Photo by Paula Court
Robert Ashley’s operas are indescribable experiences, so you can forgive the press materials surrounding the world premiere of his final, posthumous "opera," Quicksand, for sounding a little confused about what they're promoting. Robert Ashley wrote operas, yes, but for television; except this one is performed live and the entire thing takes place over Robert Ashley’s pre-recorded voice—and by the way, nobody sings. It's more like an audiobook, really. But with dancers. Also, it's a mystery!
Ah, the Robert Ashley problem: It’s hard to get proper recognition when what you do is this elusive. (The critic Kyle Gann has suggested we call his pieces "performance novels," which is actually a really good suggestion.) But anyone who saw an Ashley work, or encountered him through the albums he released on the art-music imprint Lovely Records, never forgot it, and never stopped trying to explain them to perplexed friends. "Operas" like 1978's Perfect Lives or ’79s Automatic Writing have exerted a profound influence on artists as diverse as Oneohtrix Point Never, Matmos, and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche.
Whatever else they are, his works often orbit serenely around his vinegary and genteel speaking voice. Hearing that alternately soothing and unnerving instrument pouring out disembodied from house speakers at The Kitchen last night, surrounded by wisps and pulses of synth work, was comforting and sad: Ashley passed away at age 83 in 2014, making Quicksand his final piece. He was reading a novel he wrote about a composer/spy (probably the first such protagonist in history) who arrives on mission in an unnamed South Asian country and finds himself caught up in an effort to overthrow a military regime. Exciting stuff, but this is the Robert Ashley version of a spy novel, meaning the murders and kidnappings drift past with the dramatic import of a folded napkin. When two armed guards are shot, Ashley's words describe the gunfire as "two short sounds, like someone puffing up a pillow twice."
But that makes it sound boring, and Robert Ashley's compositions are nothing of the sort. The story is just wallpaper for his philosophical musings, which render the exciting insignificant and vice versa. The larger ideas here—about the goodness of people, about goodness as a finite resource in the span of a human life, to be strongly guarded and not used irrationally—moved over the piece like seaweed, a peculiar notion I probably got from watching the two dancers onstage, who performed what looked like Iyengar yoga done on the moon. The choreography by from Steve Paxton, was hypnotic and sparse, at least once you adjusted to just how much nothing was happening. The dancers spent a large portion of the first act crawling around beneath a parachute blanket. At one point, one of them wandered onstage wearing a houseplant for a hat.
The lights were minimal, expressionist and dreamy—in one of the most hypnotic passages, the entire blackbox theater went dark save for a single, lazily wandering spotlight making its way out into the audience, tracking over lighting rigs and walls while the narrator of this supposedly high-stakes story of espionage digresses into his love of country music. It was vintage Ashley: You were knocked ever-so-gently out of a crack in time. Everyone who has ever experienced this pleasant vertigo is going to miss it, terribly.