Everything is Opera
Robert Ashley and Peter Gena
© 1985 by Peter Gena. Published in Formations, No. 4 (Spring, 1985).
The following conversation took place before dinner on April 15, 1984, in Robert Ashleys New York loft.
PETER GENA. Bob, most of your work, dating back to Wolfman, She Was a Visitor, and Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon, dealt with text; so its no surprise to see texts in your recent music. In the beginning, at least, it appears that the text in many pieces was employed chiefly as a sonic object. What differences are there in the way you used text then and now?
ROBERT ASHLEY. First I would have to say that I didnt realize myself how much my work was involved with text until I'd been composing for fifteen years. I think its because there is almost no opportunity or tradition in American contemporary music for opera. There is no incentive to the young composer to think of work that is essentially dramatic music, because we dont produce that work in the U.S. and theres no tradition for it. When I was studying music and up until very recently, there was a prejudice against such works. Music was thought to reach its perfection in abstract forms. We were taught, I believe, that the symphony and the big abstract forms were the perfection of music, and so if you have a personal tendency, as I do, towards dramatic music, its pretty hard to recognize that tendency and sort it out in the American tradition. I think Ive always been an opera composer. I was involved with dramatic music for the first ten or fifteen years of my career, but it was very much an unfocused talent. I did write two operas in the sixties, both used extensive texts. The first was In Memoriam Kit Carson in 1963, and the other was That Morning Thing in 1967, out of which came She Was a Visitor, and Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon they were both episodes of That Morning Thing. But I still felt with those two pieces that I was swimming upstream. I think that the general tendency, especially then, was that dramatic music could never aspire to the sublimity or the perfection of instrumental music.
PG. Morty Feldman said about the fifties that he and John Cage were the only ones composing music because they were writing for the sake of the sound. It was totally abstract, and there was no literary imagery, though I find it hard to listen to their music without perceiving some visual counterpart. At that time, the text was thought of as detracting from the music. Of course John uses text, but in a much different way.
RA. Yes of course. Now everybody is writing operawhich is good.
PG. The difference is that while John sees the text as musical material, in your works, even though your reading makes the sound of the text beautiful in itself, the meaning of the words is crucial. Yours is not a stream of consciousness approach.
RA. Well, without being critical of Johns work, I think that his use of words has always been drawn toward his involvement with abstract formulas. When you use words the first thing that you have to deal with, of course, is what they mean. There are plenty of examples in Johns work where the meaning of the words is important. But in general I think that he is more involved with abstract formulas or patterns than I am. Now, everybody is recognizing that opera or dramatic music is perhaps the most characteristically American serious music. It is the most important characteristic of that genre of music that has appeared in America.
PG. Also, it seems that in order to evoke a realistic response in a listener or viewer you have to work with realistic images, and the concept of tonality is connected to that.
RA. That is a complicated problem for me. But yes it is right now, historically.
PG. You said in 1981, about Perfect Lives that the imaging of auralas distinct from tonalcomprehension is the condition of déjà vu, or time confusion. The effect gets watered down, but can be prolonged better, as aural patterns are more specifically tonal. With your subject matter, it must be second nature to set the text this way musically.
RA. I dont know if thats true. I know that in Perfect Lives I was dealing with tonal materials in the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the instrumental music because I wanted the character of the piano player to be fluent with tonal materials. In other words, I accepted whatever went along with the meaning of tonality because the principal reason was that I wanted to Blue Gene (Tyranny) as a piano player. So, I accepted his character. And the other part of it was that I wanted to use, and I am still interested in using, the idea of the very complicated, even computerized, domestic organ because it has a specific kind of image meaning. I would imagine that whatever pieces follow this set of three worksPerfect Lives, Atalanta, and Now Eleanors Ideadont necessarily have to be tonal. It is not a given, I have nothing against other kinds of music; its just that in order to do an opera you have to deal with the characters and you have to take the characters for what they are in the larger sense. So that requirement takes precedence over other considerations.
PG. Yes, with that particular kind of organ there is a certain iconography. The idea of forearm-clusters, for example, doesnt belong to the character of the organ.
RA. No, the meaning of the patterns that the organ generates is very obvious, and thats the meaning I wanted. I wanted people to feel that characteristic.
