So CRASH opens tomorrow. We were in the museum all day yesterday nestling into our new home and enjoying being a short walk from Central Park. Two things that I thought might be of interest to those who frequent this blog:
The libretto of CRASH was just published by Burning Books. It’s a beautiful little book. And all of us in Varispeed are quite enamored with it.
Also, about a week ago the Performa Magazine published a little something I wrote about Bob, alongside some thoughts from curator Mark Beasley and an interview by Victoria Keddie and Scott Kiernan with Alex Waterman: Remembering Robert Ashley.
Okay, back to talking to myself. By which I mean, getting ready for tomorrow.
Tonight is Sunday. Tuesday is our day to tech Robert Ashley’s Crash at the Whitney Museum. We’ve been rehearsing what ended up being his final piece for a couple months, and we’ll perform the piece four times, from Thursday to next Sunday. It’ll be a cathartic and intense time, I believe. In Crash, we’re entrusted with recounting Bob’s (nearly) 84 years of stories with a few different voices – a voice that stutters and recounts the years, a voice that ponders as if on the phone to a friend, a voice that poetically recounts instances of not being able to handle certain situations, and a voice that chants rhythmically. It’s a lot of material, and the five of us Varispeeders and the great Amirtha Kidambi are vocalizing for nearly 90 continuous minutes.
In preparing for this piece, I’ve been keeping myself familiar with the text, but it’s been a very different process than preparing for Perfect Lives (which Varispeed’s doing in Pittsburgh in a month and a half). Perfect Lives prep (as a vocalist) requires a lot of poring over words, repeating phrases, looking for meaning, looking for melody and rhythm, thinking about abstraction, and thinking about interfacing with the arrangement. Crash rehearsal is more direct storytelling, and the rhythms, except for the chants, are of a very different nature. Most of the Crash text has to be delivered in concise, 30-second chunks, and feeling the macro-rhythm of 30 seconds and the micro-rhythms of the phrases, line breaks, etc, while maintaining the character and through-line, is what most of my practice goes towards. In Crash, the six of us all inhabit the various voices at one point or other in the piece, and so listening to my compatriots and building off what they’re doing is a huge part of the work as well.
With Crash, we’re breaking new ground. We got written instructions and clarifications from Bob himself, but since his passing, we’re in a new world of interpretation, led by Mimi Johnson, Tom Hamilton, and Alex Waterman. Crash also has the added intensity of having our names in the score, the reminder that these parts were written for us, and we’re being counted on to bring our own sensibilities and individuality to the performance. With Perfect Lives, vocalists are always in dialogue with Bob’s original performances (and since we’ve done the piece three times now, with one another), and the instinct to go with his style or go against it is something we’ve spoken of at length.
There’s the additional challenge of trying to be a musical arranger for Perfect Lives at the same time as being a vocal performer. Often one or the other gets the short shrift. Forget that Gelsey, Paul, & I are co-writing (and just finishing a residency to develop) a collaborative opera with thingNY, or that we’ll be recording Brian’s piece Institute_Institut this month as well. I’m trying to keep my focus this week on being part of a six-headed organism that will tell Bob’s stories in Crash, and then pivot to setting the ground for a great new realization of Perfect Lives Pittsburgh on May 22nd. We’re setting a high bar for ourselves, but this is what we do for the music we love.
I got to know Robert Ashley, generally known as Bob, for two and a half years. That’s pretty damn amazing to me when I stop to think about it. He is my favorite composer and a figure of unique significance in my understanding of the history of art, and yet somehow, improbably, he was a person I knew. And now he’s gone. I feel so lucky, so sad.
I first heard of Bob from his good friend Alvin Lucier, in his Music 109 “Intro to Experimental Music” class. People Alvin talked about did things like work with famous bands like the Who or the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth, so my young rock n roller mind figured this Ashley guy must be some big deal because of the company he kept in the text book. Alvin talked a lot about how he hoped they’d play Bob’s String Quartet Describing the Motion of Large Real Bodies at Alvin’s funeral. I don’t remember being impressed by any of Bob’s music (it was a Steve Reich & Terry Riley kind of time for me).
Six months after the class ended, I went to a concert of Alvin’s in a museum in Manhattan. He performed Music for a Solo Performer, and as happens some times with that piece, it didn’t really work that night. In the bathroom, I somehow recognized that I was peeing in the urinal next to Robert Ashley. I was totally star struck.
But I hadn’t really discovered his work yet. I just knew he had important ideas (couldn’tve cited them for you at the time) and was a famous composer. I wanted to be a famous composer.
In the fall of 2002, Bob came to Wesleyan to perform two sections from Atalanta: Acts of God – Au Pair and Empire. Au Pair drew me in (I can perfectly picture Bob saying “jawohl” and moving his hand sideways), but Empire knocked me out. My dad worked for Heinz when I was growing up so the subject hit home. The story seems implausible but the telling was just on another level that I’d never imagined (didn’t hurt that Au Pair was long & Empire packed a quick punch). Funny when something hits you hard – sometimes you push back at it rather than dive in. That concert stood as an isolated incident for a while, an anomaly. It was unlike the other things and I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t explore Bob’s music for another few years after that. It was my friend Ben’s suggestion to look into Perfect Lives (he was taking Alvin’s class now). But that did it. The second time was the charm. I was totally hooked. I had to get to the bottom of this. I never will.
