INTERVIEW: ROBERT ASHLEY WITH RICHARD CARRICK
MARCH 3, 2012
RC: We’re here with Robert Ashley. Glad to see you, Bob.
Thank you. It’s nice to have you here.
RC: We’re here to talk about some of your music, your ideas and your work coming up in the Interpretations Series, Concrete, which will be happening on April 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th. And I understand that each of those dates is actually going to be a different performance.
Yes, it’s the same form every day. There are four singers, plus this speaker who is outside of the piece. It’s just that they do different things every day, in other words, the form is the same but the content is different. And I think I have to go back to the original title of the piece, which is, The Old Man Lives in Concrete. We did that and then we cut it down because it was too long and then the second time we did Made Out of Concrete, and this time we advertised it as Concrete: The Next Generation. But I think that since this is going to be the last one we should go back to the basic title, The Old Man Lives in Concrete, which is the idea that there’s an old guy who is by himself every day and he thinks – whatever that means.
RC: Now this originally started in – 2007 was the original production?
We did concerts in 2007 and again in 2009 and this will be three years later. It’s hard to say this, because I don’t know exactly how it works. But you think you have a piece, I think that what I’m doing is the form of the piece, and there are certain musical procedures or ingredients that seem to be proper and right. And then I do it and I think about it afterwards and think that’s not very good, there’s something missing. So we did it two years later and we used the same … Let me go back. The ingredients of the piece … I have to go back even farther, I’m sorry.
Ten years ago, because the park out in front of our building was where the homeless people in New York came during the day. They came during the day and then at night they went back to the shelters, sometimes, depending on what the weather was. But they were out there all day and I’d have to go through them and by them and I listened to them talking. I got very interested in, you know, the language of these people, who were homeless, and some of them needed help for mental problems and some of then needed help for physical problems.
So that resulted in the opera Dust and it encouraged me to think about other people that we see that are sort of outside of conventional bourgeois society. They’re actually outside of it, or they were pushed out. So the homeless people were the first. Then I was spending a lot of time for family reasons visiting an assisted living facility. And I got interested in the old people who were being farmed out to this assisted living facility, and how they talked, what their ideas were. So that sort of put me on the case of the people who are basically not part of the machinery of our society. In other words, the society, whatever that means, makes its own rules without thinking very much about whether you’re homeless or not, or whether you’re old.
Then that kind of interest, in my case, makes the subject of the thing become much more extreme. So that the last thing I got on was the case, the situation of an old person who spends most of every day by himself or herself, maybe looking out the window. In other words, a person who has no responsibilities to society at all, and what goes on around that person.
I sort of got interested in that. I felt that Dust was successful as an opera; I felt that Celestial Excursions, about the old people, I felt that that was successful as an opera. When I got into The Old Man Lives in Concrete, the first time we did it I had the idea that there would be some vitality in the piece if there was a person outside not one of the singers outside of the stage who was sort of running the orchestral thing that would lead the singers into different…. So I tried that, we tried it and it didn’t work out very well. I wasn’t very happy with it at all. And I wasn’t sure why.
And then I went to another version where I added one more character, and I abandoned the idea of the orchestra sort of leading the piece. I don’t I know what I thought was going to lead the piece, but I gave up that idea of the orchestra leading the mood of the piece. I didn’t like that either.
I’ve been working on this piece for ten years. And what I came up with, which I hope will get me out of the hole, is the idea that there weren’t enough examples of subject matter in the piece. I didn’t for a moment think that I could imitate or show the stream of consciousness, so called, of that isolated person. That’s crazy. You know people tried that 70 years ago. James Joyce did it wonderfully but you can’t do it. But what I think you can do is show the variety of subjects and stories and people, everything, that’s all stored in this old person’s mind. So what we’re going to do this time, there are….the old man thinks of a number of people in his life, in this case my life really, who have done unimaginable things, dangerous things, criminal things, gambling, every kind of unimaginable thing. But they’ve done that in the agreement with themselves that they don’t want to be recognized for doing them. I mean, if you’ve done something totally outrageous it doesn’t mean you want to be recognized for it. That’s your piece; you don’t want to share that with anybody.
