10 July, 2020 • • 43.8Voice

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‘Broken Words, like the Shuffling of Feet upon the Pavement’

Dmitry Dundua

‘Perfect Lives’ (1984), Robert Ashley

In a famous 1972 essay, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, Roland Barthes called for a new appreciation of the voice as a combination of music and language, and for music as “the encounter between a language and a voice”. At the same time, an avant-garde composer, Robert Ashley, was beginning a series of experiments that focused entirely on the musical capacities of human speech. In the latest instalment of the ‘Voice’ series, Dmitry Dundua looks at two of Ashley’s early works, and the philosophical questions around language, speech and music that they prompt.


Robert Ashley was dedicated to the uncanny, enchanting musicality of human voice. Born in 1930, he belonged to the ‘second wave’ of post-war American avant-garde composers, which emerged during the 1960s in the wake of the experiments and discoveries of John Cage and the New York School. While any single label would perhaps be overly rigid when applied to figures as diverse as David Behrman, Tony Conrad, Alvin Curran, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros or Terry Riley, there is nevertheless a significant continuity in their sensibilities and, not infrequently, their methods. Many were influenced by serialism in their formative period only to move away from it later, experimenting with then-new tape techniques and electronics, often collaboratively. Beginning with the ONCE Festival of New Music in Michigan, an eclectic, multidisciplinary happening (musicians, composers, artists, architects), which continued on and off through the sixties, and subsequently evolving into the Sonic Arts Union in the seventies, this “post-serial/post-Cage movement,” as Ashley called it, found its spiritual home at Lovely Music Ltd., the imprint still run today by Ashley’s wife and collaborator Mimi Johnson. The influence of this ‘second wave’, and of Ashley in particular, is very present in contemporary experimental music: the entire body of work of Félicia Atkinson or the more obscure gems, such as Tarquin Manek and Martina Quake’s 2017 Locks on Our Doors, Not on Our Hearts, are good cases in point.

Ashley was a prolific artist who worked with different media, more at home with some, less with others. Many of his compositions are circumscribed by his idea of ‘the total musical event’—a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk. His earlier multimedia pieces centred around words and sounds configured in various ways, which he called ‘electronic music theatre’. In an early performance of his in memoriam…KIT CARSON (1963), eight married couples spoke lines written in a small address book whilst they sat across from each other in a staged living room. In The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity, performed at ONCE in 1969, Ashley simply asked Mrs. Wehrer—a particularly garrulous patron of the festival—a series of startlingly intrusive questions. Two pairs of men and women acted as surrogates, cross-examining, answering, interrupting. The exploration of various media continued in his later works and gave rise to what he is perhaps most famous for, his operas for television. American opera, Ashley thought, lacked the sense of place essential to its European counterpart, which made the TV its natural home: “La Scala’s architecture doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t go there. We stay home and watch television.”

Ashley’s operas ostensibly have little in common with the classics of the genre. In the 60s, Ashley set out “to make it possible for speakers to lose their self-consciousness and speak normally”—a task which, however casual, turned out to be extremely difficult, as he himself acknowledged: the musical resources of human voice were crucial for him from the start. Alvin Lucier recalled that:

Ashley regarded speech as music. I remember standing with him at gatherings after concerts in the Midwest, simply listening to people talking. He once remarked that, to his ears, the dull roar of many people talking was symphonic. Once as an accompaniment to a Merce Cunningham event in New York, Bob simply assembled a group of friends to sit on stage and have a conversation. There was no text, no instructions, no enhancements, no musical accompaniment. It was amazing just how riveting this experience was. One left the event wondering how Bob could have made this happen.

Had there been instructions, the event would easily have qualified as a typical ‘post-Cagean’ affair. Influenced by Cage’s ‘chance operations’, much vanguard music of the 50s and 60s aimed to create pivots for performers to use to improvise. The composer’s role was only to set certain parameters of performance: the outcome was at the same time highly structured and never determined. At the limit (and here the limit is quite concrete: it is Cage’s 4’33), the structure was time itself. In fact, this is the logic behind several of Ashley’s early pieces: in 1961, he professed that Cage’s experiments would lead to “a music that wouldn’t necessarily involve anything but the presence of people”. If this was also Ashley’s starting point, the end result turned out very differently. Some 50 years later, he confessed that “I was only interested in sound … there’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me”.

