Now Eleanor's Idea
Robert Ashley’s NOW ELEANOR'S IDEA is a quartet of short operas based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from four, different points of view. At the same time, each opera is an allegory, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for an individual’s self-realization within the context of a major “religion” found in the United States. Improvement takes its imagery and plot from Judaism, Foreign Experiences from Pentecostal Evangelism, eL/Aficionado from “corporate mysticism,” and Now Eleanor's Idea from (Spanish) Catholicism.
As “versions” of a single series of events, the four libretti involve a common group of characters. But the continuation of the characters’ roles in the different versions is not dramatized and so the four operas can be heard (and described) as separate projects. They may be produced separately, or together, as a single performance work.
The operas share principal characters and vocal techniques (including the relationship of the voice to instrumental settings.) The operas differ, principally, in the language style of the librettos and in the relationship of the music to the presentation of the visual imagery.
Robert Ashley tells us that the inspiration for these works came specifically from four sources: the work of the historian, Frances A. Yates (1900–1983), whose specialty of interests included the influence of Kabalistic mysticism on the birth of modernism and scientific philosophy in Italy in the 16th century (as a result of the expulsion of Jews from Spain during the Inquisition); the writings of Carlos Castaneda (and the arguments about him as a writer and about the intentions of his work); “Low Rider Magazine,” the fan-cult magazine of the “Low Rider” movement in the Southwestern United States; and finally, “corporate vocabulary”—what it sounds like and how it is used in popular publications, like “The New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal” or “Fortune Magazine.”
Act I - Change
As a result of a mysterious incident at The Bank, where she is employed as a teller, Now Eleanor has a kind of religious experience and decides to change her job. She is hired by a local television broadcaster to anchor the daily news, and she becomes a celebrity overnight. To fulfill the responsibilities of her experiences she conceives of a documentary program to study the exotic “Low Rider” community; she believes that the answer to her “experience” will be found among the facts of the documentary.
Act II - The Miracle of Cars
In collaboration with a west coast broadcaster, Now Eleanor begins her documentary in the car-shops of the Low Riders. She and all of her audience at home will learn how to make a Low Rider car and what the car means.
Act III - Questions and Answers
While showing her work-in-progress documentary on the west coast channel, Now Eleanor begins to receive call-ins from members of the community who want to share their personal problems and get impersonal advice. The problems are about family, language, love affairs and the law. Her answers are so compassionate and intelligent and forthright that she becomes a heroine among the people and she receives a mysterious assignment: she has been chosen to sing the secret song of the “Three Great Lost Tribes.”
Act IV - The Song
The Secret Song of the Three Great Lost Tribes: A genealogy of the Tribes and of their beliefs and of the rules of their way of life.
The matter of giving credit to individuals for particular contributions to the creation of Now Eleanor’s Idea is unusually difficult for me, both because of the way I compose music of this sort (opera) and because of the sheer bulk of such contributions over the history of a work of five and a half hours duration.
Most important to explain, for me, is the technique of the vocal characterization. In almost every solo or ensemble part, the singer is given a “character defining” pitch (that is, a pitch somewhere in the singer’s range that, understandably, forces a certain “character” to emerge.) Around this pitch the singer can (is asked to) invent vocal inflections (pitch changes, vocal techniques, etc.) that express the intent or meaning of the text. The singer is limited or guided always in the vocal inflections by a harmony (implied or explicit in the orchestration) and in some cases by a specific set of alternate pitches. Apart from these technical limitations and apart from the trial and error process of what we agree on as proper or correct, the singer is entirely free to invent the vocal character. This invention can be spontaneous or prepared in advance and in any degree of detail. So, with rare exceptions, there are no written melodies in the operas, and there is a preponderance of empirical decisions found in practice and in rehearsal, collaboration (with and without tears) and spontaneous invention. In short, everybody has invented his or her part.
