Thursday, August 30, 2007

Give Me That Old-time Video Opera

After some urging from a colleague, I managed to watch a handful of episodes/songs from R Kelly's "hip-hopera", Trapped in the Closet. While I appreciate the attempt to expand the scale of narrative in a pop music genre and think that the linear style of the songs has something going for them, I couldn't help but keep thinking about Robert Ashley's opera for television, Perfect Lives (1978-80), a work at the center of my musical youth, and one that is in every dimension -- narrative, use of language, range of vocal production, use of meta-pop music and meta-mass television, audio mixing, visual quality, even video grain -- prescient of later developments, R. Kelly included.

But I don't want this to be an "Ashley did it first and did it best" remark. There are definitely elements of a rather complex feedback loop here at play: the Ashley-co-founded Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor and the Motown recording studios were contemporary enterprises and both studios were swimming in a common pool of ideas about the potential of studio production techniques for shaping musical and, ultimately, music-dramatical works. While I have no idea whether one artist was paying any attention to the other, the ideas were in the air and there are definite continuities from Berry Gordy Jr.'s anthems to Ashley's Wolfman, and from Perfect Lives to Trapped in the Closet, a work in a genre which is not shy about its Motown debts. In particular, both share an emphasis on textures flexibly contrasting solo and ensemble vocals which often suggested an extreme of fluidity in the identity of the voices heard. On one hand this is reflected in the range of vocal production, from plain speech to rhythmic speech, to pitch-accented plain speech, to Sprechgesang, all the way to real song with ornaments and melismas. But also this: narrators turn into participants, dialogue turns into interior monologue, personalities split or integrate, and the narrative itself is subjected to all the editing possibilities (chop/fade/cut/blend/merge etc.) used in the TV studio.

So, okay, I like Perfect Lives better than Trapped in the Closet. Maybe because I'm too old for the latter, maybe because I prefer midwestern bank robbery and lounge act stories (even metaphorical bank robberies) to urban soap opera and crime stories, but I think it's mostly because Ashley's control over form is masterly, and he manages to do all six episodes of his opera without ever launching into a proper aria or set piece. R. Kelly' piece is, on the other hand, all aria, all songs, and ultimately, just a bit unmodern for it. But should I expect anything else? Kelly is a singer, after all, and Ashley is, quite possibly, the world's greatest talker.

Follow up: The ever-provocative Patrick Swanson has a response here; obviously, I stopped watching a bit too soon.

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