Glenn Branca’s “The Light (for David)”

In the program notes for Glenn Branca’s concert last night at Roulette, Branca  talks about Bowie’s death: “I don’t know what else to say. It hurts.” It sets up emotions as a crucial component–capturing and working through a feeling.

Branca has a long and controversial history in his area of music (think John Cage, for example, who was not a fan to put it mildly), but the concert last night, performed by the Glenn Branca Ensemble, felt tame and controlled.

Branca’s Ensemble carries four guitar players, one bass player and drums, with Branca himself at the front conducting in a style that directly mirrors this music, bracing and raising each new wave of sound with his whole body.

It was a program with two works: The Third Ascension (six movements and two tuning changes) and the world premiere of “The Light (for David).” I can’t say exactly what set individual works apart. Branca is more of a total-performance deal than a piece-by-piece experience. He seemed to recognize this himself, muttering that “We were only getting started” and “This one’s a bitch,” connecting the works together in a developing sequence.

But a sequence of what? Given the type of big dissonant sound (all audience members were given a set of free ear plugs), the environment was controlled by structure from the half circle of music stands on stage to the resolution that greeted us at each end. It made for an odd combination of chaos and restraint, with emphasis on the latter.

My brother (who had covered my program with the words “HELTER SKELTER” as question about the point of the experience) caught Branca in between pieces and asked him, “What’s more important, structure or emotion?” And Branca answered, “I don’t know, emotion?”

For a world premiere like this, emotion makes sense, but you have to wonder about the potential left behind in the realm that this music comes out of.

Neither at BAM

If you know Samuel Beckett’s work, you know he will make you feel anxious–about time, about dying, about biscuits–without any calming balm. His short piece Neither (it runs about sixteen lines of text) is stunning on the page, but alive–so alive–on the stage.

Neither, is an opera with libretto by Beckett and music by Morton Feldman that first premiered in 1977; it newly premiered on Wednesday as an original representation with eleven dancers by choreographer Shen Wei at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s a triple threat of artistic genius, really.

When Feldman first met Beckett in 1976, they agreed that music and words were better left apart, and indeed, this is the only opera Feldman composed and the only organized musical literary setting that Beckett approved during his life. They call it an anti-opera. I call it a masterpiece of sensations through imagery.

n’est ce pa une opera

The world premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes it even more difficult to define his body of work. Zachary Woolfe (who reviewed it for the NYT) insists that  Quicksand is categorically “opera,” but he’s responding to the many people who insist that Ashley’s work is performance art, or theatre, or a spoken-word concert. Ashley resists categorization, but do we still need to put him in a box?

It’s the first opera staged without Ashley alive to direct its vision, although several of his core (artists who worked with him closely for many years) have a hand here: Tom Hamilton (orchestra, sound, live mix), David Moodey (light design), Steve Paxton (choreography). Quicksand is a detective-mystery novel Ashley wrote and published in 2011. The only sound in this production is his melodic voice reading the novel from beginning to end over a colorful electronic hum while two performers (Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar) move on stage.

I saw it at The Kitchen in New York City last night. About fifteen minutes into the performance, I wondered if I had made a mistake by reading the novel first, as though I had inadvertently pulled one medium out like a thread from the multi-media work. As a book that you read silently to yourself, Ashley’s attention to language falls out of the experience. Staged, hearing each word spoken lyrically in Ashley’s characteristic way, the language becomes music beautifully. And the sound was realized visually by soft colors (blue, yellow, pinkish-red) and calculated movement. The performers, sometimes dancing, sometimes acting, ducked and stretched under a patchwork sheet that billowed and pulled throughout the 3-hour show. I suspect the novel’s narrative is a mis-direction. The real story is in the sight of sound.

It’s difficult to say what this is; it is much easier so say what lines it toes: It’s a novel that’s not a novel, an opera that’s not an opera, and a dance that’s not a dance.

Form and Story: Laurie Anderson at UH

Laurie Anderson resists categorization. The Mitchell Artist Lecture is an annual event that aims to bring “icons of the avant garde” to the University of Houston. And you can read the long list of reasons why Anderson fits this bill on Wikipedia, but on Wednesday night at the Moores Opera House she embodied a more complicated set of questions the twentieth century has asked about music and art on the whole. She opened her lecture by stating “I’m going to talk about a few of those things I supposedly do, but really…I’m a storyteller…I’m going to talk about some ways I try to jam those things into different forms.”

Why do we need categories? Anderson spoke about the “Art Police” commanding “Get back into your category!” She was reminiscing about the 1970s, when “Nobody really knew what they were doing…We just tried everything.” The borders between what they—Gordon Matta-Clark and Philip Glass, to name a few—were doing, though, remained flexible. “Nobody ever asked me what I wanted be as a kid,” Anderson joked, “So I never decided.” Here Anderson presses against an on-going struggle, particularly in the critical sphere, to define something by placing it in a box with a specific heading: opera, musical, symphony; sculptor, writer, composer. Her interdisciplinary body of work (and that is an understatement) forces us to deal with a more repressed question: what is at stake without the box?