On the other hand, I suspect that I am known as sort of difficult to sing for, because my idea of vocal “character” is often at variance from the singers’ interpretations, from what is practical, what sounds “good” in the singer’s voice and sometimes, even, what is “possible.” And, too, because the responsibility to invent the vocal “character” (as opposed to simply learning a “part”) puts such an emotional and technical burden on the singer. It would be impossible in any program to list the singers’ “contributions” specifically and in detail. I can only repeat, simply, that everybody has invented what they sing.
Thus, what follows is a list, extremely simplified, of persons and studios and organizations that have been involved in the creation of Now Eleanor’s Idea.
—Robert Ashley, August 1994
NOW ELEANOR’S IDEA
She noticed, finally, that whenever she thought of herself, it was with a tone of caution, if not scolding, as in, “Now, Eleanor…” So, as a matter of self-respect she dropped the comma and the three dots.
Now Eleanor’s idea is that in the modern forms of Judaism, Protestantism, Business and Catholicism — the religions of America — all of the important things have become as one and the differences have disappeared. This seems wrong. So, when the opportunity presents itself she will be responsible to see if there is a purer form.
As a result of a mysterious incident at The Bank, where she is employed as a teller, Now Eleanor has what she believes is religious experience of sorts, an experience that is not to be deepened or explained by her job at The Bank.
To make matters more serious, she has experienced the powerful but not rare “the approach of the end of the world feeling.” With “the approach of the end of the world feeling” you look around yourself and think, “This can’t last.” And that applies to everything: “It will all be gone someday.” Many people have experienced “the approach of the end of the world feeling,” but in most instances they keep it to themselves because it is so portentous.
Now Eleanor is brave. She knows that she must act. She decides to change her job. Immediately the opportunity presents itself. She is hired by a local television broadcaster to anchor the daily news. She becomes a celebrity overnight.
To answer the responsibilities of her profound experience in The Bank and to recover from the terror of “the approach of the end of the world feeling” she knows she needs to find out who she “is.” Curiously, she believes this means to find out who she “was” — as if there is a hidden past she has not acknowledged.
She recognizes a clue. It is in the magazines in the rack near the check-out counter at the supermarket — the magazines that hold pictures of extraordinary automobiles called Low Riders that are known to her to be somewhere in the Southwest. Now Eleanor conceives of a television documentary program to study the exotic “Low Rider” community. She believes that the answer to her “experience” will be found among the facts of the documentary.
Her research — a more careful reading of the magazines — leads her to the village of Chimayo, New Mexico, the spiritual center of the Low Rider world. With the help of a television broadcaster in the Low Rider community, who allows her to show her work-in-progress on the local channel — to make sure she gets it right — Now Eleanor begins her documentary in the car-shops of the “Low Riders.” It is her intention that she and all of her audience at home will learn how a Low Rider car is made and will learn what the car means to the people who call themselves “Low Riders.”
Now Eleanor has never been to the great cathedrals of Europe, but she believes, from her limited experience in visiting the Catholic Church in her hometown in the Midwest, that the most beautiful aspect of modern Catholicism is in the way the Church retains the universal application of its visual icons. The pictures still mean something. She recognizes that in studying the “Low Riders” she is studying a “pure” form of Catholicism that can only have happened in America.
When she arrives in Chimayo and begins working on the documentary, Now Eleanor becomes aware of a mysterious and miraculous presence that is helping her. The presence has two forms: one might be called a “double,” another version of herself — as a “Low Rider” woman; another might be called a “guardian angel” that speaks Spanish. They are with her constantly. She is learning Spanish faster than she could ever have believed. It is as though she has spoken Spanish in another life.
While showing her documentary on the Low Rider channel, Now Eleanor begins to receive call-ins from members of the community. Surprisingly, the call-ins are not about the cars. They are from listeners and watchers who want to share their personal problems and get an impersonal kind of advice. The problems are about family, language, love affairs and the law. Her answers are so compassionate and intelligent and forthright that she becomes a heroine among the people. She has become the voice of the people. And she notices that with each question her Spanish becomes better in her answer. Finally, she can answer the questions purely in Spanish. This is something mysterious and special. It is as though she has been here before.
