Saturday, February 24, 2007

Landmarks (23)

Robert Ashley: In Sara Mencken Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women (1972) for voice and electronics. (A sound file is here).

From its Florentine origins, opera has been essentially all about accompanied song, and it's generally been clear that the song is the figure against the ground of the accompaniment. The accompaniment provides the continuity (basso continuo and ritournello) while action, the ruptures in the continuity, come from the texted melodies.

With Robert Ashley's operas, this figure/ground distinction is made unstable, and is perhaps most unstable in In Sara Mencken Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women, his setting of a text by an author, John Barton Wolgamot, whose biography, despite decades of cult attention, remains obscure. (The text is described and the author recalled, marvelously, in two articles here by Keith Waldrop and Robert Ashley, the latter also introducing his composition.)

Ashley creates this instability by allowing the text itself to become an element of continuity rather than change. He reads the text breathlessly (or rather his reading of the text was made breathless by editing out all of the breathing), and the electronic "accompaniment" is generated by syntheziser patches (made with Paul DeMarinis) which respond to the comings and goings of selected pairs of names in the text.

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