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Robert Ashley, "And So It Goes, Depending," copyright (c) 1981; "Postscripts to, 'And So It Goes, Depending'," copyright (c) 1986;
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And So It Goes, Depending (1980) about Perfect Lives An Opera-for-Television (1983) Robert Ashley
There is always the fascination of landscape. When the piecing together of imagery becomes so intense that one is aware of its rhythms, in effect the action of the perceiving mind, "opera", or the communication of those rhythmic forms, arises naturally.
One is reluctant to orchestrate those forms without the use of words. Instrumental music is precariously "incidental" enough, even when the image it is incidental to is most commonplace or casual. One is reminded of the notion that instrumental music is incidental to speech, intrinsically and historically, most intensely, most poignantly (reminded) when the performance, or the situation of the performance (in deja-vu), gives rise to inadvertent imagery. Everyone has experienced this, composers probably more than most.
So, in the most practical and humorous sense, in the presence of an intense flow of visual rhythm, the wise composer resorts to words to slow that motion, to make intelligibility where otherwise there would be chaos. Words have a way of attaching themselves to meaning. They are the most effective pacifiers.
At certain times in life, and I suppose that this is true for some people more than for others, an irrepressible, engulfing visual imagery dominates the consciousness, almost to the point of requiring relief. This is the story one has to tell.
I tried first to attach to the image flow an inconsequential word pattern, to pretend that it didn't matter, to open a correspondence with someone ("Dear George..."). The imagery was so powerfully present that I fell for the illusion of its immediacy. I believed in a cure. In part, I believe, I wrote (typed) because there was no musical instrument handy to me (for maybe the first time in my life), and I was confused because my habits for using up "energy" had had to change so drastically. This was four years ago. After a while of this, it came to me gradually that I was only typing what I had rehearsed again and again in speech. In other words, I was talking to myself and typing for no reason in particular, or at least for no reason related to the talking.
I discovered that I could sort out in the pile of typed paragraphs those that had come from different rhythmic sources, and by that I mean paragraphs of repetitions of certain simple phrases in a variety of different word combinations, some of which made sense and others not so much -- even without finding anywhere the rhythmic "germ" itself (e.g. " ' there is something y' can always count on, Alice gets the blame"). I suppose poets have this down to a science, and I have just invented the wheel, but maybe it's not that simple.
There is a hard line between speaking and singing, hard to find, but hard, nevertheless, imposed from somewhere. It is an obligation. Studying it or where it is teaches us something. It keeps moving "toward" speech, at least in our time, but the quality of the line and the quality of the obligation have not changed, and, so, depending which side of the line you put your work, for whatever reason, you are required to find a form for what amounts to ranting (which violates the line and is against the law, therefore) either in the world of music, or, I can only suppose, in whatever the other world calls itself (poetry?).
In the case of Perfect Lives there is from the point of view of a composer a special "problem", which has its history in the movement of the "line" toward speech. The tendency enriches music, obviously, and at the same time makes old fashioned many of the given ideas about "setting" words to music, because speech is, in general, both more dense than what could be married to music in the past and more subtle. To put it in another way, as your listening changes, speech (itself) more and more seems to be music, and the notion of the setting as a leisurely accompaniment, detached and perhaps symbolic, is less and less useful.
The problem is not, thankfully, aesthetic. I mean, its roots are not in "the law", or social inequities, or whatever. The problem is technical, or technological, in the sense that it has to do with the machinery of making music and the machinery for listening to music, which are always two parts of the same.
My taste is to want every sound to be amplified electronically. I have lost my taste for mechanical amplification, acoustical instruments and acoustical halls. I have lost my taste for the tempo of mechanical life and its representation in, say, vocal projection. I like sounds that formerly were too soft or too short or too quick to be useful. In any tradition those sounds, to the degree that they are recognized, are called nuance. They are recognized as attachments to a main form. Now, we are all in a blizzard of nuance, so dense that a main form, supposing it's there at all, is lost.
Speaking aesthetically, now, I have imagined Perfect Lives as a perfect song: that is, all song; that is, not requiring a setting or an accompaniment. But at the same time I always want the densest texture of nuance I can get away with. Density is a real factor and an enjoyment for me. I am not prepared to do the perfect song with my voice (who is?), nor am I willing to slow things down so that nuance becomes a lesson. It is hard, if not impossible, for real density of nuance or detail to be done singularly, even allowing for multiplying oneself electronically. The presence becomes repetitious and redundant. Real density is modeled on society, where differentiation is a supreme value. (Long preamble to the invention of another wheel).
The nature of the collaboration in every aspect of the composition of Perfect Lives is that I could not do it alone, as I have said. It is, in my way of thinking, aesthetically impossible. It is require that Perfect Lives represent as many voices as it can sustain. Ideally, these separate voices should be a distinguishable as the technique will allow. Ideally, they should be without restriction as to their detail (amount). They are independent and simultaneous. The technique requires them to be synchronous. Otherwise, they are separate, private parts (joke).
The hierarchy of those parts, the priority of their appearance, comes from complicated, practical causes; obviously, there needn't (or shouldn't) be a hierarchy, as such. The idea is old fashioned and suggests "accompaniment". But, in fact, the possibility of planning and organizing the production of the piece so that "all things are equal" requires the assurance of a way of working (read: "money") that is not given to me. I have to work one step at a time, so there is, a priori, a priority (joke).
First came the text, or the perfect song. In working on Perfect Lives I was able, almost for the first time, to direct speech, or the sound of myself talking to myself, into specific forms. In other words, to compose (after whatever is that period of time or accumulation of unbidden materials that allows the materials to make "intentions" recognized.) Those forms, in turn, were attached to (imitations of) the categories of the imagery that caused the words in the first place. These attachments or imitations I have called, because the meaning of the word is essentially visual, "templates".
The template has two aspects. One is the metrical and rhythmic definition of the text ("repetitions of certain simple phrases in a variety of different word combination, some of which make sense of others not so much.") The other is the assembly of the short units of the text into the form of the episode. This sense of the use is perhaps more trivial. It simply describes the way the episode is put together in "blocks" so that the narrative has cadences and points of synchronization among the "parts". On the other hand, it gives each of the episodes an (almost) arbitrary external "form" that certainly makes narrative, such as it is, clearer. In other words, most of the paragraphs about a certain image (and, thus, in a certain metrical and rhythmic template) are grouped together. And, further, (arbitrarily) paragraphs can be added or deleted to make the episodes have a uniform length. (Maybe not so trivial.)
But the first step in the hierarchy, the creation of the first character in the opera, was the creation of the language that imitates the imagery. At this stage in the work I am still daydreaming. The gap between the language and the actuality of sound is enormous. The job: 1) stay awake; 2) create density.
In Perfect Lives there are no "melodies" or "harmonies" or other traditional devices prescribed. There are only characters or, more specifically, individual performers telling the same story, as embodied in the templates, synchronously. In other words, there are no melodies other than the melodies invented by "Blue" Gene Tyranny (as "Buddy", the piano player) to characterize "piano playing" or the melodies invented by the singers to give nuance to the story telling. Nor are there harmonies other than the harmonic plan designed by "Blue" Gene to accommodate his improvisations in an equal-tempered keyboard style. (When new kinds of keyboards come into use, I think this element could change radically, but maybe that's stretching the point.)
In other words, the process of composing the details of the parts (characters) begins with collaboration and agreement in the recording studio and ends (never ends) only in performance. This point is essential to the piece. I haven't composed melodies or harmonies or entrances or orchestration, because I have found the approach difficult precisely in the area of story telling or "opera" in that the product of that approach is archtypically a revisionist history, rooted in memory and prejudice, and restricts the composer to speaking about the past only (or, apparently so, considering the contemporary repertoire). The idea of story telling modeled on the technology of the electronic media, a gathering of actualities, seems more relevant, bypassing the past, and interesting to me.
The techniques of the traditional role for the composer seem to me inextricably involved in maintaining the past as a field of understanding, i.e., "modernism". I find the idea of a single vision, the idea of the "auteur", incompatible with the demands of maintaining a mode of actuality. A technique of profound collaboration in essential. In the blizzard (see above) the composer should rather be the instigator and the guide than the model and the definition. The idea of a profound collaboration suggests, to me, relinquishing every eminent domain in favor of actuality and relevance.
So, by "collaboration" I do not mean just bringing together the various elements of 19th century music drama (text/music/costumes/decor/lighting/direction/concessions/etc.), though, God knows, you can't know everything. I mean mutual involvement in the evanescent aspects of the materials, such as they are today, and specifically in the case of opera in the music itself. (A typical case of why ranting is against the law.)
Where was I? The point is that to approach the kind of density that I like I wanted to involve as many simultaneous characters in the form of actual musical personalities (i.e., performers inventing independently) as the piece could sustain. And I allow that should the personalities change, the outcome would change as drastically as when a jazz ensemble changes players, say.
So, without "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Jill Kroesen, David Van Tieghem and Peter Gordon there is no "music" to speak of. That is, the density is not what is required in my imagination of the piece. (The visual collaboration is another story, no less complicated.)
To go back to the working process, the "story" of Perfect Lives the source of the imagery and the musical inspiration, is recounted, not enacted. The story takes place "off stage", like the stories in the TV Evening News. The connection between the characters and the events of the story and the existential reality of the performance is in the illusion of the appearance of the characters as performers and in the use of video imagery to illustrate the locales and the moods through which the story passes. This technique, the "connection", uses various devices and degrees of illusionism based on naming of characters (as such) and on the tonality of nuance adopted by the singers and the pianist. In other words, the performers change character through the techniques of nuance and naming.
"Blue" Gene's action is the least changing. The act of keyboard playing is so complex an image that almost any illusion of character substitution is precluded. This is not to suggest that "Blue" Gene is not "telling the story" in his performance, but rather that there is hardly room in that performance for any other character than "Buddy". On the other hand, or for the same reason, "Buddy" is the most real character and the most complex. That is, in the amount of detail shown, this part requires the most characterization.
I have seen "Blue" Gene do miracles along this line, but on a schedule of six nights a week, only God...it is said. So, there are stored on a tape other keyboard parts, composed by "Blue" Gene, which can be combined to make up a kind of grand keyboard, of which his live invention is only a part.
The live invention is designed, of course, both in the sense of "Blue Gene's experience with the musical materials in each episode and, in the "operatic" sense, designed to bring the characterization of each episode to the physical gestures, apparent to the camera, that portray "Buddy" through the templates, e.g., in The Living Room (Episode Five), the character of which is the "two-shot" and the template of which is the division of the picture surface into equal vertical volumes, all of "Blue" Gene's invention is in parallel hand movements (seen from above.)
Also on tape, and to the same purpose, are a number of vocal parts and rhythmic parts (principally "orchestrated rhythms derived from the accompaniment unit of the "Palace Organ" manufactured by the Gulbransen company. This extraordinary electronic instrument, generously made available to the project just as we had begun the studio recording sessions, is both the source of many of the keyboard parts on tape and the rhythmic foundation for the "measurement" of the templates.)
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Typed by Cheryl Vega 7-17-95