Crash is an opera for six voices and a three-person photo-projection score. The opera lasts ninety minutes and is played in six short, continuous acts. Crash is about a man, unidentified, but clearly an older man — the man-subject. We learn of his attitudes and his prejudices. We learn about his history as a member of a certain economic and social class.
Crash has three very different singing Characters.
One Character (Thoughts) is a person singing as if speaking on the telephone; that is, with the particular, brief intimacy that comes in phone conversations. The singer is trying to explain three important ideas: 1) the powerful cycles measured in number of years, “The Seven Ages of Man,” that drive us; 2) the problem of being small in our society; and 3) neighbors and the problems we sometimes have with them.
The second Character (Crash) is a person singing in a detached, deliberate style, as if reading a classic poem. The text describes the man-subject’s peculiar physical and mental problem: his fear of people, causing him to simply pass out, wherever he is.
The third Character (The Journal) is reciting the important events and ideas the man-subject has lived through, a brief description of every year in the old man’s life. This singing Character has an almost unnoticeable vocal tic, a kind of “glitch” or stutter.
The six singers rotate through the three Characters over the six acts. Thus, each singer will be heard portraying each of the three Characters once. This technique will highlight for the audience the unique vocal qualities of each singer, as in the aria technique in traditional opera. The three singers not singing as characters in any particular act sing as a vocal “orchestra” to accompany the three soloists.
The music of the opera is entirely vocal. All of the singing is very soft vocally, but amplified, and all of the singing of the words is very fast. This is a special kind of vocal sound that the audience will have rarely experienced. This vocal sound distinguishes Crash as an opera.
Throughout the opera there will be three simultaneous, but not synchronized, projections of photographs depicting vast, beautiful landscapes. The technique of the photo-projection is intended to allow the audience to hear the singing and the texts without typical visual distractions, creating an ideal situation for a special kind of meditation.
– Robert Ashley (2014)
JANUARY 7, 2014, ROBERT ASHLEY WRITES:
“Dear Friends, I’ll start with the barley. It’s true I eat a lot of oatmeal. Sometimes for lunch I add a few scallions and a bottle of soy sauce. Do you cook the barley right along with the oatmeal? Please send me more to read. Right now I’m down to crossword puzzles. Much love to you both, Bob”
That email was sent two days after Robert Ashley finished writing the Crash libretto. Crash is the final opera he completed. He finished the libretto three months before the opera was premiered at the Whitney Biennial on April 10, 2014. Crash starts with “Year 1 Begin” and ends at “Year 84 Begin.” Dates, years, numbers were significant for Bob. He had a theory—detailed in Crash—about the great cycles of years in the lives of men and women. Bob thought he was coming to the nadir of one of his cycles around his eighty-fourth birthday on March 28, 2014. He was working to perfect the sound of Crash until weeks before his death on March 3, 2014.
Backing up: I met Robert Ashley when he was the utterly inspirational director—by example not direction—of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College where I was earning an MFA in writing in the early eighties. I had applied to Mills largely because of hearing Private Parts on the radio: the infamous “Yellow Record,” which was Bob’s original presentation—using only his own voice with minimal accompaniment—of two episodes of the seven that became Perfect Lives.
Continuing: Burning Books (founded in 1979 by me and Michael Sumner) begins to edit and publish Bob’s words: seven complete librettos, including Crash, so far. I never lose my enchantment with the sound of Bob’s voice. I interview him many times. He generously loans his voice to recordings of my writing. We work together on books and operas and audioworks in California, New Mexico, New York, and for ABC Radio in Australia.
Mike once made a cassette for me repeating a simple line from a message Bob left on our answering machine: “I tried to say this to Melody.” Even there, Bob’s voice is so musical, nuanced, rhythmic, and natural. This was something he had to develop in himself—overcoming a speech defect as you will learn in Crash. Bob once said he didn’t understand perfect pitch, adding, “Why would you want it anyway?” On the phone, in recordings, in email too, his voice was “perfect.” It sounded exactly like he did in person, the way he paused and thought and spoke.
