Back on the westcoast in 1966 Pauline Oliveros had been hired to direct the San Francisco Tape Music Center after it’s move to Mills college under the auspices of the Rockefeller grant they had received. The next year she got a competitive job offer at the University of California San Diego and left to take that position. Californians Lowell Cross and Tony Gnazzo replaced her but they soon left. When Roger Reynolds was asked if he wanted the job he’d already gotten another gig himself at UCSD as well, but he recommended Robert Ashley in his stead. In the fall of 1969 Ashley’s family packed up their bags and left Michigan for the golden sun of California.
When he got into town he called upon Nick Bertoni for help in revamping and expanding the electronic studios at CCM. Bertoni had come to California to work on sound for film director Robert Altman. In 1968, he had settled in Berkley to form a collective household of writers, artists, musicians and scholars. Bertoni would go on to become a pioneer of the maker movement promoting the idea of tinkering as a learning method, first at the S.F. Exploratorium Museum, where he was manager of the Artist in Residence Program, and then in his own Tinkers Workshop in Berkeley where he explored electronics, woodworking, metal crafts and inventing and encouraged others to do so as well.
With Bertoni’s expertise he helped Ashley build a studio split into five sections. It included a recording studio, a tape library and a tape editing suite, a Moog synthesizer studio, and a workshop devoted to building musical instruments. Having a space whose sole purpose was the creation of new instruments kept CCM firmly at the forefront of the do it yourself ethos. This ethos was further enhanced when Ashley opened up the studio to people who weren’t even students at the college, making it a public access facility. In this way he continued the tradition and legacy of the San Francisco Tape Music Center from which it originated.
Running the studio ended up being a good career move for Ashley. After two years in that capacity he was invited by Mills to become a professor. He agreed under the condition that he be given tenure. The professorship was a situation he thought quite ironic when he considered how his own progress in music had been hindered more than helped by many of his past music teachers, Ross Finney chief among them. “I never thought of myself as a teacher. Teachers have mostly been the bane of my existence,” he later wrote.
Never the less where other teachers had failed for Ashley, he was able to guide a number of young composers on to successful musical careers. These include Maggi Payne, who in turn went on to become a co-director of the CCM and Paul DeMarinis who went on to explore many different parameters around the convergence of technology, communications and music. John Bischoff was another of his students whose work with the League of Electronic Music Composers is explored later in this chapter. DeMarinis also sometimes played with the League.
It was during his time in California that Ashley’s attention turned to opera. He had dabbled in the form twice before in the 60’s but now it started to consume him. Putting on an opera isn’t cheap, and the more experimental the work is, the harder a time a composer will have finding backers to support the work. At the same time, the lack of financial backing can lead to innovation as strategies for bypassing various obstacles are sought. This latter path was the way Ashley took when he started getting interested in the form, and during his tenure at the CCM between 1969 and 1981 he established a new genre of opera.
I was in the 1970’s that Stockhausen came up with the Licht superformula and himself started writing operatic works that would take the form outside of its traditional mold and into new territories. Something must have been in the air in the 1970s when the these two different musical minds were fertilized with operas.
Ashley’s genius was to create an opera intended for television, a music that could be enjoyed comfortably in someone’s living room. Keeping with the SFTMC’s multimedia tradition his operas include video, electronic music, and improvisation. His complex and literary libretti also show the influence of his time working at the Speech Research Institute at Michigan University. Not only do the texts of his operas have multiple levels of meaning, but the way the performers are instructed to utter, sing, declaim the libretti bring the focus in to the different ways voice can be used. Ashley brought the extended techniques so popular in the ONCE Groups instrumental music to bear on vocalists as influenced by his time as a speech analyst.
One of the pieces he worked on at CCM was to be a direct precursor for the new mode of storytelling he established in his operas and it came out of a mild form of Tourette syndrome he’d noticed he had. It was composed in recorded form over a period of five years and not released as an album until 1979, but some of the musical features of the piece and the vocal phrasings would appear in his operas that he started working concurrently, progress on them overlapping with the years.
Ashley noticed there were certain words he muttered, certain phrases he repeated out loud. He got curious about these unconscious patterns that were emerging, and asked himself, as a composer, if he could find a way of working with them musically?
He’d recalled how Morton Feldman had made a remark that any composer who walked around with a tune in his head should be locked up. Ashley knew he had to bring forth the mysterious utterances emerging from himself, and he knew that within them was a great creative potential. To not use these “tunes” coming out of his head in some way was to hold back his gift from the world.
After some false starts trying to use these involuntary tics in voluntary live performances, Ashley came to the conclusion that working on this material might be better as a studio project. So he started making recordings, but they weren’t coming out the way he hoped, as the conscious element was still involved, like it had been in the performance attempts. Yet he kept at it and the necessary conditions finally came about one summer when the Mills campus was dead and empty. Students had gone home or gone wherever they went on summer break. With his head free from the responsibilities of teaching, the halls and studio quiet, he inched his mouth very close to the mic and made the involuntary utterances. Eventually he captured a total of forty-eight minutes of his Tourette derived speech onto tape, and this became the basis for Automatic Writing.
