Music News

Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley has co-existed with Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass in that segment of the music world where the experimental impulse and a smirking fascination with theatre and opera take over. Ashley's career, though, hasn't achieved Anderson's brief pop success or Glass's cottage career as a composer of soundtracks and operas. Among the most compelling of Ashley's work is 1980's multi-hour "television opera" Private Parts, which incubates his love of that stellar virus called language with "Blue" Gene Tyranny's jazzy piano; the whole thing zips ahead like good Terry Riley or classic(al) Glass. At the other extreme, however, his best-reviewed music, 1985's Atalanta: Acts Of God, has the scale of the Glass/Robert Wilson minimalist classic Einstein on the Beach without the speed to overcome the chorales. Instead, serene keyboard passages by Tyranny and some nice choral work is marred by irritating vocalese from all-terrain baritone Thomas Buckner and Jacqueline Humbert.

If you hate opera "concepts" and haven't played NPR in the background since Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion went south, then sharpen up your cheap-shot darts: Your Money, My Life, Goodbye is sixty-plus minutes of dramatic readings by a downtown New York "band" surrounded by the whines and zooms of an electronic orchestra over a pulse that is processed into a giant synth snare drum and back again. As with most of Ashley's work, there's a narrative: here, it's how Miss Ona, an American woman, single-handedly swindles the banking systems of Europe and literally dies to tell the tale. I think cover girl/singer Joan LaBarbara reads this part, but it's difficult to tell who reads what. Each reading starts off in a natural vocal timbre before Ashley elides the sound with his machines. Originally composed for German radio, Your Money is a terrific concentration of Ashley's ideas, guaranteed to intrigue some members of your peer group while alienating others.

Those unsympathetic to the American experimental strain can't be blamed for thinking this is just an art stunt. But how would they know? Even opera- and NPR-phobes can find Your Money, My Life, Goodbye admirable right down to Miss Ona's ultra-prim lamentation on the cynicism of her victims ("I trusted in my investoors," she says.). Three minutes into it, you might be driven to break glass; after eight, to chew glass. Make it to the fifteen minute point, however, and you'll be driven to simply contemplate glass.