Recently, Mimi Johnson of Lovely Music—Bob’s beloved, intrepid wife and producer, my dear friend and cohort—asked me to write what I remember of how the text of Crash got its start. Here’s one of Bob’s favorite questions: “Where do you start?” Well, you start at the beginning, or, if you’re a mystery writer (a la Elmore Leonard, Bob’s favorite) you start at the end. What’s most difficult for me is that I want to write an encyclopedic book about Bob or one perfect paragraph. I can’t do either. That said, I will let Bob speak for himself in excerpts from emails revealing something of the mystery of the genesis of Crash. In Bob’s words, “Everything is true . . . except for a lot of the facts.”
* * *
MARCH 4, 2010: [Bob writes]: “After saying things to a few different purposes I start saying the same things again and again until I get to a blank white wall (turn around face the firing squad, please), which tells me I will never be able to think about that subject again. Ever.”
MARCH 5, 2010: “I’m trying to avoid thinking that drinking (a poem) has anything to do with my nighttime conversations with myself. As if stopping one could stop the other. The conversations are really wearing me out. I am having grim dreams. The world is upside-down.”
MARCH 10, 2010: “Dear Melody, thank you for thinking about what condition I’m in. The midnight conversations remain intense. I think it’s writing words as opposed to sounds. . . . You wrote: Do you have any interest in writing out your conversations with yourself or the grim dreams? Just wondering. That worked as a sort of trigger in some place I didn’t know existed. And the result is in the Attached. If you have time to read it, you must tell me if it is readable. It seems to be just the beginning of a long one.”
Note: The “Attached” refers to The Hardware Days Almost Gone, published in Q+1 of the Quadrant’s Series (Burning Books 2011) along with Bob’s Quicksand, his mystery novel / libretto. Hardware Days ends “. . . to be continued” and was later expanded into Crash.
JANUARY 4, 2013 [I write to Bob]: “I inadvertently lost all my IN box and my OUT box email on New Year’s Eve. Was that a mistake or a cleansing?”
JANUARY 5, 2013: “Dear Melody, It must have been a cleansing. Congratulations. I agree that 2013 has got to be less stressful than what just happened. The Mayans were right. 2012 was hard. Maybe too hard. Everyone seems damaged in some way. I have quite a bit done on Hardware Days III and IV [later Crash]. Not bad, but that has turned out to be hard, too.”
APRIL 2, 2013: “I’m feeling old. Which is discouraging. How could this be happening? . . . [quoting me] We are all old now, even the young, they just don’t know it yet. In some ways that is right. But in the last couple of years I’ve come upon a more ancient form of getting old . . . I mean, you forget that the whole thing . . . is wearing out. And you can’t stop it.”
APRIL 3, 2013: “As I tried to talk about in some chapter of Hardware Days (maybe one you haven’t seen yet) the fourteen-year cycle for men—up and down fortunes—has been sort of drastic for me my whole life, and this is the end of a seven-year downward slope which is supposed to get to nadir about eighteen months from now.”APRIL 5, 2013: [I write to Bob]: “It makes me anxious and sad that you are so certain you are entering the nadir of a seven-year downward slope. I hope it’s okay to ask (all of the people who love you would be wondering the same): precisely how do you know this? . . . maybe you need to re-examine this numerical assurance.”
AUGUST 4, 2013: “. . . I didn’t bargain to be a hero. I don’t want to complain, but I want you to understand why sometimes I don’t write. . . . Years ago I was working on an industrial movie that had Jack Nicklaus, one of the all-time great ones, probably selling Cadillacs. There was a break and I was in the clubhouse checking my work. Across the coffee table was the director and Nicklaus. The director says, ‘Is there something about your life that comes with being the greatest golfer alive? I mean, something special?’ Nicklaus said, ‘Yeah, every morning I get up at five o’clock and hit 300 golf balls.’ I’m not in the camp that wants to be all work. But you’ve got to work no matter who you are. And I want you to stay in that writing cave. 300 golf balls.”