PG. So, the character of the music is obviously inseparable from that of the performer and instrument. You would not use a person like "Blue" Gene to play bloop-bleep type music.
RA. Well, the thing is that to place the character in the workas the piano player in the piano loungedoesnt rule out that you could accept kinds of piano-playing that are uncharacteristic of the piano lounge, but that difference has to be built into every other aspect of the music. In other words, you have made the lounge into a different place than people expect it to be, so then you have to recharacterize the whole situation.
PG. Right, the contextual aspect is quite significant. Now that you've also moved more into the visual field by using video and staging in your recent works, how do you feel new mixed-media work, or performance art, differs from the mixed-media of the sixties? Also, what do you think you, as a composer, bring to this type of work?
RA. Well, the important thing about me answering the question is that I had as my main goal, when I started working on Music With Roots in the Aetherand from there into Perfect Livesthat the theater of the music would be television. So, because of my background as a composer and because of the nature of the way large-scale music has to be developed, Ive had to make, effectively, two versions of each piece. There is the stage version and theres the television version, and those two versions are very different from each other for technological reasons. I dont think of what happens on stage as a performance-art type of piece, if I understand the definition of performance art. It doesnt seem that it has any of those characteristics, and its probably no more mixed-media than opera has always been. One tries to illustrate the imagery of the opera however one can. And since I dont have at my disposal big, semi-permanent repertory stages, then, in a sense, Im always doing opera as if its on the road. So, the most effective and efficient way for me to be able to illustrate the imagery of the piece is to do it with television equipment. Its not so much the television imagery, but what the audience sees is the operation of some sort of recording medium in the presence of the piece. The theater is not just that you see the pictures, its also that you see the camera persons and all the equipment that goes with the recording. Of course, I dont know what would become of my work, or your work, or anybodys work if there were large-scale, mixed-media opportunities available to us, but there arent. We have neither traditional concert stages or opera states, nor do we have the equivalent of a rock and roll show, with television projection and all that stuff. So, we are working with very simple materials, and we have to do the best that we can with those materials.
PG. One of the many striking features of your work is that you are able to do all of those thingsconstructing a temporal and spatial sense that works. A problem with a lot of performance artists, with few exceptions in my opinion, is that when they do performancewhich adds the temporal parameterthere appears to be a real weakness with time progression, however good the visual material is. I dont mean that there should be a classic kind of structure, but there seems to be little success at transforming the visual sense into time temporalizing space, if you will. Being a composer, of course, you have always brought with you the advantage of working with time; but on the other hand, composers very often fail in using space. Remember all of those percussion pieces in the sixties, where a battery of percussion instruments surrounded the player and stage? The player would usually walk over from one instrument to another with little or no sense of choreography, hence no awareness of the use of space. Do you find that theres an advantage in being able to move to the spatial aspect from the temporal one?
RA. I think that if you find a weakness in some art materials, its because the artist didnt have materials to work with that are resonant enough or that are sophisticated enough to allow the thing to develop in the course of working with the piece. When the composer is working with music, he or she is working with something that is fathomless. You could go in any one of thousands of directions. I think that the visual artists, or the people that come into time-art through some sort of visual background, cant possibly have had the experience that weve had with all of the problems of dealing with time. They have to approach it from the point of view of a relatively primitive experience. It would be exactly the same if I decided that I was going to design and paint my own sets.
PG. Or organize your own space.
RA. In other words, you can only be as strong as your experience in those things.
PG. What also strikes me about your work is that the timing is so good! We just listened to the chorus in Atalanta, for example.
RA. Thats particularly a composers approach. The choice is specifically a musical metaphor for the idea of the golden apples. In the myth of Atalanta, Atalanta is running a race with this guy who is not as fast as she is, so he distracts her and slows her down by dropping these objects in her path so that she has to stop and pick them up. The chorales that come every three minutes in Atalanta are unembarrassedly a simile for that idea. In other words, the musicians start running, as it were. We get very involved in the musical pace of the thing, and it becomes the norm. Then the chorale comes in and its a distraction for the audiencejust like the golden apples. It interrupts that musical flow.
PG. Yes, ones perception stops dead in its tracks.
RA. It has to.