Then everything blew up. Alchemically. Something that came from a remote library shelf on VHS became the greatest, the thing with the most magnitude of all the other things. And the person who made it was elevated from famous person to a seer. The scale & dimension changed so that by the fall of 2005 I was doing everything I could to plan out a piece like Ashley and write text like Ashley and make my voice sound like Ashley’s. The imitation was the first step of trying to get inside.
There were more bathroom moments. I took a dear friend to see more Atalanta excerpts at the Merce Cunningham Westbeth Studios after college. Whereas my first Atalanta had been in a hall packed to the gills, this one was sparsely attended. In a whisper, I pointed out to my friend the musical muckety mucks I recognized. I went to use the loo, and from my seated position, I saw Mr Ashley walk in to once again use the urinal. I couldn’t breach that particular barrier and say howdy do even though I now had the perspective & confidence to do so. I let it go. After the show, I thought about introducing myself, but still nothing. By the way, The Etchings blew me away that night, and the casual way it was ended with reference to Elmore Leonard I shall not soon forget.
Before grad school was really on my horizon, I’d worked up the nerve to send Bob a letter, in the post. I had some older musicians I knew telling me grad school for composition was a waste of time, a good teacher was all that mattered anyway. So I swung for the fence and asked the composer I most admired if he’d teach me. In the letter, I said how much I admired him and inquired if he took on students.
To my delight he emailed me back (53 years my senior and technologically ahead of me, sure!). He was very kind. Flattered. Said that he was old and mostly wanted time to work on his own projects, that he hadn’t taught in years. But that he would be happy to have lunch some time. I probably smiled three days after I got that. I played it a little cool, didn’t want to seem too obsessed and over-eager, and inquired about this lunch idea. The back and forth petered out and it never happened. I can’t imagine being on his end of that exchange, I bet that sort of thing happened with some regularity but I’ve no idea. To my mind then, he was the best, he was a famous guy, so this kind of thing must happen all the time. People must be beating down the door to get five minutes with Robert Ashley. Later I’d realize how much notes like this probably cheered Bob up when he felt he’s been working in obscurity.
I did finally work up the nerve to say hello in public at a gallery show in Chinatown of Bob’s music that Alex Waterman put together. After the show I asked him about the performance history of Trios (White on White), and he thought about it for a second, blinked, and called out for Mimi to remind him of someone’s name who’d done it before. My first, brief, conversation with the great Mimi Johnson. Heart beating, I said my thank you and scrammed.
I went to see Concrete, then Dust, then Celestial Excursions. A reading of Quicksand at Roulette. I bought all the new Lovely Music records that Bob & Mimi released. I met Aliza Simons at Dust and we conspired to perform Perfect Lives ourselves – really just to read it. It was fun and very personal. Later, I met Paul Pinto & Gelsey Bell & Brian McCorkle and we all talked about being interested in Bob’s work, me presenting myself as some kind of expert who could put things together. I had the moment of realization like Horselover Fat in VALIS – sometimes you are the expert, much to your own surprise.
We conspired to do a second, bigger Perfect Lives, laying the groundwork for what would become Varispeed. We spread the word to a few friends. Andrea La Rose, a friend of Paul & Gelsey’s who’d worked for Mimi, suggested we drop Bob a line and let him know. I was terrified.
A.) this was a famous person after all
B.) what we proposed to do was unauthorized
C.) plus it was long & overly ambitious & who knows
But I bit my lip, found his email address from the previous letter episode, found Mimi’s email, and stated our intentions.
My girlfriend has many times described the sound I made when I got their response that they’d be coming. It was probably 15 hours before we were going to start the damn thing, but they were gonna rent a car and come to Brooklyn to watch us. A barrier had been crossed, and really, my life changed.
This was the man for whom I’d delved into Renaissance Hermeticism (and gotten a whole other thing out of that) and the Tibetan Book of the Dead and post-Jungian takes on the acausal principle, all because of a set of damn VHSes he put out the year I was born. A man whose work I’d been chasing then for a quarter of life (it’s up to a third at this point). And he was coming to see me. This was too much.
But Bob & Mimi came. He introduced himself as Bob (that was amazing). They loved it. Bob was touched to see young people taking up his music with energy & care. We were thrilled to be taken seriously, we were humbled by their presence. The Supermarket‘s subtitle was true, here were Famous People present, and gracefully, nobody else knew.
One of the first things I learned as a young creative guy who moved to New York was that famous people aren’t really that famous. That is, someone who passed for famous to a precocious high schooler or an obscurist undergrad was a person who lived at some specific intersection of streets, shopping at some particular bodega for orange juice, going to see shows like anyone else. Seeing David Byrne at shows didn’t phase me, and I played it cool being a sound guy for Marc Ribot and Steve Buscemi. But to me, meeting Robert Ashley was the next level. It was meeting Shakespeare or Mozart except I never really cared that much about either of those guys. Here was the real deal and here he was. I could swap stories with him. I went into his living room one time when he was watching a baseball game. He said he just thought all the players were so good, and it was a pleasure to watch the game be played. I reported to him once about a recent trip to Sailors’ Snug Harbor in Staten Island. He just listened raptly in an almost virtuosic way, he was a great listener of stories.