Why does form matter? Once performing on the street in Italy,  Anderson stood in ice skates that were frozen into a block of melting ice, and she played the violin until the ice melted, leaving the duration of her performance up to the elements. The revolutionary aspect of compositions in the twentieth century begins with tension between content and form of a work. The inventions of the twelve-tone scale, tone rows, and matrices in the early half of the century are philosophical experiments in how content is generated, and we can look to Arnold Schoenberg, a pioneer of atonal music, as a yet unwavering exceptionalist figure of the Composer. In the latter half the century, though, chance-generated work radically removed a composer from her work. Indeed, John Cage, a student of Schoenberg, sought to free the content of his music from individual (or the “Composer’s”) likes and dislikes. But it’s not a free-for-all. In chance-generated work the content is unrestricted, but the form is often inflexible. The developing relationship between form and content in Anderson’s work shows an inkling of the future: will form still matter?

How does storytelling relate to form and content? Throughout the evening, Anderson read several stories and told several others off the cuff—some of which she finished and some she left dangling without conclusion. It made her lecture seem disorganized, but the form her lecture took represents an important concept of telling stories. Think of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, for example. Ashley’s investment in American storytelling instigated a move to television—a trailblazing move for opera especially. But someone watching Perfect Lives for the first time will likely have trouble grasping its plot. Instead, we recognize the characters, and this familiarity ties it all together into a story. For Anderson, a story is a set of links: “String something together and call it a story…often I’m very suspicious of those kinds of things, but we all have our stories about our lives,” she said. As such, it’s fascinating to think about what it means for storytelling—an ever-expanding category in itself—to be the inflexible form of Anderson’s work.

A wise person chose David Eagleman, a neuroscientist interested in time perception, to introduce Anderson. Anderson’s stories ranged from ducks in ponds to watching friends die and Vipassana meditation retreats in the mountains—all deeply reminiscent. Many of the films Anderson showed ran in reverse, emphasizing varied states of passing time. At one point she stated, “Every time you tell [a story], you forget it more,” implying, too, that as memories fade they grow into stories with a life of their own. Perhaps time, memory, life, and death raise the largest set of questions, too many and too varied, that stretch throughout civilization far beyond the twentieth century—questions that have yet to be answered in any discipline.

A New Make


Alex Waterman, director of Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas, introduced tonight’s performance by remembering what Ashley said to him about re-making his television opera Perfect Lives: “Don’t sell them a used car–make them a new one.” The performance tonight in Marfa, TX, of the Spanish-language version was classically Ashley while inhabiting a vital new magic.

Whether you know Ashley’s operas or not, keeping old opera new is a popular topic right now.  The Economist‘s opera blog posted a piece just last week about Sir Mark Elder’s vision of a La Traviata at this year’s Glyndebourne festival that, he promises, will be new, fresh, and full of exciting discoveries. A tough promise for such an old work. And as the comments show, opera lovers fall passionately on either end of the spectrum about new and old works (and how those distinctions are defined) and staying true to the composer’s intention (whatever that might mean).

Tonight was the final performance of a four-night tour through west Texas, and the finality added an energy akin to a last hour spent with a loved one.  The fearless and talented Ned Sublette, Elio Villafranca, Elisa Santiago, and Raul De Nieves performed the last three out of seven episodes: El Parque (The Park), El Bar (The Bar), and El Patio De Atras (The Backyard). El Parque opened quietly. A strong groove had the floorboards shaking with unconsciously tapping toes by El Bar. But El Patio De Atras was truly spell-binding. Behind a row of old Panasonic televisions, the stage was framed by powerfully colored hanging banners–orange, purple, turquoise, red–that met at the back in two blocks of green. In the last act, these two green blocks opened slowly to the outside where Santiago was standing in a spotlight dressed in a floating gown alone. It was beautiful.

Ashley died this March, but if this production says anything it is that he is very much still alive. Near the end of his introduction, Waterman dedicated the performance to Mimi Johnson and Ashley, saying “They were supposed to be here tonight, but they couldn’t make it”–as though something had just come up in Ashley’s schedule. It was a fitting statement given how strongly Ashley’s influence comes through in this production. It may be a new car, but it still has the peaceful ingenuity I love in Perfect Lives. How much is Ashley and how much is Waterman–that’s harder to say. Who knows what some time will do to this work. What will Perfect Lives look like in 2050? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out.


Summer Intermission: Some Notes

As the summer opera-hiatus drags on—alas, will October never arrive?—a few notes:

Opera is not far away! Alex Waterman directs the late Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas over two weekends in west Texas. Vidas Perfectas is a Spanish iteration of Ashley’s seven-episode television opera Perfect Lives that premiered in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York this spring. It is perhaps his best-known work—a composition that pushes feverishly against traditional and stuffy attitudes about opera to focus on the American vernacular and, most of all, American storytelling. Catch the first four episodes in El Paso on July 12 and the final three in Ciudad Juárez on July 13. The tour moves to Marfa for another two performances on July 18 and 19 (for more info, check out Ballroom Marfa). I’m catching the last night—look out for a review—and you can also watch video recordings of all the episodes (previously filmed in February) here.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones writes a noteworthy spotlight piece on Brian Eno—a composer who continues to thrill and bewilder my notions of musical content. And, surprisingly, Alex Ross takes a more generous approach than some Houston critics (myself included) to Weinberg’s The Passenger, which came through Houston in January and now sees its way through New York.

