La MaMa E.T.C., in association with World Music Institute’s “Interpretations” Series, is `pleased to present the premiere of Robert Ashley’s new opera, Concrete. The pioneer opera composer whose hyper-dense and accelerated scores have been praised for “taking opera into the multimedia age” (The Wire) further explores what he began in Dust (2000) and Celestial Excursions (2003), – the speech rhythms and states of mind of seemingly ordinary people. Conceived, written and composed by Ashley (76), Concrete makes public the ruminations of an old man and his reminiscences of people he has loved and worked with – all who have gambled spectacularly with money and with their lives. The cast features new music luminaries Sam Ashley, Tom Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, and Joan la Barbara – who have sung Ashley’s work for the last 20 years and are fluent in his unique vocal techniques – and Tom Hamilton, who processes and mixes the voices and orchestra. Unique to this opera is that Ashley creates the computer-generated orchestra live, making the dialogue between the voices and the orchestra new at each performance.
Like Dust, which captured the ramblings of homeless people, and Celestial Excursions which ventured into the confined world of an old people’s home, Concrete takes an inward look at the human condition in an individual. In the opera, the singers are not characters in the traditional sense but voices speaking as part of an old man’s musing. The work is structured around five internal “discussions” in which the singers use a rapid and rhythmically altered conversational style. The “discussions” are about ideas that are “right in front of us” but rarely discussed: why are buildings in a city so perfectly aligned when the earth is round? Why do games that people play so often move counter-clockwise? What makes people keep secrets? Interjected into these “discussions” are four solo arias in which each of the performers tells the short but detailed life of someone the old man has known in the past and whose life holds some kind of secret. These are the lives of ordinary people who did extraordinary things for which they will never be recognized. Only the audience hears their stories, no one is named: these are “secret” lives.
“The characters I’m interested in,” Ashley explains, “are marginal, because everybody is marginal compared to the stereotypes. I am interested in their profoundly good qualities, and I’m not interested at all in evil. The characters in my work are as bizarre and unreal as the characters in William Faulkner. They just happen to be ordinary people who are spiritually divine.” (The Wire magazine, 2003).
Important to this opera is a unique ensemble and solo singing technique invented by Ashley. Singers are entirely free of any obligation to bars and beats in the expression of their character as part of one of the internal “discussions” or as a storyteller. All of the singers’ decisions about pitch, inflection, and manner are derived from what happens melodically and harmonically in the orchestra. Ashley creates the orchestra using a computer program that has gained popularity among dance club DJs, but has not been used in longer concert or staged works. It allows the operator to place pre-recorded orchestral “samples” (in this case, all created by Ashley) anywhere in the ongoing mix and to create any level of harmonic and rhythmic density in the mix. The samples can be re-used and re-processed in any way to create orchestral “themes”. Thus, in each performance the singers will be working with a new orchestra, but one that is based on familiar materials.
Concrete is funded by the MAP Fund at Creative Capital and the Phaedrus Foundation.
Text, music and direction by Robert Ashley
Singers: Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara
Electronic orchestra: Robert Ashley
Mixing and live electronics: Tom Hamilton
Lighting design: David Moodey
Technical coordination/sound system engineer: Cas Boumans
Photo: Joanne Savio
About Robert Ashley
A major figure in American contemporary music since the 1960s, Robert Ashley has acquired an international reputation for his work in new forms of opera and multi-disciplinary projects. In his book, American Music in the 20th Century, Kyle Gann states, “Electronically innovative, socially provocative, and incorrigibly theatrical, Robert Ashley epitomizes the conceptualism of the 1960s, yet more than any other figure he has transcended it.” In the 1960s, Ashley organized Ann Arbor’s legendary ONCE Festival and directed the ONCE Group. During the 1970s, he directed the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, toured with the Sonic Arts Union, and produced and directed Music with Roots in the Aether, a 14-hour television opera/documentary about the work and ideas of seven American composers. Ashley wrote and produced Perfect Lives, an opera for television widely considered the precursor of “music-television.” Staged versions of Perfect Lives and Atalanta (Acts of God) and the monumental opera tetralogy, Now Eleanor’s Idea have toured throughout Europe, Asia and the United States. He wrote Balseros for Florida Grand Opera, Dust for premiere at the Kanagawa Arts Foundation in Yokohama, and Celestial Excursions for the Berlin Festival and Hebbel Theater Berlin. Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1930 and was educated at the University of Michigan and the Manhattan School of Music.
Four Singers, Playing Cards, Breaking the Rules of Opera
by Alan Kozinn, The New York Times
Robert Ashley has never worried that the works he calls operas bear little resemblance to the traditional variety, and there’s no reason he should start now. Far more than Philip Glass’s operas, which are considered revolutionary for their stripped-down narratives and vocal lines that are ritualistically repetitive rather than flighty and virtuosic, Mr. Ashley’s works jettison the standard operatic yardsticks.
His latest, “Concrete,” which opened on Wednesday evening at La MaMa E.T.C., has no stage action to speak of. Four singers sit at a table playing cards with a giant deck and chattering about mundane mysteries of life. Often they pick up on one another’s thoughts as if they were actually only one speaker, broken into four voices. Between those ensembles, each singer rises for an extended solo piece, delivered standing still, or at most with choreographed hand gestures. Think of it as an “Alice in Wonderland” version of Samuel Barber’s chamber opera “A Hand of Bridge.”
There isn’t a lot of melody, either. Mr. Ashley writes in his own stylized version of Sprechstimme, a way of projecting text that is more tuneful than speech but less than song. This composer’s version preserves speech rhythms, but where the melodies in Sprechstimme usually leap around at least a bit, Mr. Ashley’s barely amplify the inflections inherent in spoken English.
Mr. Ashley does provide an equivalent of an orchestral score: it is electronic, and performed live by him. He has said that this element will change in each performance to match the impulses of the singers. Presumably he was doing some of this matching on Wednesday, but much of the accompaniment was an ambient wash. Occasionally — and increasingly, toward the end — assertive bass tones and 1950s sci-fi movie effects expanded the score’s texture and topography.
What the work offers in spades is narrative. The four singers — Jacqueline Humbert, Thomas Buckner, Joan La Barbara and Sam Ashley — are given long, involved yarns about old friendships, within which are wrapped the strategies of card sharps and racetrack gamblers, and the details of near-fatal car crashes, boating accidents, cocaine deals gone awry (and not) and spooky visits from dead friends.
Mr. Ashley’s texts are both engaging and provocative, and they are the work’s most striking component. It could be argued, in fact, that “Concrete” (the title comes from a recurring, apparently autobiographical line about urban life, “The old man lives in concrete”) is more of a literary or theatrical work than a musical one.