Interpretations Season #20: Artist Blog #5 — Robert Ashley
Interpretations continues its twentieth season of provocative programming in New York City. Founded and curated by baritone Thomas Buckner in 1989, Interpretations focuses on the relationship between contemporary composers from both jazz and classical backgrounds and their interpreters, whether the composers themselves or performers who specialize in new music. To celebrate, Jerry Bowles has invited the artists involved in this season’s concerts to blog about their Interpretations experiences. Produced in tandem with La Mama ETC and Performing Artservices, the centerpiece of the series this year is a two-week, three opera, 10 performance, mini-retrospective of the recent works of Robert Ashley: Dust, Celestial Excursions, and Made out of Concrete.
Mr. Ashley has been kind enough to take some time from his busy rehearsing schedule to write about the ensemble he’s gathered over the past thirty years or so, as a sort of self-interview:
WHO ARE THE ENSEMBLE MEMBERS?
The ensemble now is (alphabetical order in singers / in slight order of importance in technical)
ROBERT ASHLEY: voice
SAM ASHLEY: voice
THOMAS BUCKNER: voice
JACQUELINE HUMBERT: voice
JOAN LA BARBARA: voice
TOM HAMILTON does audio engineering in all stages of the opera, assists me in realizing the composition in the electronic studio prior to performance; he’s the mixing engineer and advisor in rehearsals; he does performance sound processing and mixing of the performance; he’s in charge of recording of the performance and mixing the sounds from the performance for the CD recording.
CAS BOUMANS is the performance sound designer (audience loudspeaker placement and sound monitor arrangements for the performers. Microphone placement.)
DAVID MOODEY does stage and light design.
MELANIE LIPKA is the production stage manager (off-stage timing of what goes into the performance.)
“BLUE” GENE TYRANNY is the synthesizer performer in Dust and Celestial Excursions
JOAN JONAS is the dancer/performance artist in Celestial Excursions
WHEN DID YOU START WORKING WITH THEM?
It’s various, but compared to the life of most ensembles I’ve been working with all of them for a long time, not only in their jobs now with the ensemble, but as musicians and designers.
Of course, I’ve worked with SAM ASHLEY, my son, for most of my life. As to his becoming part of the ensemble I saw two solo performances of his (his compositions) in 1980 and I was so impressed, with the “drama” in both cases, that I asked him right away to work in a collaboration with me. This was the era of Atalanta (Acts of God).
I met JOAN LABARBARA in 1974 when she performed in a piece of mine (not vocal) in the Festival d’Automne a Paris. I asked her to join the opera ensemble in 1989 when we started working on the quartet of operas called Now Eleanor’s Idea.
I met JACQUELINE HUMBERT in 1974, (I think — maybe earlier), when I was invited to perform at York University in Toronto. We didn’t work together then, but I was asked to be the house guest of her and her husband, David Roosenboom, and I was impressed that she listened to all kinds of music (from tapes, records, radio, live) more or less constantly; say, 16 hours a day. She knew (knows) a lot about music. She and I had wonderful talks. She is also wonderful designer of costumes and stage sets. Her portfolio is amazing. She designed the costumes and make-up for the television opera, Perfect Lives. She began singing with the ensemble in the mid-1980s when we were performing Atalanta (Acts of God).
I met THOMAS BUCKNER very casually in Berkeley, probably around 1978, when I was teaching at Mills and Tom was running the 1750 Arch performance series. (I say very casually, because we were both too busy with our separate music series to be very attentive to what the other was doing.) Then in 1985 Tom moved to NYC; we became close friends and he joined the ensemble while we were performing Atalanta (Acts of God).
It seems I have listed the singers first, probably from habit of trying to make clear how each of my friends fit into what we produce together.
I met TOM HAMILTON in 1989 when I was searching (desperately) for a recording studio engineer to help mix the sound materials I had brought back from California where we had almost finished the recording of Improvement, the first in the quartet of operas called Now Eleanor’s Idea. I needed someone to teach me how to use the computer and synthesizers I had bought to finish the large project; I had no synthesizer or computer-sequencing knowledge or experience.
I met CAS BOUMANS in 1994, when I went with a small ensemble on a long tour of Holland with the opera, eL/Aficionado (written for and featuring Tom Buckner; Sam Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert and I sang the Chorus parts; Mimi Johnson was the tour manager.) It was a strenuous tour, but wherever we musicians wound up Cas Boumans was already there and the equipment was working. I knew after that tour that I would need him from then on, whatever we were working on.
I met DAVID MOODEY in 1999. Mimi Johnson introduced him to me. I knew his light designs were spectacular; I’d seen his work for Molissa Fenley. In 1999 we were planning the premiere of Dust at The Kitchen, a piece that had projections and no lights to speak of, but I knew we needed someone who could make the components all “work.” In the next piece, Celestial Excursions, David took over the stage and light design. And now this new production of Dust is his.
MELANIE LIPKA was introduced to me by David Moodey. He brought her into the group when we were working on Celestial Excursions for Maerz Musik Berlin in 2003.
“BLUE” GENE TYRANNY is one of my most long-time friends and musical collaborator. We met 47 years ago when he came to Ann Arbor to join the ONCE Festival activities. I could hardly list the great number of performances we have worked on together and the degree to which I have used his musical genius to my own ends.
I met JOAN JONAS in the early 1980s. She was performing in a festival in a city outside of Rome. The producers of the series decided (at the last minute) that they needed another American performer. It must have been Joan who suggested my name. We had to work together almost immediately. The producers of the festival scheduled their television coverage on the night of my solo performance, and that solo singing didn’t have much to look at. I asked Joan if she would dance during the performance. Her dancing probably saved the television coverage.
DID YOUR WORK CHANGE OR DEVELOP AS A RESULT?
It’s impossible to work with someone for a long time and not borrow (steal) from their ideas. It’s equally impossible to even attempt to list the occasions and go into their influence in any detail.
Over 50 years of composing and performing I have worked seriously and for a long time (one year to twenty years) with eight different ensembles. In some cases, one has merged with the one that followed. In other cases, the ensemble was formed for a project and stayed together only as long as it took to finish the project.
I want to work with this ensemble for the rest of my life. As we’ve gotten older together and shared what we have of experience, I am in the situation now where I can see that I need the members of this ensemble or I can’t do the work I have in mind. I count on them to add to the performance (the composition) all kinds of things I would never have thought of.
I have never thought of or used (except rarely in cases where some name had to be put in print) the idea of a “Robert Ashley Ensemble.” That suggests some sort of hierarchy that I don’t think describes how ensembles work. In the descriptions of the operas I have always just named the opera and named the people who were making it. The people are deeply part of how good the opera is and what it winds up meaning. The operas change quite often. The people who are making the operas change far less often.
To contrast this with traditional European opera there are not “parts” (roles) that are to be filled with whomever is best, most available, easiest to work with, cheapest, whatever. The makers of this set of three performances we are doing in January all have their separate careers in music, their own widely known styles, their own audience following. But we enjoy working together.