The libretto for “Concrete” imitates the thoughts of an old man who spends many hours alone. The thoughts are of two kinds.
One kind is the quickly changing subject matter or the quickly changing continuity of four or five minutes of thought. In the score these are called “Discussions” and are given to the four voices in the ensemble.
The other kind of thought is a reminiscence of a person from the old man’s past. (We know he is old, because he speaks of things from fifty years ago that happened when he was a young man.)
The libretto imitates only the subject matter of the thoughts.
The libretto does not imitate the way the ideas and images happen in the mind. That would be impossible.
In everyday life the jumble of images associated with the thoughts is, to the thinker, a kind of all-at-once package. That is, the images do not necessarily appear in an intelligible order. And since the thinker has probably gone over this package of mysteries, regrets, pleasures, understandings and misunderstandings, etc. too many times, the lack of an intelligible order hardly matters. (“Arguing with yourself’ and reminiscence can become unpleasant and something of a burden, as we all know. But the singers are caused to keep the tone neutral and a little buoyant by the requirement in the score to accent the sung line in the peculiar pattern of accents given to the title of each Discussion — one of the five, quickly changing subject matter scenes. This way of speaking — rhythmically out of the ordinary — is mentioned very briefly in the last Discussion. “We did ‘talk in strange rhythms’.”)
In everyday life the form is always one of randomness in the order of the images.
Obviously, one cannot do this in story telling without the randomness becoming a kind of puzzle — for which there is no spare time in opera, unless the opera has no obligations to an audience. In a novel, yes, maybe — because you can interrupt the reading the novel and think. But in an opera, no.
The opera libretto has to take the form of stories told in a linear way.
So the libretto imitates only the subject matter of the thoughts.
The Discussions scenes — using four voices in a randomized order — are fairly clear in demonstrating what the thinker is thinking about, though the Discussions do segue from one subject to another rather quickly.
The thought that is a reminiscence of a person from the old man’s past is told in a simple chronological telling of a series of events. Each singer in the ensemble is given one of these Stories. The singer is free to tell the Story in her/his story telling style.
In both the Discussions and in the solo Stories the singer chooses pitches (and attitude) from an orchestra made up of groupings of orchestra samples made previously by the composer and chosen (sequenced) in the computer program by the composer or other performer differently for each performance. In other words, the composition of the orchestra is, in a simple, free fashion style, another aspect of “improvised” performance.
— Robert Ashley, 2008
Made Out of Concrete imitates two kinds of thoughts of an old man who spends many hours alone. There are probably other kinds, but two is enough. One kind is the blurred subject, unspoken drifting of the mind. The other is pure remembering. From the remembering it is obvious the man is old.
Since the thinker has probably gone over this package of mysteries, regrets, pleasures, understandings, misunderstandings, and such too many times, the lack of an order that means anything hardly matters.
The drifting of the mind scenes sometimes seem to segue from one subject to another either rather quickly or not quickly enough. The pure remembering is almost always too long.
The singer in pure remembering tells the story in her/his storytelling style.
Made Out of Concrete is made out of Concrete, which we premiered at LaMaMa e.t.c. in 2007. Parts have been moved around and characters and stories have been added.
MADE OUT OF CONCRETE
Approximate duration: 110 minutes
I Aged I Didn’t Grow Up--Ensemble
Ideas About Thinking--Jacqueline Humbert
Thank God I Figured It Out--Robert Ashley
The Mongoose and the Cobra--Joan La Barbara
Insatiable Desire--Thomas Buckner
Take Time to Think It Ove--Ensemble
The Pyramid--Robert Ashley
The Old Man Lives in Concrete--Ensemble
A Day on Planet Gilbert--Sam Ashley