24. When I began this review Robert Ashley was alive. In light of his death, I feel a compulsion to redraft and make these twenty-five points address something more. I want to talk about seeing Foreign Experiences and Lectures to Be Sung performed, about composition and improvisation, contemporary opera, and the intersection of music and language. Ashley’s work is full of good discussions. I’m attracted to the just-some-dude delivery style and storytelling aspects in the operas. One of my composer pals can’t follow the stories at all, and seems obsessed with the involuntary speech in Ashley’s work. Ashley’s work is so dense, and there are so many lessons that I take away from his work as a performer and writer. It’s hard to limit the discussion, especially given this kind of retrospective appreciation and the span of his work.
25. As I was struggling the the 25th point, I kept trying to figure out if there was some way I could articulate that reading Atalanta was very satisfying but also a little bit confounding. My mind kept wheeling around the opera, not the book. It wasn’t written for the page. The printing seems like an out of place artifact. In the afterward and in other interviews, Ashley seems to indicate that the libretto functions as only a part of a much larger event and set of processes. However, reading it I’m constantly dazzled by the turns the verse takes and the reading experience, which is so on its own terms. It’s really fucking good for being a kind of after-thought of a larger project.
1. Atalanta (Acts of God) is the first part in a trilogy of operas, the other parts being Perfect Lives, which is perfectly incarnated as a kind of YouTube/torrent masterpiece (completely amazing if you can get it), and Now Eleanor’s Idea. Atalanta was commissioned for performance in 1985. The publication of this book seems to coincide with the release of Ashley’s Atalanta (Acts of God)Volume II in 2010.
2. I have not had the opportunity to see Atalanta in production. Recordings are available. These recordings are of a completely different texture than the libretto/verse/text unperformed, and maybe are not my thing so much because they stick to a 72 bpm tempo in the recording and are much livelier in my head.
3. Atalanta (Acts of God) is a book of libretto, not a score, though a few songs have been included. It is not documentation of the production, though it does include notes, acknowledgments, and a handful of photos. The book is highly peculiar, in that it represents a kind of music based on collaboration, improvisation, and theater. All of which resist the book format, which seems more fixed, at least in my mind. There are some helpful notes and observations in the afterward.
4. It is easiest for me to approach Atalanta as a book in verse.
5. Ashley on writing for opera:
“The plot of the three (operas) doesn’t really have any meaning – it’s only a fancy category for catching a lot of things that are going through my mind. It’s not a very interesting idea in itself – an interesting idea would be like inventing penicillin or something like that – so when you say you’re going to write an opera about the history of consciousness in the United States, I mean who needs it?”
(106 The Guests Go to Super)
6. As anyone who has listened to a lot of Ashley’s work can testify, it is pretty impossible to get his voice out of your head as you read the words.
7. About the characters: Atalanta, the legendary Greek runner girl who is also the Odalisque, is wooed in turns by Max Ernst (famous surrealist), Willard Reynolds (Robert Ashley’s storytelling uncle), and Bud Powell (famous bebop pianist), though the recitation of anecdotes. A confused flying saucer lieutenant and captain drop in and comment on the would-be marriage. There are also some totally left field segues.
8. The plot of Atalanta is a skeleton for voices, ideas, and performance. It is a groundwork for piling narratives on top of each other. The dense accumulation of dialogue, incidental characters, and unidentified voices push the reader deeper into language which seems to focus on building moments rather than the progression of any kind of story. READ MORE >