Now Eleanor, a stranger, has found a place of honor among the Low Rider people. She is called to a secret meeting with the leaders of the community. She has been chosen to sing a special song, the song of the Three Great Tribes. There will be no rehearsals. The text of the song will simply appear on the teleprompter during her next broadcast. Everybody will be watching.
“The song must be sung by a stranger, the ‘least-likely-one.’
“It must be sung once in every age. It is the song of where the people come from. It is the song of who we are. It can be sung in any language. It cannot be misunderstood.”
The Song is a description of the wanderings of the Three Great Tribes through the Seven Ages and a description of the wisdom the members of the tribes pass among themselves.
Now Eleanor knows that this is what she has come for.
Acknowledgements and Credits
The “Low Riders” of Northern New Mexico, many based in Española and Chimayó, are a large group of artists of devout spiritual and aesthetic seriousness. For many years they have practiced the art of converting that secular American icon, the automobile, into a moving, religious shrine.
Their devotion to their art is now threatened by the worst results of ethnic stereotyping. Now a Low Rider is not just a car. It is a political statement. It separates the “Low Riders” from the larger population. Among the younger “Low Riders” there are clans and clubs. And those clubs, especially in the larger cities of the Southwest, have been co-opted by criminal organizations to traffic in things illegal, to fight against other clubs and otherwise to do the dirty work. So in the popular media the “Low Riders” are almost universally the “bad guys.” The police have no patience with a modified car. It means trouble. And this, in turn, means trouble for the “Low Riders.”
Trouble and art don’t go together comfortably without destroying the artist or without changing the meaning of his/her vision. So the Low Rider artists must redouble their efforts to keep the purity of their heritage in the face of this ominous threat from the “outside” world.
As an example, in one instance a young “Low Rider” (to whom I was introduced to as “trustworthy”) who had been purposefully run over and crippled by a police car as he was running away from a serious fight in a gas station lot used the entire money he got from a lawsuit against the state ($100,000) to make a “Special” car — meaning the car can’t be driven: it has to be taken by truck to car shows. Among other modifications, this car has a terraced “mountain” sculpture where the back seat had been and on every terrace level there are two-inch handmade sculptures of the saints and other icons of the Catholic Church. It is an unequaled work of art and belief.
I want to apologize to my many friends in the Low Rider community. I came to you with the idea that this opera was to be made for television. I told you that because I believed I could make it happen. In this I failed. There is only the sound of the opera. And the damage of my failure (and the failure of American television) is more than just the loss of your trust. The opera is designed for television. It is intended to be seen as well as heard. The libretto describes specific images made to be seen. (What could be visually more powerful than pictures of the cars themselves, the way they are driven and the way they are brought together on a certain evening for a “cruise?”) Maybe this will happen someday; the score is not to be changed. Or maybe it will never happen, and the Low Rider will disappear into the mythology of the Hispanic heritage.
It needs to be explained why this compact disc project has taken so long to complete. We performed the opera for the last time in 1995 at the festival, SITE Santa Fe. Because during the years we were touring the opera I didn’t have the resources to record all of the voices and the orchestra parts independently in performance, as we did for later works, the performances in various locations were recorded only as stereo archives on DAT tape. There was no technology to adjust balances among the voices in those tapes and to make the tapes suitable for a release on CD. Finally, in the last few years that technology became available. I want to thank my friend, Tom Hamilton, who is the recording and performance engineer for the opera ensemble for using the new technology to make these CDs possible.
Thanks to Melody and Michael Sumner for putting me up and putting up with me during my many trips to Santa Fe. And for introducing me to Meridel Rubenstein and Jerry West, who contrived to bring a generous (but understandably cautious) anthropologist Benito Cordova and me together on this strange project, an opera about the Low Riders.
Thanks to Benito Cordova for introducing me to the Low Rider community.
