Scientific Method

Madam, my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.

Robert Ashley does not exist. He is a character William S. Burroughs invented in Tangier in 1955, the throb of a raw nerve in the fever dream of Demerol's backwater. First appeared as a footnote in Otto Rank's The Trauma of Birth. Is seen in several cameos for Luis Buñuel. Signature scribbled on the back of Derrida's Post Card. Named as coauthor of highly classified government manuals. Later, "Robert Ashley" serves as docent in a remote section of the Atrocity Exhibition.

This is what I suspect anyway.

His bio drops dubious hints. Ashley, Robert -- Born: 1930, Ann Arbor, Michigan. School: University of Michigan; Manhattan School of Music. Work: Speech Research Laboratories; research assistant in acoustics -- Architectural Research Laboratory; director of the Center for Contemporary Music -- Mills College, Oakland, California.

But the dead giveaway that Robert Ashley's life and career is a fabrication -- the result of a postmodern conspiracy -- are the operas he composed from the early 1960s to the present.

To continue I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate.

Gone are the traditional vocal inflections crafted for the romantic characters of European opera. The performers of Ashley's work deliver their lines in long tones that vary only slightly, but conspicuously, within each singer's natural speaking range. The music is studied and precise, reflecting an ear for subtle detail that is almost scientific. In fact it is scientific: Before pursuing a career as a composer, Ashley studied psycho-acoustics and cultural speech patterns at the Speech Research Laboratories of the University of Michigan.

The composer recalls his three years of scientific work with slightly mad glee. "My mentor, the guy in charge of my program, had done a very sophisticated experiment where he could demonstrate that he could make people stutter," he laughs. "Their job was to make artificial speech. But it gave me access to all these analytic machines, tools, so I could see what the sound of speech was like. That's very important. I can't put my finger on it, but I know where the formats are for different kinds of vowels and that kind of stuff. I thought for a moment that I might become a scientist, and then I decided at the last minute that I wouldn't."

We live in a nearby town with telephones, radios, airplanes, the works, and there, burdened with “the works,' we have a hard time seeing.

For Ashley, inobtrusive form is ideal for the delivery of thought-provoking content. He eschews the romantic plots of traditional opera to plumb the depths of the psyche, sculpting a vast landscape of surreal concepts, storylines, and characters. Sometimes shocking in their intensity, the operas can range from poetic transcendence to humorous everyday experience.

In the episode "Au Pair" from the opera Atalanta (Acts of God), principal singer Jacqueline Humbert tells tales drawn from the lives of the European girls caring for wealthy American kids in the singer's own neighborhood. "She told me very funny stories about au pairs, and so I said, “Why don't you write those down,'" says Ashley in his cool, measured voice. "I put another character in as sort of a chorus, and then we edited that together and did a studio recording."

Is there an advantage to this way of life in which pasta is eaten at every meal?

"Au Pair" and "Empire," another episode from Atalanta, will be performed as part of the Subtropics Experimental Music Festival. The festival will also premiere a new version of "Foreign Experiences," the second episode in Ashley's opera Now Eleanor's Idea -- rewritten for two voices by the composer's son Sam Ashley. All three performances will feature singer Humbert accompanied by both Ashleys. In fact all of Robert Ashley's operas feature the same ensemble of principal singers: Humbert, Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, and Joan La Barbara.

"Oh yeah, it's my -- pardon the expression -- my 'style,' which is something that has to be learned," Ashley explains. "It's not typical, I mean it's not European-opera style, it's not pop music, and it's not Broadway. So once I've worked with these people for a few years, they become so good at it, you know, it takes a long time for somebody to learn how to do this. They become mainstays, in my imagination too. In other words the opera that I'm starting on now uses those same four people. And after ten or twelve years, I know what they sound like, I know what they can do, I know what their range is, that kind of thing. So it's like having an instrument you get to learn."

Celebrities continue to die of disappointment. The very poor continue to die of hunger. The unrecognized continue to die of striving. And in the meantime, as if in a dream, the parties go on almost nightly in the city.

As there is no unique style or tradition of opera in this country, Ashley's work is sometimes considered a perfect representation of American opera. But like all avant-gardeists in their day, from Charles Ives to Harry Partch and John Cage, his oeuvre has hardly been embraced by the mainstream. The greatest appreciation for his operas comes from Europe, while ironically American opera companies continue to feature the European classics almost exclusively.

"Most composers," he says, "if they're interested in opera at all, get their own ensemble together and they make a new kind of opera based upon that ensemble. I mean that's true of me and Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It's a practical necessity that you can't wait for five or ten years to get another performance."

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John Anderson