So I realized that I needed more examples, I thought I needed more examples, to make that clear. So we started out with … we have four singers in the ensemble, so I started with four of these portraits, stories. Now in the new one we have 16, and I thought I’ve got to really get into this. I thought, “Who are all these people?” And then, in connection with those 16 stories, there are any number of incidents or scenes or whatever in your life that you can almost say in two or three sentences. You know, you can almost say it in 30 seconds, or a minute, or two minutes, whatever. So now, in the new version, in this recent version, we have these long songs, so-called, which are the portraits of people that have done these amazing, amazing things in their life. And then there are another 30 or so of so-called short songs which are those incidents and scenes I was trying to describe. So those things alternate.
So the thing we’re going to do at Roulette, every night two of the singers will have a long song. In other words, the first night Sam Ashley would do a person and Joan La Barbara would do a person. The second night it would be Jacquie Humbert and Tom Buckner. So when Sam and Joan are doing it, that leaves Tom and Jacquie free to do these short songs. So they’re doing a sort of changing scenery of the imagination. And so you have in this form now there’s the long songs, the portraits; there are the short songs, the scenes and the incidents; and then there’s another character called the observer, which is the old person imagining himself in this situation. He’s totally objective about it. He’s saying, throughout the whole piece, “what are we thinking about?”, “what are we doing here?” He’s always working on the piece in front of you. He’s actually trying to compose, not the music, he’s trying to compose this weird story of why he keeps thinking of these things all day. So he jumps in for two minutes, five minutes, whatever, and he sort of explains what he’s supposed to be thinking about, even though he doesn’t understand it himself.
So those are the three ingredients.
RC: This brings me to ... One of the things that I’ve always wanted to ask you, because the work that you do is, I don’t know how to put it in any sort of category …
RC: … so I’m not going to attempt to do that. But there’s an aspect of it … you know, you kind of go back and forth … just now you were talking about both composing the music and composing the story. And it seems that on some level they’re very different and on some levels they’re exactly the same thing. And I was curious, if you could talk a little bit, and explain a little bit about your sense of what a new opera is, starting with Perfect Lives and so forth, but really just the sense that when I think of composers of the 20th Century and I think of the great composers, including yourself, who have kind of created a distinct body of work that defines not only themselves but a larger kind of understanding of … human consciousness really … of you know, that period. You’re so distinct among those composers, in how you work, how you think about text and language and meaning and stories. I was curious if you could talk a little bit about how you see … When you’re working, you’re working with text, you’re working with stories, you’re working with people, with emotions. But at the same time there’s this incredible musical element involved. Could you say few words about that.
Well, I’ve been involved with this my whole life. I started by listing to a lot of Italian opera. And I listened to a lot of Broadway shows. Somehow I got the idea that the English language – it’s true – the English language cannot be used in a traditional European sense, because of very simple but very powerful forms of the language. For instance English has no pure vowels; Italian has six pure vowels, and you can sing that “E” all day. But English doesn’t have that. Everything we have, the diphthongs and that kind of stuff – So that makes it difficult, from a musical point of view. And gradually, just trying and trying and trying for 40 or 50 years or so, trying to find some sort of a musical equivalent of English, of American English. And yet steering away from the Broadway requirements for symmetrical meters. In other words, if you’re into the Broadway shows, then everything has to be either 4/4 or 3/4. So the Gershwins, and Lennon and McCartney, and George M. Cohen, all those guys, make great songs, but they’re in that little package of a symmetrical. And the problem with that is you can’t tell a long story in that form, you just can’t do it.
It won’t hold up. It crashes. So that’s the idea. I’ve been trying to find this thing and so to answer the question, when I – I’ve convinced myself that I could hear the music of spoken American English, so when I’m working on the texts and keep changing the words around, the order around, it’s like revising the music. I write a few lines and then say to myself, you can’t sing this, so I rewrite them. Then when that’s finished, there are a lot of very obvious procedures for making the music.