With the tape in place as the base structure he was now able to develop other material to ornament his voiced unconscious. His second wife Mimi Johnson (who would later start the Lovely Music record label that released this and many other recordings) read in French a translation of Ashley’s involuntary words. Her voice forms a second character for the work. A third was made with Ashley playing moog and organ tones beneath and around the voices -the unconscious ocean from which these voices emerged.
The way the words are said by Ashley, and the way they are recited by Johnson forms a kind of template for a way of using language that would be a hallmark in his later operas. Paul Demarinis, composer and master of circuitry, who was a student of Ashley’s and David Behrman’s while at CCM, designed a switching circuit used for the piece. The final result is a landmark work of hypnagogic music that is at once ambient, spoken word, and experimental. Just as the words seem to lull one on the edge of sleep, they will also disturb and make a person sit right up at attention.
The piece is a favorite of Steve Stapleton, the man behind surrealist music outfit Nurse With Wound. Automatic Writing was a major on influence on the album A Missing Sense. Stapleton recalls, "A Missing Sense was originally conceived as a private tape to accompany my taking of LSD. When in that particular state, Robert Ashley's Automatic Writing was the only music I could actually experience without feeling claustrophobic and paranoid. We played it endlessly; it seemed to become part of the room, perfectly blending with the late night city ambience and the 'breathing' of the building."
MUSIC WITH ROOTS IN THE AETHER
As Automatic Writing came together in the CCM studio Ashley was still thinking of writing operas and new ways of presenting them. He was also thinking of television and how perfect television could be as a medium for new American music. Philip Glass had made a complaint that “the situation for the American composer can never improve because the only thing Americans are interested in is television and sports.” This statement got under Ashley’s skin and he took it into himself, stating the only thing he was interested in aside from music “as a composer, are television and sports: television, because like music I can have it in my home; and sports, because like in contemporary music nobody gets killed.”
Joining music with television seemed like a logical next step. He had already been composing for experimental films and also wanted to help get the music of American composers out there to the public. In a way this was a continuation of the impetus that had been behind the ONCE Festival: a forum for sharing what was happening now among American composers. Only instead of people having to drive from all across the country and show up in Ann Arbor, all they would have to do now was switch on their television set. Music in the Roots of the Aether was a way to seed the ideas of the new generation of American composers out into the minds of the public via the medium they were already entranced by. Because he liked the medium so much himself, it was obvious to combine it with opera.
“I know a lot of people who watch television for five hours straight; I do it myself. My idea of my music is to jump in bed, with whatever you like to be in bed with, drinks and whatever, there’s the TV, the music is coming out of the TV, and you watch it for six hours,” Ashley noted. He would be perfectly at home with contemporary streaming services and the habit of binge watching programs.
With some funding he got from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations he was able to move forward with the idea of combining television, opera, and conversation with his fellow composers to create a groundbreaking cross-genre work. With cash in hand he produced and directed Music with Roots in the Aether: video portraits of composers and their music. The project was a 14-hour television opera that was also a documentary about the work and ideas of seven American composers. For each composer an hour was dedicated to an unscripted conversation about their work and ideas, and another hour dedicated to a presentation of their music.
“I intended, first of all, to make a work of ‘musical theater’ in the medium of video, not a polemic. Music With Roots in the Aether is the realization of an idea I had worked on in various ways for about ten years -- to make an opera of personalities and to illustrate those personalities with actual quotations, e.g., to quote the music of David Berhman by having David Berhman perform his music. … Because so much of my work has to do with ‘speech’ and its relationship to music, I conceived of Music With Roots in the Aether as a series of ‘duets' -- another composer and myself -- alternating with ‘solos’ by the composer. In each of those seven portraits the theater of the music is established in the landscape we inhabit and in the uninterrupted (‘performed’) camera style of the video recording.”
For the interviews he adopted a “casual and desultory” style. “They had to be, because of the manner in which they were made. They were made in front of a video camera, with the rule that there would be no video editing. So, the composers are just talking. Then, the conversations are edited for print to take out as much of the conversational looseness as possible.”
The composers included David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Roger Reynold and Terry Riley. It premiered at the Festival d'Automne à Paris in 1976 and has since been shown worldwide in over 100 television broadcasts and closed-circuit installations.
The very nature of this work also relates to the spirit of public access television. The development of public access TV happened in parallel with developments of the open house studio concept at CCM. It was created between 1969 and 1971 by the FCC due to pressure being placed on the commission by media activists who were dissatisfied with the corporate behemoths who were the gatekeepers to the video airwaves. Even with the grant money to make the work there is an admirable scrappiness to the series.
But is it opera? According to Ashley it is, and the success of the series paved the way for him to further explore musical massage via America’s favorite medium.
Towards the end of his tenure as director of the CCM Ashley had worked on experiments and small pieces that later became the episodes The Park and The Backyard for his first proper TV opera Perfect Lives. Hearkening back to his Midwest origins, “These are songs about the Corn Belt / and some of the people in it / ... or on it.”
The pieces were developed musically in live performance in America and Europe. On the keyboard was Ashley’s collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny, whose harmonies, melodies, and playing define the character of Buddy. Ashley and Tyranny performed chamber versions on many occasions. One of these was at The Kitchen in 1978 and shortly after that concert Ashley was commissioned by The Kitchen to create Perfect Lives as an opera for television.
At the center of this work is the poetic, sing-song reading of Robert Ashley’s voice in a hypnotic syncopation. The ever-flowing words narrate a story of life in small town America updated to the time of its writing, the late 70s and early 80s. The story is filled with a number of characters but revolves around the lives of two musicians, the aforementioned Buddy who is “the World’s Greatest Piano Player” and “R”, a singer of myth and legend played by Ashley, and who can be viewed as a version of himself.
The composer describes the dramatic plot. "They fall in with two locals to commit the perfect crime, a metaphor for something philosophical: in this case, to remove a sizable about of money from The Bank for one day (and one day only) and let the whole world know that it was missing." One way to look at it is as a metaphysical heist drama.
As the tale unfold the couple Ed and Gwyn elope, the sheriff, his wife and a bunch old fogies at the old folks home unravel the mystery of the stolen money. Another character, Isolde, watches a sundown celebration from the door of her mom’s place. These and other characters act and sing across the television in the seven episodes that make up the opera.
Ashley described the plot as a “comic opera about reincarnation.” As such it is purportedly based on the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yet, since it deals with the corn belt, there are also fiery strains of midwestern evangelism threaded through the work. Or is that televangelism? Either way it amounts to a celebration of the everyday and perfect lives of those in the flyover states as the mundane and familiar gets transformed through music into a sublime meditation on the rebirth of the human soul.
Ashley put all the tools he had developed in collaborating with others at ONCE and CCM into practice in his operas. “The collaborative aspect of the work follows principles I have used for many years in search of a new operatic style. The collaborators are given almost absolute freedom to develop characterizations from the textual and musical materials I provide. The musical and visual materials are coordinated through ‘templates’, a term I have come to use to describe the subjective assignment of emotional values and moods to visual forms and corresponding musical structures. Within the rules defined by the ‘templates’ the collaborators in all aspects of the work are free to interpret, ‘improvise’, invent and superimpose characteristics of their own artistic styles onto the texture of the work. In essence, the collaborators become ‘characters’ in the opera at a deeper level than the illusionistic characters who appear on stage.”
In 1980 using the templates provided by Ashley’s score, John Sanborn, who became the television director of the production, recorded the basic video tracks on location in Illinois. From this bounty of material, a preview version called The Lessons was produced through the TV Lab at WNET, the same place where Laurie Spiegel had worked on the sound production for The Lathe of Heaven.
Two years later a pre-sale was obtained from Channel Four Television in the UK that made it possible to complete work on the opera. John Sanborn masterminded a shooting and editing plan for the visual elements of Ashley’s score. Then in 1983 it went into post-porduction at VCA Teletronics where Sanborn worked with Dean Winkler on processing the images and editing it all together. In 1984 the opera celebrating the American Midwest premiered on Great Britain’s Channel Four. It has since been broadcast throughout Europe and in various cities in the United States. Perfect Lives was also expanded into a live version which included orchestral music layered onto tapes by composer Peter Gordon, and the singing of Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem.
In the U.S. its cult success is owed mostly to various recorded audio versions which became favorites for late night air play on community, college and other radio stations not beholden to record companies and ad revenue. In other words: stations that weren’t jailed into restrictive formats.
For the rest of his career Ashley would continue to work in the operatic form to create a uniquely American conception of opera both in subject matter and in the use of American language and ways of talking. Kyle Gann considers Perfect Lives and Ashley’s operas in general to be “performance novels” and I concur that this is an apt moniker.
Around this time in the late 70’s and early 80’s a number of different works, that could be considered to cross the genres of spoken word, radio play or opera, and otherwise contained spoken and sung narratives started to appear. David Rosenboom’s Future Travel from 1981 is one example, a sci-fi story set to Buchla Touché & 300 Series Electric Music Box, piano, violin and percussion.
The same year David Behrman, Paul Demarinis, Fern Friedman, Terri Hanlon and Anne Klingensmith recorded She’s More Wild at the CCM. It started life as performance art piece described by the artists as ‘Western Performance Noir.’ The record centers on a series of texts written by Friedman and Hanlon in which female narrators comically embody a series of iconic roles (The Recording Artist, The Former Movie Star, and The Rancher). Other lyrical themes include recurring references to the notorious cannibal pioneers, the Donner Party, an ironic take on Japanophilia, and the luscious “Archetypal Unitized Seminar,” a satirical poke at self-help culture, whose lyrics are rendered in Indian raga style to the accompaniment of electronic glissandi and toy noisemakers.
Records like these and other text pieces set to music sit in the same milieu that Ashley would command in further operatic works. As “performance novels” they are uniquely positioned for transmission via a variety of telecommunications channels and mediums.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.