed, this last reflection points toward the core theme of Crash: the constant and unforgiving realities and pressures of existing — both alone and in a community. (This duality is mirrored by the musical juxtaposition of clear soloists and a muddled chorus in the score.) The anxieties of social interaction, relationships, and professional endeavors pervade the opera: as the third character laments, memories of ‘crashing’ into others reveal a “fear of speaking [and] a fear of just being.” Crash is a poignant final work through which we encounter the memories of Ashley, as well as the complications of his artistic legacy.

Robert Ashley’s Crash ran at Roulette (509 Atlantic Avenue, Downtown Brooklyn) April 15–18.  

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