Dormancy & Bob’s music
Last month I witnessed Jonathan Wood Vincent (pianist, composer, proprietor of Papacookie, and friend of Varispeed) recount the visceral experience he had in the mid-90s listening to Robert Ashley perform “Love Is a Good Example”. He was in college in Maryland, and the framing of Bob’s distinct speech as music, as well as the performance’s directness & openness was shocking and enlightening to him. Not to mention the words themselves and the ideas in the piece. Some fifteen years later, Jonathan could still remember the piece vividly. Not just how it sounded, even some of the text itself. Bruno would be proud with such a feat of memory.
As far as I know, “Love Is a Good Example” is available only on a Roulette-produced compilation from 1994. I happen to have a CD copy of this, so I felt it was my duty to reunite Jonathan with this piece. But before I did that, Jonathan experienced something that’s I think not uncommon with Bob’s work: the first time you come into contact with it is unforgettable, unshakable, haunting. Particularly if a young, impressionable person unknowingly finds him/herself in a live performance context without any information beforehand. Okay, at this point I’m just universalizing my experience and using Jonathan as a second case to prove the rule, but you get my point. I’m sure there are many similar stories to be told.
This is significant for me at the moment because I too have just been reunited with the materials of my first Robert Ashley encounter. In the Fall of 2002, I was taking Alvin Lucier‘s intro to Experimental Music course at Wesleyan University (this class is soon to be the subject of a book). Alvin insisted we all see Ashley perform selections from Atalanta: Acts of God, and all I knew about it was that the poster art was of a high quality. Sitting on the carpeted steps of a crowded hall, I heard Bob & Jackie Humbert perform Au Pair, which struck me as having an unusual-yet-positive kind of relentlessness – once you’ve already gotten the idea of things that can go wrong with au pairs and guilt on the part of the narrator, it keeps on going with many more variations. I don’t know how carefully I listened, but the big picture and some of the particular details stood out from what I had known previously. I remember Bob’s hand gestures and how, maybe, true, or honest they felt. I particularly remember him saying “ja vol” softly while chopping sideways with his left hand.
Even though the first half was enlightening, I really had it coming in the second half, which was Empire, a meditation on the origins of tomato soup, the depression, capitalistic competition, and the “extra man”. At this point, I was hooked. My father worked for Heinz for 15 years, so mythologizing their signature product struck a deep chord in me. Here was a seemingly apocryphal origin story of something that I’d never considered to have an origin story. The piece gave me a lifetime of lessons in storytelling: how it could sound, how it could be paced, what its relationship to the familiar or fantastic could be simultaneously, how much it could be personalized, regardless of whether it was strictly autobiographical. I also felt a connection, via Heinz catsup, with Ashley, this curious, soft talking friend of my professor who’d shown up in my small central Connecticut town.
After this first exposure, it would be another two years before I started scratching harder. I found the initial Lovely Music discs of Atalanta, but they were nothing like Empire & Au Pair. Perfect Lives came next for me, and then everything changed. While I’ve fallen under the spell of Perfect Lives and the later operas, I’ve long wanted to revisit those pieces that piqued my interest in the first place. Low & behold: Lovely has recently released audio version (which I’ve yet to hear), and Burning Books has just published the libretto for Atalanta. This past week, I’ve reread these operas and had the great fortune to spend some time with the 19-year-old version of myself, being amazed once again by something so familiar and something so new. It’s rare that something that makes such a strong, specific impact on a moment in your life gets a second go round. I’m trying not to take this feeling for granted.