In his mature period, Ashley consistently juxtaposes language and speech with instrumentation, contrasting —and sometimes ignoring—their similarities and differences, in order to have them build up into strange, paradoxical sound structures. While these experiments culminated in the large-scale ‘TV operas’ of the 80s and 90s, like Perfect Lives (1984) and Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982-1991), they began with Private Parts (1977) and Automatic Writing (1979), two works whose smaller scale and lack of visual dimension make them more intimate, in a way more inviting, and allow the voice as music to speak most powerfully.

Private Parts consists of two compositions of approximately 20 minutes each, The Park and The Backyard, revolving around a narrative voiced by Ashley and accompanied by drones, piano harmonies and tabla percussion (both were to become parts of his later opera project, Perfect Lives). In The Park, Ashley’s story both is and isn’t a ‘narrative’ — it has a plot, but you wouldn’t know it. As Tony Conrad puts it in a review, it is “a hodgepodge braid of eastern mysticism and everyday western life, focusing obliquely on two men on a park bench and a man alone in a hotel room.” “Obliquely” is the keyword, but it says only so much, as obliqueness is pushed here to such a degree that the images and the storyline melt into something which, on a first reading, does not strike us as very coherent:

He sat on the bed, both feet on the floor
He studied the ashtray and tried to rule out preference, preferring over not preferring
But he preferred, gravity (over what other state?)
Preferring in that case earth (the earth as they say),
Preferring some state over non-state.

Now he grips himself with determination, even knowing that it causes sadness.
He is determined to be what?

He is determined to be serious
He had determined once to be serious
Later, he knew that he had made a mistake
But too late he had arrived, and there were rooms, and all rooms were not the same, some better than others, he thought, a better view, a better layout, better shower, softer bed, not so far from noise, more like home

Etcetera, etcetera, (very abstract), the words go on. Ashley’s discourse is sometimes abstruse, sometimes diluted. The narrative chain breaks every so often, oscillating between slightly delirious interior monologue (This is a record / I am sitting on a bench next to myself / Inside of me the words form / Come down from the tree and fight like a man) and pseudo-ontology (They spoke about permanence and impermanence / They noted there were certain things which were impermanent / And other things to which the term impermanence did not apply / Thus they came to make a great division between that which is impermanent and that which is permanent). Simplistic but occasionally poetic descriptions (The park has sidewalks, fences, trees, grass / And a statute of a man and horse at war / Or ready for war / They are alone with their intentions / The sculptor has made the horse look stupid / The man’s jaw is firm / The time is late morning in early summer / The sun shines) can turn into movie stills (In this scene there are two shots / The park in all its details, frozen, broken on the right edge / Sometimes up to two thirds across the frame / By the body of a person, very close, blurred / Moving almost rhythmically). At the same time, The Park remains firmly grounded in and never loses touch with the everyday, here in the form of rather humdrum details of Midwestern life. A lot of it is ‘about’ having breakfast or a small drink in a fluted plastic glass sans ice.

Instead of carving out one straight path, Ashley threads a linguistic maze, leaving different leads here and there. Sometimes his words may seem hermetic or nonsensical, but when we listen to his voice more carefully, they form a whole, even if the meaning of this whole does not easily fit into the picture we commonly have of linguistic understanding. Here, language is not just a means of getting meanings across from speaker to hearer, a mechanism which we use to find the right words for the right things. Rather, we find ourselves in a strange terrain where language becomes more a matter of expression—as is music—than simply a tool for reference or description. This capacity of human language is in fact not as extravagant as it may seem at first sight, or as Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it in Philosophical Investigations, “understanding a spoken sentence is closer than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme”.

So Ashley’s use of language cannot simply be free play of signs here: it does not break down and, however difficult to comprehend, it remains sound precisely because it transcends its descriptive role. Understanding is possible once we acknowledge that sense can also be made through what one reviewer has called  ‘metabolic connections’ that Ashley allows the speaking voice to draw between words and words, and, just as importantly, between words, speech and music. This is language that reaches its own limits, and it is here, on the fringes, that its musicality is best heard.

In The Park, Ashley seems to make several self-reflexive gestures which render his methods more explicit. Once or twice he hints at a way in which the margins of language are reached. It is when speech becomes divorced from the sense it’s meant to carry. Ashley makes this explicit from time to time: When he says hello / You hear a long, whining sound, which is his voice and the hello. This then receives a mock elaboration by what seems to be a further step in rejection of language, where even form is gradually eliminated:

He is not unusual in this, I think
He is absolutely uninhabitable, a thankless star
(remove star, remove thankless, remove a)
Replace with:
He has a special way of speaking, but it seems only to make him more like other men