Robert Ashley, 1930-2014

“There is only one Self. That Self is

Light. The Self is ageless.”

Robert Ashley died yesterday, March 3, at his home in New York. Articles popping up about it emphasize that Ashley was underappreciated and misunderstood. I had not heard of Ashley until I began graduate school. After listening to five minutes of Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon, a solo piece for voice composed in 1971 about sexual abuse, I had the rare feeling one gets only a few times in life: that I had heard something that was going to change how I perceived the world. It might sound cliché, but it’s true, what people are saying, that Ashley’s genius was ahead of his time.

As part of my research lately, I’ve been obsessing over Ashley’s television opera Perfect Lives. It’s an opera that captures American consciousness focusing on its characters more than a plot, though it travels through a park, a bank, a supermarket, a church, and into a friend’s backyard. In Kyle Gann’s biography he cites an interview in which Ashley announced Perfect Lives is “meant to be…seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work.” How refreshing, to think of opera as accessible to anyone with a television and to knock it off its bourgeois pedestal. How refreshing, to think of opera as basically human.

That opening quote is from the fourth episode of Perfect Lives, “The Bar (Differences).” Reading it now, I know it will always coalesce differently for me:

“And things in general are still


I brought up this idea, the idea of

The Tree of Life,

To have something to compare the Self to. We were

Talking about the Self.

We said the Self is without coincidence

Being singular.

We said the Self is without attainment

Being perfect.

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know.

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless…”

Robert Ashley, with glitter in his hair, performing Perfect Lives

“It’s Dynamite!”: Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana at Roulette

Although I should expect it by now, the voice in Robert Ashley’s compositions always catches me unaware and unprepared. Last week, I took a quick trip to New York to hear his latest work at Roulette on Wednesday, December 11. A world premiere, Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana threw the voice as an instrument onto new compositional ground, continually growing in urgency and building in layers until a burst of light and sound brought closure, showing yet again why Ashley is a foremost composer of our time.

The Swiss trio Ensemble Tzara performed Ashley’s composition, which was bookended by David Sontòn’s La metta da fein and Timothy McCormack’s Interfacing with the Surface, both US premieres. In the middle of these exceptional instrumental pieces, Ashley’s use of the voice was especially set off—to hear a performer’s voice, suddenly, changed my perception of the whole concert. The trio is made up of horn player Samuel Stoll, cellist Moritz Müllenbach, and synthesizer player Simone Keller. Although Ashley’s use of voice tends toward the emotionless, hearing each performer’s voice added a sense of the human to a radically electronic, futuristic sound.

Open, sustained notes in cello and synthesizer began the piece, acting as a foundation for the first vocal part. As the work progressed, all three performers rotated in 16 sequences of speak-singing at the microphone in the center, continuously shifting the instrument color and voice timbre. Understated rhythm from the synthesizer, especially, added texture to the underlying chords.

Ashley created the text from a random set of leaflets advertising books in today’s trivial American literature. The resulting hissing and cracking of consonants was the Rhaeto-Romanic translation of book titles, authors, abstracts, hard- and soft-cover numbers, e-book numbers, and empostazium labels from the randomly-selected set of leaflets. At the first instance of the heavily accented “E S B N”  and “W W W punckt!” I heard a ripple of laughter, but the performance took a more serious turn with a lighting shift from soft blue to green that marked Keller’s first turn at the microphone.

Because the voice plays such an intricate role in Ashley’s compositions, the choice of performer—the individual timbre of a voice—is critical. Not just anyone can perform a given part. Each performer in Ensemble Tzara had a distinct, select tone that danced over the heavy language. The initial switch from Stoll to Müllenbach, for instance, felt drastic. Stoll spat out words vengefully, while Müllenbach spoke calmly in a profound, monotone voice that slowly developed into a more urgent tone conjuring visions of enchantment or incantation.

Stoll and Müllenbach took several turns at the microphone before Keller did, adding a sense of intentionality to her voice. Once all three voices were in the mix, rotations happened more quickly, more seamlessly. The lighting shifted at what felt like a faster rate until a marked change to red at the end. The sequences began to blend, somehow, coming together finally (but remarkably, I had to remind myself, still remaining separate) in a genius, closing chord.

The following night I caught Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Met—naturally a drastic change from Ashley’s work, but I found myself thinking more about Mixed Blessings, Indiana than listening to the supple soprano voice of Marina Poplavskaya. I will never forget the first Ashley opera I encountered, That Morning Thing, and how it changed my perception of opera as a genre that can be familiar, approachable, unpretentious, and overall, deeply American. As I left Lincoln Square, the last thing I heard at Roulette the night before coalesced: Ashley buoyantly asserting across the theatre “It’s dynamite! It’s retro-disco!”


Check out press pieces, videos of Ashley’s work (including my favorite, That Morning Thing), his biography, info about upcoming performances, and almost anything else you might want to know about Ashley at his website: