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Robert Ashley
16 May 2015

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

Six people, dressed in ordinary clothing, sitting in a row at desks adorned only with microphones and glasses of water, and talking for ninety minutes: is it opera?

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

A review by Rebecca S. Lentjes

Above: Robert Ashley

 

According to Robert Ashley, the composer himself, “Well, if I say it’s opera, it’s opera! Who’s running this show, anyway?” The composer, who died in March of last year, was known for anecdotal libretti and “television operas” that invite close listening and that range in tone from tragic to comic to cosmically, bewilderingly existential.

Crash , the last of his operas, was performed at Roulette by Varispeed, an experimental music group consisting of a younger generation of Ashley disciples: Brian McCorkle, Dave Ruder, Gelsey Bell, Paul Pinto, Aliza Simons, and Amirtha Kidambi. First performed last year at the Whitney Biennial, Crash was reincarnated for four nights in April by director Tom Hamilton and producer Mimi Johnson. The opera is divided into six acts of fifteen minutes each, during which three of the speakers, in a Cageian fashion, take turns talking for 30 seconds each: “Thoughts” rambles, as if partaking in a phone conversation, about fourteen-year life cycles, evil short men, and the frustrations of neighbors; “Crash” swirls out a string of poetic fears and musings; “The Journal” stammers out descriptions of each year from Ashley’s life. Meanwhile, the other three voices murmur quietly in the background. The members of Varispeed rotated through the parts so that, by the sixth act, each had taken his or her turn assuming each of the voices and their varying tempos and amplifications.

Roulette TV: ROBERT ASHLEY // Crash: Act 1 from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.

Unlike other of Ashley’s operas, which feature loosely outlined piano or electronic parts, Crash is distinct in its accompaniment: each of the three trains of thought, which thread in and around each other like a braid of multicolored ribbons, is joined only by the quick but quiet mumbling of three other voices and an array of three different photo projections. This symphony of voices and abstract images allows the focus to fall not just on Ashley’s texts but on the spotlighted speaker and the hills and valleys of their inflections, vocal register and timbre, and unique embodiment of the “character”. So although the opera is sparse in requisites, it feels inordinately full and rich in tone as the six voices—four voices at any given moment—complement each other in continually new ways. (The interpretations of “The Journal” were most striking in their differences, as each of the members of Varispeed adopted the required stutter in a particular way.)

Despite this sense of evolution in the ever-fluctuating vocal combinations, there was an overall sensation of constancy and meditation throughout the comforting rhythms and switch-offs of the 30-second segments. Each time one of the characters started back up, no matter who was speaking, the carefully intricate yet seemingly stream-of-conscious themes and anecdotes of Ashley’s life fell into their familiar patterns. The mathematically predictable structure of the opera was the perfect framework for Ashley’s unpredictable and often humorous observations. Each of the vocalists managed to capture the ponderous, philosophical, and psychological ramblings—which in the case of “The Journal” were highly linear and easy to follow, while during “Crash” they were more obscure—with not just humor but sensitivity and musicality.

Another reason, aside from the scrupulous performance of Varispeed, that Ashley’s personal accounts and musings never felt heavy-handed or forced were the photographs by Philip Makanna, who collaborated with Ashley on the latter’s 14-hour video opera/documentary Music with Roots in the Aether. Throughout the “projection score” by Katie Cox, Eric Magnus, and Andie Springer, the abstract and peaceful visual component did not feel like a contrived, maladroit powerpoint sequence as so many new music projections do. Rather, the photographed landscapes not only depicted the American scenery so important to Ashley, but also allowed the audience to “hear the singing and the texts without the typical visual distractions”, as Ashley desired. In combination with lighting designer David Moodey’s skillful spotlight maneuvering and Kate Brehm’s stage management, the photo projections did not hammer home a message but allowed the viewers to form their own responses alongside their listening. This was the rare opera experience wherein the visual and aural experiences were united with not a blip of disjunction.

More straightforward than Ashley’s other operas, which can be oblique and convoluted in narrative and musical structure, Crash delivers a wondrous yet meditative experience. Written at the end of the sixth fourteen-year cycle of his life—and it’s surely no coincidence Ashley died just before his 84th birthday, considering his self-imposed significance on the number—the opera feels as if Ashley is looking back on his life while also looking towards the future, using the voices of young people to explore concepts of voice, story-telling, and, yes, opera.

Rebecca S. Lentjes

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