On Thursdays at the office, I typically spend my entire work day listening to CDs I haven't heard before, by artists I may not know, in the process of assembling the colossal concert-listings section Time Out New York runs every week. (I'm talking about the big rock/jazz/world music/etc. section here; I deal with the classical music and opera listings on Wednesdays.) This is actually one of the best parts of my job, since it compels me to listen to music about which I have no firm opinions or preconceptions. Certainly, this doesn't amount to quality listening -- more often than not it's a quick spin, a snap judgement and a pithy sentence or two about what you might fairly expect to encounter, should you choose to attend the show.
Naturally, there are always plenty of selections that I don't especially care for, but on a regular basis I encounter unexpected gems. Today brought three: Recording a Tape the Colour of Light (Rough Trade), a luminous chamber-rock project by the Bell Orchestre, featuring members of currently hot indie band the Arcade Fire; February (Table of the Elements), a brooding set of monolithic, droning blues-rock instrumentals by former Swans drummer Jonathan Kane; and Abstracts (Yestereve), an airy, elusive chamber-jazz session by local trombonist Jacob Garchik, which somehow reminded me of Jimmy Giuffre's trio with Paul Bley despite the presence of a drummer instead of a bassist. (Jacob Sacks and Dan Weiss were the pianist and drummer, respectively). These are all artists and discs I look forward to spending more time with.
Still, once the work day was done, I immediately plunged into one of my favorite recent releases, and fell in love all over again. The recording in question is Robert Ashley's latest opera, Celestial Excursions (Lovely Music).
Ashley has long enjoyed a proud position among American mavericks for his idiosyncratic vocal works and music dramas, such as She Was a Visitor, Perfect Lives and Atalanta (Acts of God). Recently, however, his work has taken on a deep, rich sort of emotionalism, abstract yet verging on sentimentality, that I find immensely moving. This was certainly the case with Dust, Ashley's 1998 rumination on the marginalization of homeless people. When I first encountered Celestial Excursions, at the Kitchen in April 2003, I initially felt it was a less trenchant work, despite its similar emphasis on emotional displacement, this time among the elderly. A recording made during that run, however, has proven me wrong -- something I'm happy to admit.
Part of the problem I'd had during the performance, I hesitate to confess, was my inability to connect with the visual tableaux that performance artist Joan Jonas enacted onstage. (The show was certainly striking; you can see so for yourself in the stills posted here.) Additionally, one feature of Ashley's musical language in the piece is a layering of multiple lines of narrative; it was hard to know on first encounter just where to focus at any given time. As others have noted, this kind of simultaneity extends all the way back to medieval motets. (Your point is?) On record, this doesn't pose a problem. Each voice can be clearly discerned, and you've got the option of paying attention to different threads in repeated auditions.
It's clear that Ashley must have had a decisive impact on artists such as Laurie Anderson and Mikel Rouse. But honestly, this score -- conversational lines spoken over burbling synthesizer backgrounds, punctuated by pianist "Blue" Gene Tyranny's cocktail tinklings -- wouldn't alienate admirers of the Residents, or even broad-minded Depeche Mode fans. (I'm sure there must be some.)
The speakers -- Ashley and his longtime associates Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley and Thomas Buckner -- relate anecdotes that cumulatively conjure the sense of the time-loosed directionlessness the composer ascribes to the aged. Some are perplexing, some are funny, some are sad. Taken in total, however, the piece becomes immensely touching, not least because it effectively stops in mid-thought rather than concluding, well, conclusively.
You can't help but think that there's an autobiographical element in play here. And in fact, you'd be correct. In an interview that took place between the Berlin premiere and the Kitchen run, Ashley told me that he'd spent a great deal of time among older people for the last six or seven years. (The composer himself, at the time, was 74.) "I became fascinated with the way they tell stories in a strange form of English, in which a story that happened in the past is told as if it was the present," he explained. Add in the fact that Ashley could himself be considered a marginalized figure in the overall scope of American music, and the poignance mounts.
But you can also ignore that implication and simply revel in the very sound of these wonderfully individual performers. Ashley, often the voice of authority or a curmudgeonly scold, takes on a Capote-esque whine in the first act's "Alcohol." Aloof and warm by turns, La Barbara can be a disinterested receptionist or a hug from your grandmother. Humbert and Sam Ashley, the composer's shaman son, are addled but eager. And the avuncular Buckner, although he doesn't have a heartbreaking showstopper like "One More Time" from Dust, as usual does his finest work in Ashley's music.
Ah, but is it opera, as Ashley likes to call it? I'll let him have the final word, again from our 2003 interview: "When I started working in this tradition in the 1960s, I called it electronic music theater. But that didn't mean anything, even to me. I finally said, 'Well, if I say it's opera, it's opera! Who's running this show, anyway?"
You are, sir. You are.