Language leaps to its own edge, almost losing all substance in content and form, only to be pulled back into orbit. Ashley never completely defies language, his voice never frees itself of language, though sometimes it comes close to that. It never turns into just music but acquires musicality in the process of constantly putting itself to test. Oddly, the effect achieved by language’s losing substance can be brought about by its accumulating sense to a surplus. Less than a minute into The Park, we come across the most mesmerising line of the piece: There was something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air. One might say it would mean just the same without something, or without the feeling, or the idea—why all three? Yet somehow all of this seems necessary. If poetry is condensed ordinary speech, this is swollen poetry (though Ashley repeatedly insisted that he was not a poet). There is in these words what Maurice Merleau-Ponty would call a “semantic thickness,” “the characteristic power that language as gesture, accent, voice, and modulation of existence has to signify in excess of what it signifies part by part according to existing conventions.” This, too, is language at its limits, and, although the route is quite different, the endpoint is the same: speech becomes music while remaining language—language which is just as bad at explaining what Ashley is trying to say as it is good at expressing it.

When faced with so high a degree of linguistic opacity, all we have in the end are the words on the surface—as they are, where they are, articulated by the voice, fused with the music. Understanding, if any, is immediate and, to use a term of Wittgenstein’s, ‘intransitive’—that is, immanent in what is experienced and thereby understood. Here, to quote Stanley Cavell, words become ‘touchstones of intimacy’: “one may be able to say nothing except that a feeling has been voiced by a kindred spirit and that if someone does not get it he is not in one’s world, or not of one’s flesh”. And when Ashley’s biographer Kyle Gann says that in his operas “each phrase means something, but the totality of what the text means is more than usually in doubt,” he is right as long as we look at it as just text; but the problem vanishes if we realize that what calls for our response is the expressive totality of the work, where the text is inseparable from the music, the voices, and their interplay.

Such tropes are not without historical precedent.They figure prominently in various forms of Early Modern European writing, particularly in the densely allegorical language of that odd predecessor of classical opera, the German Baroque mourning play (Trauerspiel). If for the Renaissance, language was broadly viewed as articulated by semblances, in the Baroque this picture was pushed to its logical limit. The margins of possibility of likeness and allegory are blurred, and, in the words of Walter Benjamin, “any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else.” In the mourning play this results in a constant linguistic tension: “the interplay between sound and meaning remains a terrifying phantom … This interplay must find its resolution, however, and … that redemptive mystery is music.” Similarly, for Ashley, “when the piecing together of imagery becomes so intense that one is aware of its rhythms, … ‘opera,’ or the communication of those rhythmic forms, arises naturally.” In fact, Ashley explicitly theorized allegory and put it to work in his later operas, although his understanding of it is indebted to Renaissance, rather than Baroque, authors, to Giordano Bruno in particular. It is in Private Parts, however, that the musicality of both the inflated and the deflated word first comes to the fore, embodied in his chanting voice and further reinforced and elaborated in constant dialogue with instrumentation. The drones, the piano and the tablas become voices too, and this is what makes this record an opera in its own right.

This approach to composition is pushed even further and, in effect, epitomised in Automatic Writing, the 46-minute piece is based on a long stretch of Ashley’s involuntary speech, which plays with the inherent problem of performing what is by definition a non-deliberate activity; as he noted, performances of Automatic Writing “were more or less failures because the difference between involuntary speech and any other kind of allowed behaviour is too big to be overcome wilfully”. Ashley then transcribed the words, which he identified as the first voice and the first character out of four (“I knew there should be four, and I knew that I would know them when they appeared”). The other three ‘voices’ were “the Moog synthesizer articulations,” the voice of Mimi Johnson reading a complete French translation of the text, and the organ harmonies played in the background.

Compared to Private Parts, here are crucial (and crucially interrelated) differences: if in the earlier record, instrumentation mostly provided accompaniment to Ashley’s voice, thus foregrounding it, in Automatic Writing none of the four ‘characters’ have the upper hand, and each is instead “unplanned, even “uncontrolled,” in their various ways”. Johnson’s ‘normal’ French, Ashley’s muttering, the Polymoog and, finally, the harmonies form a sort of scale of transformation from voice into pure music. Throughout, it seems as if they are striving to converge into one vanishing point, but never succeed. Instead, they run in parallel, each of them creating a force field of its own, which is precisely what keeps the others afloat. It is this equilibrium that constitutes the architectonics of Automatic Writing, gives it coherence and can be heard at any given moment in the piece. What is special about the words here is their extreme ‘poverty,’ in both sense and delivery, as well as their extreme privacy:

the old time slowed down there didn’t it? / what happened? / oh well / yeah / how to hide you’re sick / that’s it / you’re sick / how to hide it / how to hide it / boy, she hears this / … / anyway / the old fours are out there / censorship / my mind’s censoring my mind / my mind’s censoring my own mind / my god / oh well / we have to wait for an appropriate length of time / yeah / … / … / you’re regretting / don’t regret / god damn / 