Special thanks to Dennis Martinez, one of the wise men and leaders of the Low Rider community, who trusted me enough to bring me to the car shops where a legendary Low Rider car, “Dave’s Dream,” was being reconstructed under Dennis’ direction to be displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
More thanks to Dennis Martinez and to Julian Quintana for organizing two, beautiful Low Rider car shows in the parking lot of the Greer Garson Theater in Santa Fe on the two days of the performances there.
And more thanks to Dennis and Julian for bringing their Low Riders on stage for the performances.
Thanks to Steve Peters, founder of Non-Sequitur Records, for introducing me to the people whose voices are heard in Act III and for recording those voices in his studio in Santa Fe.
Thanks to Dean Winkler, Director and Producer at Post Perfect television post-production studios in New York for giving me hours and hours of his time and engineering genius in what was one of the most sophisticated audio studios in the world.
The orchestra in “Now Eleanor’s Idea” uses a phoneme-to-MIDI conversion program designed for the computer by Sam Ashley.
Translations of sections of the libretto to Spanish by Lisette Miller and Marghreta Cordero with Melody Sumner and (the recent guy).
Joan La Barbara as Now Eleanor
Amy X Neuberg as Now Eleanor’s Low Rider Double
Marghreta Cordero as Now Eleanor’s Guardian Angel
Ensemble voices: Robert Ashley, Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner and Jacqueline Humbert.
Performance Orchestra: mixed and processed by Tom Hamilton.
Description of work on two Low Rider cars (Act II): Arthur “Lolo” Medina and Joanne Martinez
Low Rider Call-ins (Act III):
Caller No. 1, “Qué piensas?” — Irma Martin
Caller No. 2, “Confundito About the Past” — Christopher Smith-López, Félix Valencia and Amalio Madueño
Caller No. 3, “Maria” — Elena Avila
Caller No. 4, “Oye me” — Alejandro López
Caller No. 5, “El Loco” — Tyrone R. Martin, Chris Abeyta and Joseph Villegas
Caller No. 6, “Can’t Wait Much Longer” — Lisette Miller
Caller No. 7, (Unnamed) — Marghreta Cordero
Pre-recorded chorus (Act IV):
Nodiah Brent, Anthony Gonzales, Aaron Hamre, Lori Jenaire, Carla B. Lopez, Consuelo Luz, Deborah Mirabai Rothrock, Edward H. Roybal, Michael Roybal, Ward A. Rudick, Donald F. Schiff, Juanita Sena-Shannon, Joseph Vigil and Holly Wood.
COMMISSIONING AND FUNDING
“The Song”, Act IV, was commissioned by Performing Artservices, Inc. (1991) with funds from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.
An hour long television version of Now Eleanor’s Idea (“The Miracle of Cars”) was commissioned by KAET, WLRN, WGBH, WNYC and Performing Artservices Inc. with funds from The Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund (1992).
The development of the four operas, Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), Foreign Experiences, eL/Aficionado and Now Eleanor’s Idea, was made possible by grants from The Rockefeller Foundation (1984 & 1993), the National Endowment for the Arts’ Opera Musical Theater Program (1985) and InterArts Program (1992).
Now Eleanor’s Idea and its companion operas were premiered at the 1994 Festival d’Avignon, through the efforts of Bénédicte Pesle and Claire Verlet of Artservice International. The staging, the set elements and the costumes for the operas were designed by Jacqueline Humbert. I am especially indebted to her for the unifying concepts in the design, the aspects of the design that make the four operas seem to be of a single inspiration.
Mixed Nuts (Post Perfect), New York, NY, Producer and Engineer: Dean Winkler
Non-Sequitur Records, Santa Fe, NM, Recording Engineer: Steve Peters
iEAR Studios, WRPI, Troy, NY, Project Director, Neil Rolnick
10 Beach Street, New York, NY, Engineer: Tom Hamilton
The orchestra in Now Eleanor’s Idea uses a phoneme-to-midi conversion designed by Sam Ashley.
Performance orchestra mixed to tape by Tom Hamilton.
All of the operas use configurations of equipment special to the studio to achieve MIDI-based orchestras and vocal effects in editing and processing, and in all cases these special configurations have to be designed by the engineers listed above to realize what is required in the score.
