Thursday, January 11, 2007

No tradition in a vacuum

Over at the New Music Box, Jacqueline Humbert has an article about performance practice in Robert Ashley's operas. Ashley's operas have been performed by a core of performers, including Humbert, Tom Buckner, Joan La Barbara and Sam Ashley, with and for whom he has developed a body of techniques and practices that are both efficient and rich in possibilities for realization.

To some extent, Ashley's operas bring us full circle, back to the origins of the genre.* The score, or better yet, performance materials, for a Monteverdi opera, share some important qualities with the performance materials used by Ashley. Some aspects are well-defined, others depend upon a mixture of tradition and the imagination of individual performers for their realization. The connections between basso continuo and melodic ornamentation and instrumental and vocal techniques used by Ashley are obvious. (There is a lot of chatter about Ashley as a grandfather of rap -- nah, recitative and text setting in classical Greek drama or Chinese opera or epic recitation across the planet all point to an ancient and shared inspiration, to go into the space between speech and song; a more interesting idea would be to see how the drive of rap might revitalize recitative or if rap could discover, from Ashley's example, a more extended dramatic genre).

The aspect of efficiency is not a trivial one. Composers, here's the first law of musical practice: there is never enough time for rehearsal, and you cannot expect all your performers to come prepared. Therefore, keep things clear, and find shortcuts that are not insulting, but rather call upon players and singers to use their own bags of skills. When musicians feel that their own resources and talents are being recognized, they will be more likely to deliver the goods.

There is also a deep connection between the impulses that led to the invention of the Italian and Ashley's operas -- both came about in historical moments demanding a search for roots, origins. The Italians turned to classical culture and history. Ashley, who early on, as a pianist, realized that neither the European classical tradition nor African-American music was "his own" tradition turned toward themes and settings that were very much part of the life and landscape of the US. And instead of the gods, demi-gods, heroes, and emperors of myth and history in Monteverdi's music drama, Ashley chose bank robbers and barroom piano players, and more recently, the elderly and the homeless, uncovering the myth and history in ordinary American life.

* There's a similar observation someplace (Tom Johnson?) about Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach, in which the "Knee Plays" connect to the instrumental ritornelli of the early operas.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

That's a nice Ashley essay, and actually makes me want to go to a performance. Your practical advice to composers also strikes me as priceless.