PG. But the beauty of it also, from watching your tape, is that the visual aspect is strong enough and doesnt simply serve as an accompaniment to the sound.
RA. Well you see, whats important, I think, is that I dont try to do that myself. My calling or skill as an opera composer is that I can conceptualize what the relationship is between the pictures and the music to a degree where theres a language for talking to the visual artist. But when it comes to the actual execution of those ideas, I have to leave it up to another person. So, what you see on the videotape is the specific talent of Larry Brickman, who is a media-artist. I would no more consider trying to do a job like that myself than I would try to play the piano like Blue Gene. When you get to a certain point you can conceptualize what the playing should be, and musicians have a language that they use all the time. When Blue Gene and I talk about the music, we have a ready-made language to talk about what the nature of the piano-playing should be. And then he goes on to play. Even though I have a sense of what it should be, I could never do it on the piano. Its the same situation that composers have always faced of being able to conceptualize things that they could not possibly do themselves. For example, you might write a violin concerto. You couldnt play the violin worth beans, but you could study the nature of the relationship between the violin and orchestra, and the nature of the violin-playing itself. There are many examples of composers who write concerti who dont particularly pretend to be great performers of the instrument, but they are good composers.
PG. But in most cases they are dealing with a style that transcends the particular instrument. Its interesting though, because I am thinking that if I were to write an opera, I could never write the text. But you do.
RA. But thats different, you can do something youre particularly strong at, and it pretty much excludes other kinds of activity, because in order for you to get strong at it you have to give it a lot of your experience. Take somebody like Blue Gene. I would never ask him to play a complicated vibraphone part, even though he plays the vibraphone. The difference between my text and perhaps other peoples texts is that I am called to it, and have been interested in that instrument for my whole life. So for twenty-five years Ive been practicing what it sounds like to put words into a sound context. I practice it like Blue Gene practices the piano or like you practice composing. Charles Wuorinen practices, Phil Glass practices, everybody practices something. What Im practicing is how to set words to music. I do it every day of my life.
PG. Then I take it that you have no problem with the conception of words and music separately or togetherlike any good songwriter.
RA. I think that its an indication of how uninformed and how primitive American composers relationship to opera is that we take that as a problem. Ive never seen that as a problem. Which comes fist, the music or the words, has never occurred to me. And Im sure that it never occurs to Bob Dylan or David Byrne. With songwriters it never comes up! Its just that we have no experience with opera. It wasnt a problem for the Gershwins, or for Mozart; why should it be a problem for me?
PG. The problem would appear, as it often does in music, if for example I would say, Bob, I want to write opera. Write me a good libretto.
RA. Then you would be stuck with my rhythms.
PG. You have mentioned the possibility of writing an opera with John Le Carré, writing an opera with his text. How is that going to work now that you have been writing your own texts and music in tandem for twenty-five years?
RA. I dont know. Thats why I am interested in doing it, because I have used, in small portions, other peoples sentences or paragraphs in my work. And I've always felt because of my relationship with those people that I was free to adapt their words to my own rhythms. I guess Le Carré and I would have to work that out. It could not be as simple as him just handing me a script. Movies arent even done that way. Theres no reason to require that opera be any less complicated in the relationship of words to music than movies are. In the common practice when a film script is being written, its not unusual for another writer to be called in who will fine tune that script for the actor or actress. Thats what (composer) David Behrmans father used to do. Even though he was a famous playwright, every time Garbo made a movie, Sam Behrman was there fine tuning the script to her character. So whatever happens between Le Carré and me and the producer and the designer, etc. would have to involve that fine tuning.
PG. Right, there wont be a situation where Le Carré will say, I already have a text, lets go with it.
RA. It still would have to be laid out. His experience, judging from his published work, is in the third person narrative. He has always been a novelistic storyteller. You know, like he did this and he did that, etc. But, if we were to write an opera together, we would have work out formulas for dialogue, monologue, and all of those things that happen in opera that dont happen in novels. Its the same problem as adapting novels to movies.
PG. Speaking of third person narrative, your work is similar. His writing deals with mystery and the class system. Perfect Lives deals with characters in a certain class: Buddy, Duane, Lucille, at the bar, park, church, etc., in the midwest. So I could see why you would be attracted to Le Carré.
