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Robert Ashley - Atalanta (Acts Of God) Volume II

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Artist: Robert Ashley

Album: Atalanta (Acts Of God) Volume II

Label: Lovely

Review date: Aug. 11, 2010

In 1983, director Peter Greenway made a series of four remarkable short films titled 4 American Composers in which he explored the works of Philip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley. Although heavily NYC-centric (and annoyingly caucasian), his selections nonetheless offered an astute cross-section of American classical music and made a strong case for the wild downtown scene that had emerged along with everything else in the late 1960s. Viewers tuning in were likely jolted by what they heard and saw; Greenway provides a glimpse into a world of swirling ideas far afield from the constrictive comforts of the academy. Cage and Glass were already superstars, having long ago made their names with chance composition and minimalism, respectively. Monk, too, was well known, but her incantatory a capella works, though beautiful, didn’t quite catch on to the same degree. And Ashley? What to even say about the man? His film is a hallucinatory descent into Private Lives, one of his pioneering video operas in which American life is dissected in a strobing, unnerving collage of sentence fragments, musical interludes and awkward set pieces. Decidedly the weirdest of the bunch, Ashley seemed bent on exploring pure vibe, conjuring a black hole of layered meaning and needling questions. Thankfully, little has changed.

From the beginning, Ashley has shown a gift for zooming in and uncovering some of our most uncomfortable moments of darkness. In 1968’s "Purposefully Lady Slow Afternoon," introductory static gives way to a woman: "I remember he tried to put his gun in my mouth," she says, haltingly. "I remember it felt afterwards like my mouth was open for the whole time. I remember my mouth felt stretched afterwards. I remember he put his tongue all along my teeth." That he then chose to add calming synth bells and something resembling a Tibetan horn only serves to further make the listener squirm, essentially one-upping Throbbing Gristle’s "Hamburger Lady" 10 years before they wrote it. Often he uses his own voice, sounding wry, aloof, mournful and pleased all at once. In these cases, Ashley comes off as a parallel to Mark E. Smith, a narrator of the mundane and all that lurks beneath. Like Smith, the world he moves through is equal parts bland and fascinating, spiritually dead and yet teeming with possibility.

Atalanta (Act of God) Volume II is a perfect example of this side of his work, excerpting segments from the sprawling opera Atalanta and featuring much of Ashely’s unique voice. The three pieces, spread across the two discs, offer extended stories, each one sprawling in its own right and best enjoyed at one’s leisure. He says it nicely in the liner notes: "[P]eople drop out now and then and so they have to hear the story many times for all the parts finally to come together. I know a lot of stories in that style from my childhood. It’s a wonderful way to hear a story." Fair enough, I suppose, but it might take a while for everything to come together. Opening track "The Etchings" seems to be a narration of an encounter with a police officer, a listing of each thing in one’s wallet and the story behind that (as well as some commentary behind that), told in a sort of musical conversation between Ashely and singer Jaqueline Humbert. It’s unclear what exactly is happening, the music hardly changes at all, and one is left instead grasping at moments of meaning, such as when, almost a half-hour in, Humbert interrupts Ashley’s thought with simply "Time flies." I had been struggling to follow the story up until this point, but was pretty certain that I was hearing a molasses-slow inventory of a moment in time, stretched out over 30 minutes, and the comic timing was frankly devastating.

What is not so devastating is Humbert’s performance. Ashley has always possessed a knack for performing, seamlessly evoking by turns a tragic cool dude, a lecherous creep and a soulful intellectual. One always feels like they are hearing the real deal, and I’ve often wondered how much he’s acting and how much is the "real" Ashley. Humbert, on the other hand, sounds like an actor and nothing more. She does a fine job, but fails to convince. Thus, the most affecting piece is "Empire," in which Ashley (and Ashley alone) narrates a semi-ficticious tale about the depression, migrant workers and the invention of tomato soup. Set to a churning, post-minimalist piece of synth pop and clocking in at over 38 minutes, "Empire" hypnotizes the listener with its interwoven narratives of corporate greed (Campell’s vs Heinz), old school pragmatism (a bootleg recipe for tomato soup) and family life during the depression. Unlike the pieces with Humbert, I was sad when it ended; I wanted to hear more.

Similarly, the music behind these works leaves a bit to be desired. The melodies themselves work well enough, but the instruments sound irritatingly standard, decent mid-level electric pianos and synthesizers. Ashley’s work has, at other times, taken my breath away with its lushness and attention to detail. Here, however, the accompaniment sounds far too competent, far too professional for his staggering vision. In this way, the photograph on the cover seems unfortunately congruent; a poorly-exposed shot of tomatoes and cans of soup. It works, but in its lack of any enhancing quality, serves primarily to cheapen.

Still, Ashley cannot help but shine through. He describes the opera as a group of solar systems, each orbiting the same sun, with the same amount of planets, moons and satellites. Each of the selections on these discs, then, is represented by one of these planets. When one stages the opera, they may feel free to combine different planets from each system interchangeably, thus allowing for vast ranges of combinations. It’s a strange idea that risks flakiness, but it’s also an interesting one, suggesting a continuity running through the entire work that hinges not on narrative, but vibe. It doesn’t matter where you start, spend enough time with it and the pattern will reveal itself. The cosmic imagery only serves to further point back to the source, the man whose musical thinking remains some of the most unique of our time. If his collaborators on this outing come up lacking, Ashely remains a celestial talent, worth more on an off-day than most people’s A-games.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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