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 Forum index » Reviews, Editorials and Commentary » Reviews, Reports and Interviews
Robert Ashley's Opera, Celestial Excursions, A Masterpiece
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 19, 2003 11:02 am    Post subject: Robert Ashley's Opera, Celestial Excursions, A Masterpiece Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Robert Ashley
Last night, April 18, 2003, Robert Ashley's new opera, Celestial Excursions, was received by the enthralled audience at New York's The Kitchen. Celestial Excursions is indeed a masterpiece. Its roots are deep and true in the classical operatic tradition of Monteverdi, the music has a new and compelling sound, and the libretto has a poignant and uplifting message; an anthem for our ripening generation. Robert Ashley leads us from the rebellious, sometimes aimless, meaningless and confusing world of 20th century music, into our future with sensitivity, compassion, and confidence.

Celestial Excursions deals with a human condition that troubles us almost as much as death - old age. The source material is based on the sometimes aimless, unfocused and incoherent converstations of old people.

The general impression of Celestial Excursions is more than that of beautiful music, and clever poetry. It's an affirmation of the human condition. It gives the listener a more positive and compassionate perspective of the elderly. Through all of their broken thoughts, disconnected timelines, anxieties and fear, they are experienced through this work with wisdom and sensitivity, charm and humor, beauty and love.

In the program notes Robert Ashley writes:
The fear is that we won't go gently or abruptly into that good night. We will hang on in the endurance trials of old age, forever rehearsing in the early morning twilight, fortified by a few hours of faulty sleep, the plot or why there is no plot, the explanations, the why, the lists, the old grievances, never to be settled now, the stories never told or passed on, the interruptions, the terrifying proportions, everything larger than it is known to be, distorted in the mirror, and again and again.

Old people are interesting because they have no future. The future is what to eat for breakfast or where did I leave my shoes. Everything else is in the past. Is this understandable? Reading Faulkner at seventy-two made me wonder what I could possibly have understood when I read the same story at twenty. The reason is, it takes one to know one.

So, sometimes, old people break the rules. Especially the rules of conversation and being together. They break the rules, because, for one reason or another (illness, anger, damage, enough of that, whatever), the rules no longer apply for them. They are alone. Sometimes they are sad. Sometimes they are desperate. Mostly they are brave. Mostly they have given up on the promises of religion--life after death, immortality, etc. Mostly they are concerned with dignity. Living with dignity. And dying with dignity.

But they are still obliged, as human beings, to make sounds. They are obliged to speak, whether or not anyone is listening.
The Opera is scored for five singers. The performers for the New York production were Sam Ashley, Thomas Bruckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, and Robert Ashley. Instrumental players were "Blue" Gene Tyranny on piano, and Robert Ashley and Tom Hamilton on electronic orchestra. There was a silent character, a dancer, performed and choreographed by Joan Jonas. The opera has three acts performed without intermission, separated by periods of silence.

Celestial Excursions Stage
The stage was set very simply and remained unchanged for the duration of the performance. The five singers sat at small desks, each with a microphone and a nearly invisible earpiece. The piano and dancer were behind the singers. There was a large screen which redisplayed the dancer in several instances via video feedback. The dancer changed costumes several times on stage. Her movements were usually very slow. Sometimes she would make drawings on large sheets of cardboard.

Robert Ashley's part was the lead. The other four singers were a chorus, who sometimes joined with him harmonically or in counterpoint. The singing style ranged from unpitched straight spoken words, through monotonically droning speech, to chantlike sing-song. The voices were sometimes processed with echo, reverb, and pitch shifting. The sound system was artfully balanced four channel surround.

The composition employed great variety in the use of the five voices. Sometimes all sang in unison, sometimes they sang the same words with common rhythm but in harmony, sometimes they sang in counterpoint, sometimes canonically, and sometimes they sang multiple parts simultaneously. There were solos, duets, trios, and quartets; all in a continuous flow. The cleverness of Ashley's compositional craft work with musical form reminded me several times of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

There were sections where single voices resembled classical operatic recitative, and there were parts of this opera that were clearly songs. At one point, Ashley's character told of an old lady who wanted to have an adoring love letter to hold and to read when she was feeling lonely. He then presented this letter, in the form of a beautiful blues song.

The electronic orchestra played accompaning music that was restrained and mostly consonant. The dominant sound texture was rhythmic and plunky, like a giant African thumb piano. There were also themes of water sounds, often dripping, and wind like machines fading in and out from time to time to tie sections together. "Blue" Gene Tyranny's piano music was very sparse, adding interest to the sound texture while never dominating or distracting. There were some very rich and lush rhythmic and harmonic textures when the voices sounded more insturments than singers. Many times I found myself tapping my foot to the music, like I would at a jazz performance.

Robert Ashley is a poet; a master of the English language. His poetry recreates common speech, often about trivial and unimportant subjects. Somehow the words, through rhythm, repetition, juxtaposition and other artistic devices, end up being brilliant and profound. In this respect, Robert Ashley is very much like Bob Dylan. But he supports his poetry with more than a blues band. Ashley's chorus and electronic orchestra takes the poetry beyond the realm of the song, adding facinating complexity and richness.

Celestial Excursions Score Example
The score of Celestial Excursions is more like the timing sheet for a movie or a television commercial than that of a conventional piece of music. (Early in his career Robert Ashley did soundtracks for commercials including those for Detroit auto makers.) The part of each singer is indicated by a column on the page. Each beat is represented by a horizontal line. The singers hear in their earpieces a click track with beat numbers, and occasional tones so they can come in on pitch when required. Tom Hamilton, who runs the electronic orchestra during the performances, uses a specially marked version of the score.

Stylistically, Celestial Excursions seems to me very much related to the first opera, Montiverdi's Orfeo. There is a small chorus and simple orchestration. The vocal style is rhythmic, and the singing is not athletic. Celestial Excursions is opera, back to basics; opera minus 400 years of show business - but still entertaining. There is no focus on elaborate and expensive sets. There is no huge cast.

Structurally, it is much like the music of Mozart. Ashley's music is beautifully crafted; one unified composition built of sections and phrases each which could stand alone, but when put together each reinforces and enhances the rest.

Robert Ashley
Bob Dylan meets Claudio Monteverdi
The libretto, written by Robert Ashley himself, is at once as profound as Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron, and as poignant as Madame Butterfly. The theme is as tragic and heroic as any of Wagner's operas, only the symbolism and the sensibility is more thoughtful and universal. Ashley explores the most serious material while maintaining a sense of humor.

Celestial Excursions is rare in contemporary art in that is has a message, and it is communicated confidently, forcefully, unambiguously and unapologetically. That message is "The River Deepens [as it flows into the Ocean]". That Ashley created this work at age 73 only strengthens the message.

While this performance was wonderful, an intermission between the second and the third acts would have been appreciated. This music is quite complex and requires a great deal from the listener. Also, the chairs at The Kitchen aren't very comfortable and they are too close together. I for one could have used a break.

The performances are being recorded on separate tracks which will be used as source material for a CD to be released in the future. We look forward to this.

Photos and score example courtesy of Lovely Music, http://www.lovely.com

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