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Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)
02 Feb 2016

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

A review by Rebecca Lentjes

Above: Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)


The voice of the late Robert Ashley—a recognizable mumble of a low yet crisp American drawl—filled the immense performance space at the Kitchen with a distinct presence, despite the empty stage and his March 2014 death. Some might have perceived the experience of Ashley’s recorded voice reciting the words of his detective novel Quicksand as somewhat akin to listening to an audiobook; yet for any Ashley aficionado the experience only affirmed the composer’s ability to draw novel experiences (no pun intended) out of American speech patterns. The spoken words of Ashley’s “television operas” and this “opera-novel”, unlike the sung texts of “normal” operas, do not have their meaning obscured by the voice as an aesthetic object; instead the narrative sentiment and aural rhythms of speech become intricately bound as a vehicle not only for musical but for philosophical contemplation. The world première of Quicksand, produced by Ashley’s widow Mimi Johnson, highlights the ability of voice, and of vocal storytelling, to animate words and sentiments even in the form of an unsung, unassuming murmur: even in the physical absence of a human body.

In the last few years of his life, Ashley wrote a novel, Quicksand (Burning Books, 2011), recorded himself reading it out loud, and collaborated with composer and audio producer Tom Hamilton on the transformation from novel to opera-novel. After an original version that was more in the tradition of Ashley’s television operas, involving a “strictly metered and very stylized” vocal ensemble, Ashley and Hamilton broke away from conventional musical time altogether, and Ashley instead read the 150-page book as quickly as he could, with Hamilton editing out the silence between the words. Hamilton also composed an electronic orchestra accompaniment which is based on a 16-chord sequence from Ashley’s earlier opera eL/Aficionado (1993), his goal being to personify the quicksand of the title with “an unstable harmonic landscape, never fully grounded in any familiar context.” Instead, the sounds flit around the audience’s ears, a solitary fly buzzing and multiplying into a swarm of electronics and drones, smoky in texture as the air in the performance space, which became filled with the acrid scent of smoke at the beginning and end of each act.

Another Ashley collaborator, choreographer Steve Paxton, had a similar approach. Dancers Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar wander around the stage in a series of mostly irrelevant motions, their bodies frequently obscured by a massive parachute quilt, under which their muffled human forms twisting the colors and folds into new shapes and designs. Paxton notes that Ashley “did not anticipate illustration of the elements of the text”; his divertissements are meant to be subtle, abstract accompaniments to the plot and never to overwhelm the texts. A recurring formation is Konjar seated and typing in thin air while Gahan stands next to him, folding her arms across her body, at times wearing a plant on her head so that she resembles a palm tree.

At times the two dancers pace across the stage, their movements ranging from measured and careful to gracefully spastic. At others, the dancers are nowhere in sight, and instead a choreography of lights and colors provides the visual backdrop for Ashley’s wry mumble. David Moodey’s lighting shows rather than tells, with colors materializing as an externalization of emotion or mood rather than indicators of time of day or location. Sometimes colors waft across the quilt, floating from green into blue into pink, while at others a divertissement of spotlights and darkness plays out across the quilt. The opera’s central visual component, at times the quilt hangs from the ceiling like a flag, while at others it crumbles and collapses, snatching Konjar and Gahan into its deflated obscurity.

The only other prop in the opera is a giant cardboard gun, which makes a few key appearances and seems to aptly serve Ashley’s larger points. Of course, the opera-novel isn’t really just a spy story, as most of Ashley’s works are “about” much more than what appears on the surface. In Quicksand, the fictionalized version of Ashley (an opera composer who periodically receives assignments involving guns, watches, secret passports sewn into his carry-on, and the dismantling of dictatorships) has been sent to a fictionalized South Asian country by “the Company”. Ashley uses his trademark irony and self-deprecating humor as the fictionalized version of himself joins his wife for a yoga retreat but ends up hiding on the hotel bathroom floor, clutching the gun that mysteriously appeared in the drawer next to his bed. I say “ends up”, but this is the scene with which the story begins, filling in some gaps but leaving others to the imagination.

The plot hops through time as witticisms abound, keeping the listener engaged despite the detachment of the visual and aural elements. The hitmen sidekicks assigned to him by the Company are referred to as “the Steelers” due to their resemblance to pro football players. Ashley’s incredulity over his missing bag and the questioning of the air hostess—“What is she talking about? It’s a carry-on. I carried it on.”—is delivered much more fittingly when spoken rather than in print. (The audience cracked up both nights I attended.) Although Ashley explores global issues with a gripping (if anything but linear) spy narrative, at heart this is an opera about different kinds of people and different kinds of love: “You can see it and maybe you can touch it. Maybe you can talk to it, but you can never have it.”

Rebecca Lentjes

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