So since June 2011, I’ve been this lucky son of a gun who had three Robert Ashley’s. There remained Robert Ashley, the best composer in the world, the thinker I admired the most. There was Robert Ashley the collaborator, who not only blessed my idea of how a few of his pieces work, he entrusted me with the responsibility of bringing life to new and long-dormant worlds he created. And finally there’s Bob, a friendly older gentleman with whom I got to share a few meals and a few stories.
I’d be really sad if the first guy passed away, in fact, after the letter which implied he was old & tired, I had the morbid habit of checking, thinking, “it’s gonna be sad when Robert Ashley dies”. But now it’s happened and I feel like I lost more. That’s compounded by the fact that I gained so much more, and I thank my lucky stars all the time that Andrea encouraged me to email Bob & Mimi. I can’t think about the sadness of Bob’s passing without thinking about the joy he has brought me.
Leaving behind art, particularly art in your own voice, is a great way to sustain people’s personal connections with you. I still have so much. But I wish there’d been more. I last saw Bob at Roulette in December at the premiere of a new piece of his that involved a lot of ISBN numbers. Fresh stuff. Crash, which I feel so humbled and amazed to be a part of, was written in the last few months and is musically totally fresh as well. For an Ashley aficionado, it’s great because you get all the characters from all the pieces there together – the Dr Chicago crew hanging out in the desert while old friends from Concrete drop in, with a view of Lucille in the park, thinking about Willard and how Dwayne listened to Sibelius.
We’re never going to get to the bottom of this music. I knew that ten years ago when I first took it seriously. We’re really damned lucky to have received it in the first place. Like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, maybe we can shout what we find, getting louder and louder all the time, so Bob can keep track of what we’re finding, smile in seeing how’s loved he is, and then send us back looking in some other, totally unexpected direction.
- Dave Ruder
1. You should know I’m a guy who read textbooks cover to cover until mid grad-school, I never knew there was an alternative
2. I figured he’d have Tigers loyalties from the 30s or As from the 70s. He did have good As 70s anecdotes for sure.
3. I should add that through this version of the man, I’ve been given a string of professional opportunities beyond just working with Bob I’d never have had otherwise.
4. Right now I’m thinking about Buddy’s sermons in the Bar, the crazed voice Bob puts on in Atalanta in the Willard Anecdote, around 13:00, the straightforwardness of Concrete, the systematic thinking of the In Memoriam… pieces.
We, Varispeed, have plenty in store for the coming five months, content that you can see in person or online. But once in a blue moon, it seems helpful to clue you in on our other MANY MANY adventures as individuals and in our various other sub-groupings. I’d like to attempt to do that now:
At the end of this month, you can catch 4/5 of the ‘Speed performing at the Gold Bolus Recordings launch party at Standard Toy Kraft. Aliza & Dave will play some Why Lie? songs, joined by Paul on drums. Brian & Esther of PPL will present elements of their 2011 opera Institute_Institut at the launch party. Full line up for the evening is here. Both Why Lie? and PPL will be delivering an album in the coming month on Gold Bolus (Dave’s new-born brainchild), and both groups figure to be performing new material throughout the year. Brian’s big pay off of a new piece is Any Size Mirror is a Dictator, which springs into life this fall, and in the mean time PPL will be hosting a heap of shows in their space and performing at a theater near you (probably).
What else? Gelsey is 1/3 of the cast of Kate Soper’s new opera Here Be Sirens, which you can catch at Dixon Place a few times this month. Gelsey & Dave will be re-staging their collaboration with Kimberly Bartosik/daela, You are my heat and glare at New York Live Arts – one chance to see it in January and four more in February and March. Also during APAP, you can hear Dave’s score for Joanna Kotze’s it happened… at Danspace Project. In February, Paul brings a new radio opera collaboration with Joan LaBarbara to Experiments in Opera at Abrons Arts Center (I’m told there’ll be a lot of cussin’ if you’re into such things). Gelsey, Paul, & Dave stay busy with thingNY activities, with shows in town & out through the winter months, a residency in Brooklyn presenting a new collaborative opera called This Takes Place Close By in March, travels up north in April, and an ongoing series at the Firehouse Space through June.
And finally, all five of us will take part in the VERY exciting presentation of new stagings of Robert Ashley operas at the Whitney Museum in April, more details forthcoming, and then in May we take Perfect Lives on to Pittsburgh. So you can tell we like to keep it lite and breezy.
Dave et al
The Times classical music critics got together for a feature in the Arts & Leisure section this weekend, each one picking an opera or two from recent times that they thought deserved greater notice. Steve Smith picked Perfect Lives as one of his, and you can read his lovely words on the piece here. We get a little shout out. But the overall feature is awfully thoughtful and well worth a read.