SEPTEMBER 11, 2013 [in answer to my question, Has anyone ever called you Bobby?]: “Only when I worked in the movie business. They called me Bobby Wonderful because I never made a mistake. Don’t tell anybody. Or tell everybody. What do I care? It probably wouldn’t fit now because of my age. And because I make mistakes now. Not big ones. But I do have to use an eraser when I’m working a crossword puzzle. Very rarely make anything now without any editing. Last time was a long time ago. But it was fun while it lasted.”
SEPTEMBER 16, 2013: “The new opera [Crash] is coming together slowly and I’m pretty sure now that it’s going to use slides. Lordy mercy, the 1970s. Slides. . . . Strange how the libretto is coming out. I don’t know what I’m doing—and then (so far!!!) it’s done. WHOA.”
NOVEMBER 9, 2013: “I’ve been on the last words of a couple of thousand words of the new opera [Crash]. I found that in order to do it I have to learn to speak/write/think like the person who’s speaking. And not change at any time. Mimi’s been patient. I can do it, but it’s turned out to be painful. Never like this before. . . .”
NOVEMBER 25, 2013: “I’m ashamed to send this text because I haven’t even responded to yours. And you don’t have to read it, of course. And especially you don’t have to say anything about it. This is just something that I wanted to send you and Mike. The problem is that I’m right at the end of the opera, where everything has to come together, it says here, and in this spot I don’t seem to be able to do anything else. I don’t read. I don’t watch football on TV. . . . Somehow crossword puzzles quiet my mind between the battles with words.”
The entire text attached was labeled “CRASH I (through VI) OK 11/19-20 EDIT.”
DECEMBER 3, 2013 [I write]: “Dear Bob . . . we just got back from the Sonoran desert. Forests of saguaros. No TV, no internet, lovely. I brought a printout of your new Crash with me and read it through quickly with great pleasure . . . it’s terribly moving in so many ways. Now I’m reading it slowly, noticing how the prose is dense but almost weightless, the way events and themes return and spiral. . . . Thank you thank you, Bob.”
JANUARY 5, 2014: “Dearest Friends, I just want you to know how happy I am to get anything from you. . . . Please keep things coming. The past week or so has been a little rough. I finished the opera. Mimi is editing and putting it in a professional format. It’s strange—I mean, as an opera—but I think it’s good. Certainly won’t sound like any other opera ever. Mimi and I are going to try to get to Arizona the last two weeks of January. I can hardly wait.”
JANUARY 20, 2014 [from Bob’s final email to me]: “Dear Friend Melody . . . Not in AZ. Schedules and such non-stop. Also, I have to finish the plan for photos in Crash. Phil Makanna is sending me wonderful photos. I’m very close to being able to plan the way they are seen. I’ll definitely be here until May. Please stop in New York. I want to see you. Mimi will send Crash final as soon as she has any time at all. The business of my liver problem uses a huge amount of her time. Now I only complain and work. Love love love, Bob”
I won’t bother you with what I wrote back: cheery encouraging worthless things. I proposed a collaboration in which we each write a short piece titled “Wordless Strategy,” based on my experiences trying to win at chess.
I guess that’s what Bob and I are doing now. Wordlessly.
Jeremy Davies at Dalkey Archive called Robert Ashley “one of the great writers of our time.” One of the all-time great ones. I say so too, and he was also the kindest, canniest, and most generous writer-composer-human being I’ve had the honor and pleasure of knowing. Ever.
—Melody Sumner Carnahan, Santa Fe, New Mexico, November 2015
Sung by Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons
Live sound and processing, Tom Hamilton
Produced by Tom Hamilton and Mimi Johnson.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Copyright © 2014, Robert Ashley, Visibility Music Publishers
Copyright © P 2016 Lovely Music, Ltd.LCD 5001 DDD