To bring it back to reality, over the course of these last 10 years doing Dust, Celestial Excursions, The Old Man Lives in Concrete, and half a dozen other shorter operas for different people or that I have done, I’ve been trying to get away from orchestra music to support the singers. You know the idea – you have this song, now you have to write an orchestra for it. That bores the hell out of me; I can’t even bear to think of it. And it just keeps getting worse and worse. So with The Old Man Lives in Concrete I’ve pretty much, I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve hopefully divorced the sound of the orchestra, which in all cases from the beginning of opera to right now, has always been sort of – I mean if you go to Don Giovanni or Aida or whatever, the people are singing and then there is this weird thing happening in the pit, which is a bunch of people creating a sort of sound environment for that singing. And you think, oh well, it’s gotta be like D-flat. All that is silliness. And it’s not true; it’s not true. They’re just creating an environment for the singers, and that environment can slow down or speed up depending on the singers. That’s what opera’s all about. So I’ve been trying to get back – you know it’s hard on us Americans to escape from that idea of the orchestra supporting the singers, which is suicide. I mean as soon as you start thinking that way, forget it.
So I’ve been trying to work my way out of that problem, and what’s going to happen at Roulette in April, is that I think I’ve successfully separated the singers from the environment. I’m creating the environment and you know a lot of weird things happen and it’s a very complicated sound environment. But it doesn’t have anything to do with what they’re singing. It’s just like traffic, or the guy upstairs is building a new something, and it’s just like the sound of that environment. And it could be very beautiful too, using all kinds of instruments, to make that environment of itself an interesting place to be. And then the singers when they come on, Tom Hamilton and I are designing – I’ve been wanting to do this for 20 years – a sort of “sound costume” for each singer, that will go with that singer. In other words, if you’re dressed like Don Giovanni, every time you come on stage you look like Don Giovanni. That’s how they know who you are, right? So I figure I can do that with sound, right? In other words I can make a sound – a complicated sound – that goes with you wherever you are. So you come the room, and somebody else comes in the room, you’ve got your sound environment. It’s like a little room that you’re in and you just move that little room around with you, and it’s got all kinds of junk in it, which is a costume for your singing. So that’s what we’re going to do. So in other words there’ll be four costumes, four singers each with their own costume quite recognizably different. Then there’s the old man, who doesn’t have any costume. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have any sound.
And so there’s the four singers each bringing their own sound costume with them to the piece and those singers and their costumes exist within this larger situation of the sound environment of the piece. It could be anything: I’ve got drums, and automobiles and all that kind of junk. It would be like if we had – a very stupid example would be if we turned on the radio. We could be playing the radio and you and I could be talking. There’s no relationship. The radio is the sound of this room and you and I are talking and you have a little tiny costume because of where you are in relationship to the microphone, and I have a little tiny costume. If I just amplify that idea so that you have a big costume and I have a big costume, and when we get together our costumes sort of mix, they blend. It’s like when you’re a designer you do that, you say I have to have this guy wear yellow because this guy’s wearing green and they look good together. I can’t have him wearing blue. So that’s the way you design these costumes, so I figure you can do the same thing with sound, right? Design a costume. You have a costume. I have a costume. So we’ll see. I don’t know, I think it’s going to work. So far I’m very happy with it, what we’re hearing to far, but I haven’t finished it yet.
RC: This project is a magnum opus. You’re actually writing four operas.
You mean in terms of Concrete? Actually I’m writing at least six. In other words the form that I’ve been telling you about is ... We’ll be lucky if we can jam all the new stuff into it in four nights. But I’ve got all that stuff from the previous performances, so I’ve got about nine, ten hours of opera. And I haven’t any idea about how to divide it up. We’re going to do it at Roulette because it’s very conventional, you know like an hour. You go in there and people sing at you and you go home. But I think, if it works out, if I can get this idea down into a score – you know the words and how to do it and all that junk – then we go back to my long-time obsession about doing opera for television. It’s an ideal opera for television. It’s really a spectacular idea for television. So some television guy could say, “We’ve got a lot of stories here, all we have to do is make up a sound for this guy, you know, just do exactly what it says and we’ve got a piece.”