The differences between the two works stand out more clearly against the background of equally celebrated compositions by Ashley’s contemporaries, in each of which the voice plays an important part: Alvin Curran’s Canti e Vedute del Giardino Magnetico (1973) and Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1969). For Curran, convergence is the key: what he was aiming for was, in his own words, an “organic whole” in which “taped ‘sound scenarios’ from nature would fuse with live sounds.” While their voices are in constant counterpoint, the Canti manages to dynamically fuse them into one and blend them into surrounding space from which everything seems to have emerged, providing sonic snapshots of it along the way. By contrast, Ashley’s piece is still; it doesn’t move anywhere, neither in the words nor in the music (Ashley liked to say that he was not interested in musical ‘eventfulness’ of any kind; as a line in The Park has it, “We have just begun and already we are stuck”). Human voice in the Canti is never speech, always singing—Curran’s own glossolalia, as well as an Emilian folksong performed by his friend Margherita Benetti. These are charming songs of strangers that you overhear and then can’t help eavesdropping on—never lasting too long, reverberating in the air for a while when they’re gone. But the murmuring voice in Automatic Writing is never out of focus, and, as Ashley says himself, it is the voice of “the person you cross the street to avoid”.

This radical privacy of voice is felt all the more strongely in comparison with I am Sitting in a Room, which, on this score, seems to be almost the exact opposite of Automatic Writing. Lucier famously lets his work speak for itself; the voiced text provides the parameters of the piece:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

Where Ashley’s mumbling is obscure and avoids direct contact, Lucier acknowledges the presence of both the performer and the listener: if in Lucier’s piece everything happens in a room, Ashley—like Tourette—has to leave the room to speak (“It is against the “law” of our society to engage in involuntary speech… That’s why Tourette had to leave the room. That’s why we are embarrassed by poetry”). Such speech has no chance of being felicitous—it excludes the listener, who returns the favour by crossing the street to avoid the speaker in the rare case when both are present. Where Lucier’s goal is to free his speech of irregularities, Ashley wants nothing but irregularities. And in Lucier’s case, the purification comes at a cost: avoiding the bolder claim that they partly constitute an ‘I’, it could be still said that the imperfections that are bleached out in Lucier’s Room are what an ‘I’ projects into in speech. Importantly, one trait of Lucier’s speech that clearly stands out—his characteristic stuttering—gets erased, or, rather, gradually transforms into sonorous nonexistence through the loop of playback just as easily as all the others. In the end, it is the space itself that we’re listening to. As he describes it, “speech became music. It was magical”. But it did so only when it ceased to be speech. The voice in Automatic Writing is both speech and music all along.

There is something strangely soothing in Ashley’s murmuring voice, whose privacy makes it ‘illegal’ and whose strangeness borders on embarrassment. A recent review ascribed to Automatic Writing  “a proto-ASMR quality, textural and sensual”. This doesn’t mean it’s not a demanding work—it is in every sense of the word, and it couldn’t be any farther from ASMR, this almost blasphemous exploitation of intimacy—but if we don’t fail to appreciate it in all its oddity, this is what it pays us back with. The same is true of Private Parts. Tony Conrad has said that the record is “something I often recommend when people are having trouble in their lives. It never fails to find personal connection and bring peace, no matter who listens. Like the I Ching, it has a mystical quality that is all-inclusive”. And this brings us back to the crucial issue of understanding and appreciating Ashley’s work. For Wittgenstein, to understand a work of art is, ultimately, “to feel at home” with it. It could be said that Ashley constantly questions the very possibility of our feeling at home with, hence understanding, his music—and, naturally, music tout court. Working on the very fringes, where words are on the brink of nonsense, where speech is sometimes so uncanny and uncontrolled that comes to the point of being frightening, he carefully composes pieces which, in the end, have a soothing, even consoling, quality. And this is where his mastery as a composer lies, for neither Private Parts nor Automatic Writing are open works: they are indeed very composed and leave little room for our involvement. Rather, we have to face them as they are, listen carefully to their many voices, let them work in us—and that proves to be most rewarding: their kindness is revealed. This predates understanding; this is the precondition of understanding, and sometimes this much is just enough. What Wittgenstein once said of Trakl’s poems is true of these two pieces: “I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy. It is the tone of true genius.”


Dmitry Dundua is reading for a DPhil in comparative philology at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.