Robert Ashley

Ashley's last opera....premiered at the Whitney Biennial weeks after his death in 2014, and presented again in 2015 at Roulette, where this recording was made.

Featuring the original cast: Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder and Aliza Simons. Music Director: Tom Hamilton.

What I have appreciated most about previous reconceptions of Ashley’s operas was the extent to which newcomers found fresh possibilities. Already in “Crash,” broadened horizons were evident. Ms. Bell’s inquisitive “yeah” was not Mr. Pinto’s hipster aside. Mr. McCorkle’s stammer was more pronounced than Ms. Kidambi’s. Ms. Simons and Mr. Ruder employed distinct hues of wistfulness. If the specter of death haunted this wistful, articulate swan song, prospects of preservation and renewal were also at hand.
– Steve Smith, The New York Times, April 2014

Ashley was a superior librettist, one of the finest American prose stylists, and his pieces are dense with words—words drive the rhythms and the music. They have also been dense with plots and characters, and one of their consistent problems has been that the plots require so much a priori explanation that they at times obscure the substance of the operas. Crash, like Concrete, is different.
Rather than several characters, there is one with several voices—six performers. They sit in a television studio set, which the composer had in mind as the ideal place to produce all his operas. The character is Ashley himself, and the voices have three delineated styles: one singing as if they were talking on the phone; another singing as if they were reciting a poem; the last singing with a slight but noticeable verbal tic, a slight hesitation like that of a suppressed stutter.
On the phone, the voice talks about the idea of cycles in life, the problem of being physically small in society, and having neighbors, good, bad and indifferent ones. The poetic voice describes recurring fainting spells Ashley experienced, the voice with the tic narrates Ashley’s life through important events. The speaking moves back and forth through three performers, while the other three quietly vocalize on sustained, rhythmically exact pitches. Then they switch, the speakers vocalize and vice-versa.
The flow of words and stories is both beguiling and fluently done—few details stick in the memory but the overall effect is deeply moving, a story of failure, success, frustration, happiness, loneliness, satisfaction and disappointment. It is lovely but also melancholy and poignant in many ways. The cycle concept, “fourteen years for men,” underpins everything, and speaks with expectation about how the sixth cycle will be a high point at age 84. Ashley received his diagnosis of cirrhosis last summer while working on Crash, and must have known he would not see that realized.
Also deeply moving is seeing an entirely new generation of performers tackling Ashley’s works: Paul Pinto, Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, David Ruder and Aliza Simons. They have Ashley’s idiom down exactly, and carry the quiet charisma his work demands. None of the old, familiar voices—even Ashley’s—are missed, and that has the powerful effect of cementing his achievement and stature as a composer.
Working with his composition, his unique notational methods (and with notes Ashley sent them via audio recordings), they produce the unique, engrossing quality of his operas: the captivating speeches, the vocal susurration, the humor and empathetic humanity. The inherent sadness of this posthumous premiere was balanced with the moving realization that Ashley now has a legac and left us a body of work that is a repertory.
– George Grella, New York Classical Review, April 2014

Album Notes

Track Listing:

1. Act I (Years 1-14) (15:00)
2. Act II (Years 15-28) (15:00)
3. Act III (Years 29-42) (15:00)
4. Act IV (Years 43-56) (15:00)
5. Act V Years (57-70) (15:00)
6. Act VI (Years 71-84) (15:00)

CD 5001
Lovely Price: $30.00