Except in the extremes of good taste, there’s no deciding whether this songs goes her or this song goes there. You just have ten or twelve hours worth of junk and you can put it anywhere you want which I thing is ideal for television. (Laughter) It’s not going to get any closer to television that it ever was; I haven’t been too successful so far. But it’ll happen. We’ve got DirecTV and there are 500 channels and there’s only fifty, or twenty that you can watch. So there’re plenty of holes. There’re a lot of holes.
And I figure that somebody like you, or Alex Waterman, or somebody who’s got a lot of strength and a few years left, you could get into television in the same way that the guy that married Mobile Oil, British Television and PBS. He made Masterpiece Theater. Masterpiece Theater changed television. And there’s another guy, at WGBH in Boston, he sort of invented the do-it-yourself program. He had Julia Child, This Old House, Victory Garden. So he made these programs about how you could learn to cook, how you could learn to make your house, how you could learn to do this. Now there’re whole channels, there’s four food channels and four do-it-yourself programs. Everything. The guy changed television. And the guy who does that for music is going to do the same thing. Because music has all that potential. It’s just totally unexploited. And it’s not just me. There are a million composers out there who could write opera for television. You don’t want to write opera for the Metropolitan opera because it’s too boring. But if you had a change to write an opera for NBC you would definitely do it.
RC: Going back to the premise of your piece. This idea that there’s this character trying to capture all of his thoughts, that are all kind of one-sided in a way. He has taken in all these things at one point in his life, and now he’s sending them back out there. And he’s having a dialogue with himself. And the further you get into the details of that the more you see the scope and the network of implications.
… of what goes on in your mind. You’re not old enough yet, but you’re still doing it. There's a long discussion in Concrete about thinking and remembering, because, you know, the scientists are really on to this junk now. You know, other people have been thinking about it for a long time but finally the scientists have got into it. But you can’t function for a minute without remembering. You can’t do it. It’s obvious you can’t get home without remembering, but on your way home you have to remember other things to get you to the place where you can remember how to get home. So, thinking… Forget thinking. Thinking only happens in microseconds. When the guy is turning the double play at second base, for, like, one second he’s thinking. When the guy is choosing which word to use now he’s thinking. But otherwise you’re just remembering, you’re just coasting. So now I think ... I forgot what the question was.
RC: You certainly answered it….whatever it was.
RC: I have another question, if we have some time. I didn’t see the Perfect Lives in Spanish production – that I’ve heard wonderful things about.
It’s spectacular. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
RC: So the question for me is about language, and how did you deal with – Do you speak Spanish? What were you hoping to gain by going outside of your own language? In terms of how do you create the characters, and how do you get the musical quality of the language to kind of lead everything. You know some of the things were so pressing, I was curious about how things got uprooted when you were dealing with the Spanish language.
You have to be fascinated with Spanish. Spanish is if not the first language, it’s certainly the second language in the United States. So you have to pay attention to Spanish. Fortunately, I don’t speak Spanish, so I just hear it. You know, like when you’re on the subway and you’re sitting next to two guys and they’re speaking – something – I don’t know, Turkish, or some African language. You know, they’re just making sounds, and you think, oh my god, this is so musical. So fortunately I don’t speak Spanish so I can hear Spanish. I’ve been making Spanish pieces forever. Every chance I get I make a Spanish piece, because I love the sound of Spanish – I just love it.
Then Alex came to me a couple of years ago and said he wanted to do Perfect Lives. I say, “You don’t want to do Perfect Lives, it’s already been done. But I happen to have a very a a high-class Spanish translation, that was commissioned in Spain. So I have this piece – 1993 or something like that. I went over to Spain. The Filmoteca de Andalucia commissioned the translation and they hired two really good translators. When they finished it I went over for a couple of weeks and we sat down with a table full of people and worked out everything, like how do you tell this joke, what does this mean, that kind of stuff. And so I’m very happy with it.
So I said to Alex, why don’t you do the Spanish version? Bonk. Alex’s wife, Elisa Santiago, is Spanish; she comes from Spain. And so he immediately took it up. So he got Ned Sublette, who speaks Cuban Spanish with a New Mexico accent. And then he’s got Elisa who speaks beautiful Spanish – Castilian. And then he’s got Abraham Gomez-Delgado, who speaks another Spanish. And then he got Elio Villafranca, a great Cuban piano player. So he’s got the whole cast! And so they invented a rhythm for the Spanish that’s impossible in English, because the Spanish has all these wonderful vowels. So the way Ned treats the Spanish, there’s like a percussion section of vowels. It’s just dazzling, and it’s totally different from the English. It made me so happy.
