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Robert Ashley - Foreign Experiences

Going west isn't so much a perennial American pastime as a way of life. Ask Robert Ashley, the New York-based composer of spoken word opera, whose back catalogue over the past quarter of a century is largely made up of a mammoth trilogy of Perfect Lives, Atalanta - Acts of God and Now Eleanor's Idea, which obliquely maps out a cross-country quest in search of enlightenment.

The final part of the trilogy is itself divided into four parts, each focusing on the response of one particular character after the banks run out of money. With the fourth part, Foreign Experiences, at Tramway for one night this weekend, some 15 years after its premiere, such prescience in relation to the current global economy is purely accidental.


Ashley is in London to watch a performance of Foreign Experiences, which will form part of Talk Show, a season of speech-based artworks and events at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He will also visit Glasgow to watch his long-term collaborators, Sam Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert, perform what was originally intended to be a work for seven voices.

"It was much too difficult and expensive that way," Ashley confesses, "and when we tried to record it, one voice at a time, it didn't really have any forward motion. Sam suggested editing it into a two-voice version. He didn't change any of the piece. He just gave it some energy. It's very fast.

"That's the main element, and to have seven singers responding to each other's body language would have led to a major expense. But Sam has produced the piece in the way that a producer works in popular music, where they're very important, but seldom get any notice. It's like when Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno work with U2. They're integral to the creative process, but you never hear their names mentioned."

As well as the Foreign Experiences duo, Ashley's informal ensemble is made up of Thomas Buckner, last seen in these parts performing in Edinburgh alongside Phill Niblock, and Joan La Barbara, who appeared at this year's minimalist-heavy Instal festival of contemporary music at The Arches.

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ashley's pioneering work with electronics made him a contemporary of Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Pauline Oliveros. Many of his works feature sounds and noises-off buried deep within the synthesised orchestras that generate the compositions. He was one of four contemporary composers documented on film by Peter Greenaway, and today remains equally restless in his own musical pursuits.

"I'm trying to finish up one of the big scenes for Atalanta," he enthuses. "It was never recorded, because we were working and generating material so fast that I never felt it was properly developed.

"Then there's a new opera, something of a dream project, called Quicksand. It's about five hours long and extremely difficult to do. There are a lot of very fast words because of a very strict nature to the tempo. Technically, it's impossible for one person to do all the words. As you get older, you get greedy, you get more ambitious, and you want to make something bigger all the time. I suppose it's about aiming for the impossible."

Foreign Experiences, Tramway, Glasgow, May 8, www.tramway.org.

The Herald, May 7th 2009




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