RA. I know. The reason Im interested in working with him is to see how much his sense of the portrait of a class depends on his language. In other words, if I start fooling around with his language, Im liable to turn it into a hillbilly piece.
Pc. Actually you and Le Carré may need what amounts to a screenplay writer.
RA. You know, Im not sure Le Carré even knows about this idea. A producer in London who knows Le Carré has been talking to me about the possibility of us working together. I dont know how Le Carré would feel about it, but I think I would enjoy it. Im interested in working with him, because none of my writing comes from literary forms or literary inspirations. Ive said many times that I dont write, I just type. Ive already said the words a number of times before I type them. So the actual form of the expression has a different kind of inspiration than with a novelist. I dont believe from what novels I read, that they are composed with the voice. I never get the sense that they are composed out loud. I always feel that the structure is internalized and it lends itself to all the theoretical ideas of the structuralists, like Foucaults idea that people wrote before they spoke. But as a musician, and Im sure this is true of songwriters and historical opera writers, I just keep saying it until Ive got it down. And when Ive got it down, I could put it on a dictation machine and somebody else could type it. Its just that its easier for me to do it at the typewriter.
PG. Like composing at the piano.
RA. Exactly! And naturally, as in composing at the piano, I work out these traditions or conventions in the typing of it on a piece of paper that have come about over the number of years of my doing it. These conventions have meaning to me as notation that I would never impose on anybody else, but theyre like secret notations. For example, when I hear a sound a certain way, I choose the way that Im going to type it, because the way I type it tells me something that I could not score. So when I give things to typists, they always ask me, How come you capitalize every line in one song, but you dont in another? All I can say is that that is how I remember what the song sounds like. Its an internal notation that I use for remembering what I actually intend to do with it.
PG. Contiuing back to this analogy, one of the things that contributed to Stravinskys success, and he, like you, was always a theater person, was that he almost always composed at the piano. Composers with a good sense for sonority, like Morty Feldman do the samehe has to speak the sound, even though it might be for totally different instruments. The concept of hearing the score in your head seems to be only a kind of academic gymnastics. In fact, Cage admits that he cannot hear sounds in his head, but he, of course, does not need to speak them. He is interested in putting down what he cant hear in order to discover what it sounds like. So for you, composing words is an extension of composing music.
RA. The same. I dont make a distinction. I never thought of music and words as being different. Its just impossible for me to think that way.
Pc. Its not even like poetry.
RA. No. Poetry is one thing, novels are one thing, opera writing is another thing, and songwriting is something else. In the first place, nobody understands songwriting except songwriters. Ill guarantee that neither you nor I have any sense of how great songwriters work. We have no sense of what it is to be like, say, John Lennon, where the words and the music are so perfectly fitted together. I dont think songwriters write down music and try to find words or vice versa except at rare times. I think they work on both at the same time.
PG. This is something that Philip Glass has always emphasized.
RA. Of Course there are a lot of composers, on the other hand, who dont write words, like Richard Rodgers, or George Gershwin, but they work closely with the collaborator and there are two guys doing it instead of one, bouncing ideas off each other. Its not a big decision, its just a musical decision.
PG. Its one art instead of two separate artists merging together, and that is the crucial difference. Its clear that Le Carré cannot see you as the composer, nor can you see him as the librettist.
RA. Well, it depends on where the words come in. The plot is one thing. The difference between poetry, novels, songs, and operasthose are just crude categories depends, I think, on where your sense of the plot comes in. Because things have to follow things. And Le Carré as a novelist has an exquisite sense of how things follow things. Im sure that when he writes a novel he has filing cabinet full of cards that he just keeps shuffling around, trying to get the right position for each idea.
PG. Whereas your plots come about much differently.
RA. I have to struggle with them because I start with the musical words. To give you an example, I get a song or a unit that musically goes right here [gesturing close], but if its to be useful from a narrative point of view, it should come from back here [gesturing far], or way out here [farther yet]. So I have to keep shuttling these parts for a different reason and its always to match the musical reality. You have to figure out how to put things in order.
PG. You have to fight against sound for the story and vice versa, never mind recitative and aria.
RA. As we were saying earlier, there is no American tradition in opeRA. Its not a matter of composers not composing opera, or that opera companies dont play American premieres. American academics dont understand opera! The first thing that you learn in college is that the recitative advances the story, and nothing narrative happens in the aria. And you think, Oh thats an interesting idea. Then you watch opera, and you see that it is not that way at all. Its a totally academic, primitive idea. It has no bearing on how things are written, or how they were written in the past. Its based on the fact that nobody knows what hes talking about.
PG. And if there is an operatic tradition in America it could only be the Broadway musical.
RA. Yes. The thing that I am encouraged by is that the genre of music that you and I are involved with, that started in the mid-fifties for me, and that everybody we know is involved withso-called contemporary musicis very powerfully a narrative genre, very powerfully a dramatic genre, not an abstract one. It has none of the connotations or historical structure of things like twelve-tone music. Theres no theory to it.
PG. Its not autonomously musical.
RA. Theres no theory. Sure, John has a theory about chance, but nobody writes chance music except for John Cage. Everybody has his own theories, but the generic theory is an unexpressed theory that has to do with musical theater. Thats the strength of it. John writes operas. What Im saying is that you write operas, Phil Glass writes operas, and Alvin Lucier writes operas. And they are all equally operas because they come from the same point of view. We dont have a word for it, so we call it opera.
PG. All the more why the word opera fits. It simply means work. Composers can only blame their educations for the distinction between pure music and opera since Monteverdi, but who cares?
RA. You cant imagine that Puccini isnt pure music.
PG. Or that Josquin isnt opera.
RA. I would say that its because our situation is relatively primitive, our tradition is only about thirty years old now. I think that it is the principal characteristic of the type of music that internationally is known as American music. That is to say your music, my music, Johns music, Phils music, Alvins, etc. Its a generic kind of music that everybody identifies with us, and its an operatic kind of music. Its amazing. We have been unable, or reluctant to recognize that, but it's the truth.
PG. It appears that the Europeans recognized this before the Americans. This type of music is quite successful there. I guess its because they have enough music derived from the European avant-garde.
RA. I think that people are finally starting to believe it. As far as I can tell, from the works that Ive seen of yours, and what youve described to me as your interests, I think you would be well-served if we had an ongoing operatic establishment that you could walk right into. You would love to write an opera, right? I mean, if I gave you a choice, if I said, Okay Peter, you can choose between a commission for an opera or symphony. Which one would you pick? You would always pick opera. Everybody wants to write opera. Its our mentality, we have these stories to tell, its part of us. And theres nothing to be embarrassed about. Its our character.
PG. Its a problem that comes up for those of us who are still teaching in institutions. The approach is not from the dramatic or aesthetic side, its from the theoretical side.
RA. And now theres no theory, so most teachers think that theres nothing to teach. Ive had the same problem myself. You can teach twelve-tone theory until youre blue in the face, because its an endless theory. If you are trying to teach American music theory, where are you going to start?
PG. You have to make the jump from musical experiences to life experience, and an aesthetic situation that transcends just talking about notes. And its unfortunate that many academic institutions are filled with composers whose musical experience, let alone life or artistic experience, consists mainly of trading performances among their colleagues at concerts in other institutions. And the students begin to think that this is the mark of a successful composer.
RA. Its really quite amazing. I taught for ten years.
PG. Speaking of concerts, while many composers write pieces and have them performed at concerts, you are actually writing a production, which just begins with the creation of the piece. Its not a question of writing a piece, hearing it, and then moving on to something elsethough because of that routine, people are always expecting something new. Everyone who produces a concert wants a brand new piece. You are obviously constantly doing new work, but you have this lead time between the conception of the work, take Perfect Lives for example, and the finalized production which is just now about to be realized.
RA. I decided about ten years ago that I was going to take a longer view towards the production of the work because I recognized that I was dealing with opera, and that I was an opera composer; and that my ideas and my work were being handicapped by the notion of always having to come up with a new piece the day after tomorrow. Now, there is a real value to music that is very immediate, that has just been conceived today, but if youre often trying to make a big piece in a very short period, you are compromising the essential qualities of the work I decided that I was going to make pieces that took as long to produce as the piece requiredthat I would let the piece decide how big it was. So, Perfect Lives took five years. And I am very happy with it because that schedule compares very favorably to big movie productions, or big television productions. It also compares favorably to the tradition of big opera productions, where there are three-year lead times on the composing, designing, and other commissions. And I realized that by allowing the piece to have that much time to grow, youre allowing it to become something that it could not be if you get into the practice of starting and finishing a new piece every year. If you must do a new piece every year, you eliminate very elaborate kinds of collaborations because they naturally take time. If you get yourself into a situation where you are writing a new piece every year, you are either writing small pieces that you control every aspect of, or else youre getting into areas of collaboration which tend to relegate the music to an incidental role, i.e., to pictures, dance, etc.
PG. It Could be incidental to the fact that its on a concert series.
RA. It Could be incidental to the fact that its a production. Its like getting into the realm of industrial music, where its needed tomorrow. If Chevrolet calls and tells me that they have a movie thats an hour and a half long, and that they will pay me $150,000 to write the score, and it has to be done in three daysno problem! But that obviously rules out any sort of collaboration. There is no deep involvement there. Theres not even an acquaintance. You have no time to develop anything unique, you just have to do what everybody else does. So everything becomes incidental to the whole production.
PG. While you wait for the production of your work to be realized and you begin working on new work, what happens to your attitude towards this now old work?
RA. Well, part of it is to get it produced, so youre just as attentive to it as you would be to your new work In essence, Im still working on Perfect Liveson another dimension of it. Im just trying to realize it as whatever its supposed to be. Im still working on getting it on T.V., and working on getting the libretto in shape so that other people could do it.
PC. Do you have any fear of it appearing to be dated when it comes out in the final realization? Like when the movie of Hair came out? Is there that danger?
RA. Oh yes, that is the danger. Theres always that danger. For me its not so much a matter of the audiences attitude or perception, but the fact that every piece, no matter what it is, every piece has a growth formit matures at a certain rate, it gets to a certain age, it becomes a certain thingand you cannot prevent the piece from doing that. If the piece ripens, as it were, before youve found the place for it, it just drops to the ground and rots. Its possible that you have to finish a piece in a spiritual or conceptual sense without having a place for it. It happens all the time. Thats Charles Ives.
PG. Do you think that the time factor involved in the production will again nurture the concept of the masterpiece?
RA. No. We dont think about masterpieces in movies just because they take a long time. All Im trying to say is that you have to recognize that different things that you do in music take different amounts of time, they have different growth patterns. Just like flowers, or animals, or whatever. Some things take three weeks, some three months, some a hundred years. You have to be loyal to that piece. It isnt necessarily a more important piece if it takes longer.
PG. As Duchamp said, theres no correlation between the value of art, and the time spent making it.
RA Right, but thats not an excuse for you to shorten the life span of the piece. Everybody admits that Duchamp was right, but that doesnt mean that you can make every piece shorter because theres no correlation.
PG. At what stage of progress is Atalanta in relation to all of this, and in terms of what we see in the printed text and musical examples?
RA. I think that Atalanta is finished, that is, everybody is incorporated into the piece. And now we are looking for a production. So were at another stage.
PG. So its not that far behind Perfect Liives, but Perfect Lives started out as Private Parts, a concert work.
RA. Well, Perfect Lives wasnt originally conceived as such a production. I didnt have a chance at producing it until I met Carlota Schoolman. Atalanta did not quite have the early stage like Perfect Lives had Private Parts, because things have changed in the last ten years. Less than ten years ago, I remember Phil Glass saying that there was no music other than the type he was doing then. He was only interested in writing abstract music. But suddenly he had a chance to write an opera, and he realized that it was fun. Ten years ago today, I couldnt raise a dime going to foundations to do an opera. Now, everybody in the world is writing an opera. The whole thing is changed. So the only difference between Atalanta and Perfect Lives is that when I started Perfect Lives there was no opportunity. It was like a dream, and finally it came true. Now I think I can finish Atalanta quicker because there are possibilities for it. I mean, if you say, Im writing an opera for television, you'll get an answer like, thats interesting, I know about five people who are doing that. But when I started Perfect Lives if I said that I was writing an opera people would say, Are you crazy? Get out of my office, youre wasting my time. Okay lets eat.