RC: This past fall you had a number of productions by artists who are not part of the original concept, and the original production of the pieces that they were performing. So I was curious, working with all of them, and working with this other generation of performers and people who, like myself, think the world of your work. What is it like now going back and working with your team of fifteen, twenty years, thirty years …
RC: … your ensemble. When you’re going back, are there things that influenced, or changed things in any way?
Oh terrible! Wait a minute. When you have somebody who’s really smart who’s doing a piece that you wrote fifty years ago, it makes you feel very sort of out-dated. So naturally you’re feeling that way about everything.
Oh god, we’re all so old, we’re, like, crawling around … but they’re wonderful.
RC: You’re the pioneer! You’re not out-dated.
But what I mean I’ve got Joan and Tom and Sam and Jacquie we’ve been doing it for like twenty years. Actually with Jacquie and Sam we’ve been doing for thirty years. They’re totally wonderful. But to answer your question it makes me feel, whew.
RC: I think the dynamics you have in your quintet have influenced I think so many people and that’s been so powerful.
Well, it’s important it’s always been important to me to have a band. I’ve been 55 years with one band or another. I can’t think of music without an ensemble. The idea of making music by yourself is so boring. I have to do it occasionally - for business reasons I have to do a solo performance. But I can’t imagine being a soloist in the social sense of the word.
Wait a minute. I have to back up and explain things. When I came into music as an undergraduate, we were at … Music was so impoverished. There was nothing, literally nothing happening. You can even imagine it. I mean, Columbia University you’d have a folk singer sitting on a chair with a guitar. That was the music. Then the Julliard student orchestra, they’d play one contemporary piece. It was like desolation. That has all changed. Now we have a lot, a lot, a lot of people doing amazing and wonderful things. So I think that you, and your generation doesn’t have to face, so far, you don’t have to face that desperate poverty of American Music. It can get to be really bad. You can’t imagine how horrible it was in the 1950s.
And I’ve always thought that the only thing that I wanted, whether or not I could afford it, was to play with other people. So from 55 years ago to right now I have a band. I’ve always had a band. It’s very important to me. I think it’s important to everybody. I think that playing by yourself is really scary. If you don’t acknowledge what’s happening to you, if you give in to that poverty, and think well I think I’ll make something interesting by myself, you’ve been beaten. You’re defeated. Because you can’t make it by yourself, unless you set yourself on fire or something like that. There’s nothing you can do that’s interesting by yourself.
RC: Not more than once [laughter.]
But if you have five people you have five times the chance of making something interesting. If you have ten people … you know what I mean? It’s just a matter of how big a band you can afford. I can’t afford more than five people. I wish I could afford ten people. But you know, like in Europe … if any of the things that my friends did many years ago in order to invigorate our music, if that had happened in Germany, like the Once Group, that would be like Pina Bausch. All of a sudden the German government just says OK. I mean, the Once Group would still be working. I wouldn’t be in it; other people would be in it. But we don’t have that. We have this abject poverty and nobody will acknowledge it, you know. So once in a while you get a contemporary composer at the Met who’s doing exactly what the Met wants them to do. And it’s so boring, you can’t even imagine being there much less why you would write it.
And people are struggling. All these wonderful young musicians in Brooklyn, they’re forming different groups. But they’ve still got the idea that you have to be in a group. The only power you have, with respect to your own musical imagination, is to get other people involved. It won’t work any other way. Otherwise it’s like having no money.
RC: You need a community for … music is part of a community.
And when you have the group, when you have the ensemble, then you have the audience that follows the ensemble. Like what’s happening with these young people. Now you, you bring your audience with you. You bring it with you. That’s very, very important. That’s the way music should be.
RC: I just want to say it’s been such an honor getting to know you and working with you for these past few years. And so it’s so great to sit down with you and speak about some of these things. I’m looking forward to the concerts. Thank you so much.