Live performance recorded at the Greer Garson Theater, College of Santa Fe, on August 6, 1995, as part of SITE Santa Fe. Jacqueline Humbert provided the set and costume design; Katy Orrick designed lights; Ed Fitzgerald was the stage manager and Cas Boumans was sound system engineer. The “Now Eleanor’s Idea Car Show” that took place in the theater’s parking lot was organized by Dennis Martinez & Julian Quintana
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Robert Ashley. Operas: in memoriam ... Kit Carson (1962), That Morning Thing (1967), The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity (1968), Music with Roots in the Aether (1976), Perfect Lives (1980), Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982), Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) (1989), eL/Aficionado (1991), Now Eleanor's Idea (1992), Foreign Experiences (1993), Dust (The Picasso Project) (1996).
For many years Sam Ashley has been developing a style of theater/performance based on his version of shamanic mysticism. Much of the original work he has performed around the US and abroad expresses this theme. He has been singing professionally for over 12 years, and has been performing electronic music for more than 15 years. He does lots of recording studio work and often finds work in multimedia production. He was a founder of the acclaimed Cactus Needle Project and is one-half of the fabulous AA Bee Removal.
Cas Boumans, freelance engineer for live sound. Sound reinforcement for television and theater shows, industrials, festivals and so on. Form opera to rock and roll. Installations, off-line editing, sound designing and teaching are also among his activities.
Hailed by the New York Times as “a powerful and persuasive advocate of contemporary vocal music,” Thomas Buckner has premiered over 100 new works, most of them written especially for him, in New York, around the USA, Europe and Asia. Upcoming engagements include Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra in January and David First’s The Manhattan Book of the Dead at LaMama in April. His most recent CDs, Full Spectrum Voice and Sign of the Times are available on the Lovely Music label.
Marghreta Cordero is known for her unconventional style of singing. Raised in a family of Ranchera singers and musicians in La Union, New Mexico, she has collaborated with intermedia artists in New York and Santa Fe, and joined Robert Ashley and Co. in 1992. Current projects include a CD release with Steve Peters on the What Next? label and a narrative on the myth of “Malinche” which she is scoring for music/theater performance.
Tom Hamilton maintains careers simultaneously in audio design and music. A composer/performer of electronic music, Hamilton has given recent concerts at Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Roulette, World Music Institute, ICA Boston and in festivals in Holland and Newfoundland. He performs with the improvisational group, Act of Finding.
Jacqueline Humbert’s work as a performer, visual artist and designer of graphics, costumes and sets has been exhibited, published, recorded, broadcast and presented throughout the world since the early 1970’s. She is particularly well known for her collaborations with leading, innovative artists, filmmakers, choreographers and composers, as exemplified by her 15-year contribution to Robert Ashley’s music as both a principal singer and designer. This fall she designed the costumes and properties for Oakland Ballet’s acclaimed production of Emily Keeler’s Our Town, based on the Thornton Wilder classic.
“One of the great vocal virtuosas of our time”, Joan La Barbara has premiered numerous works created for her unique abilities by noted American composers and her “signature” extended vocal techniques have brought her awards both in the U.S. an Europe. Newest release is 73 Poems, a collaboration with visual/text artist Kenneth Goldsmith on Lovely Music and Permanent Press and current activities include composing new chamber works for San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company.
Amy X Neuburg is well-known in the San Francisco area as a performer and composer of works for voice and electronics. Trained in classical singing, her compositions incorporate a wide variety of vocal styles influenced by pop, show tunes, non-western traditions, and experimental music. She records on the Racer label; her most recent release is Utechma, recorded with her art-rock band, Amy X Neuburg & Men. Amy frequently performs her solo works for electronic percussion and voice, and in a number of improvisation and mixed-media ensembles. She composes for film and video and is resident composer with AXIS Dance Troupe. Amy studied Voice and Linguistics at Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College, and received a Masters in Electronic Music from Mills College.
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