Building Concrete

Building Concrete

[Ed. Note: Robert Ashley’s latest opera, Concrete, will receive its world premiere performances at La Mama in New York City from January 17 through 21, 2007. It is the first of Ashley’s works in which he is not part of the cast. We asked Jacqueline Humbert, who has been part of virtually every Ashley production since 1980, to describe the gestation process of this unique body of work. —FJO]

Roddy Schrock
Jacqueline Humbert

Robert Ashley has been composing new kinds of opera exploring a vast range of techniques for over forty years. In 1962, his in memoriam … Kit Carson presented 256 plot diagrams from which a producer could choose to make realizations for sixteen independent performers or sound sources using any available resources. In 2002, Celestial Excursions called for five voices, any number of solo instruments and real-time computer-realized sound layering. Now, in 2007, we will experience the world premiere of his latest work, Concrete, which yet again introduces techniques that are new both in his composing style and for his performing ensemble. Critics have described Ashley’s work as sounds easy. Performers have described it as exceptionally difficult.

I have had the privilege and the challenge of working with Robert Ashley for over twenty-five years, first as a designer, then as a principal singer with his ensemble. Though my training was in visual art, I was drawn in the 1970s towards developing a style of text-song performance resting somewhere between musical speech and melodic interpretation. I am not classically trained.

In 1980 I embarked on my career with Mr. Ashley, initially designing for Perfect Lives, his television opera produced as seven one-half hour episodes for Great Britain’s Channel Four. Soon thereafter, he invited me to join his performing ensemble, which currently also includes singers, Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner and Joan LaBarbara. Robert, Sam and I are from the same region of the Midwest in Michigan. It is probably not insignificant to note that this coincidence often helps in quickly comprehending the musical nuances he may be trying to achieve in some of his writing, which sometimes may lie imbedded inside the natural intoning of that regional dialect. Additionally, the broad definition of song I had developed in my own work meshed well with Ashley’s musical intentions. I have performed in all of his subsequent works to date, slowly mastering their interpretation and, so he claims, providing inspiration for some of his characters. We have shared many, many hours of laughter, hard work and story telling. I have learned a great deal from him about the beauty of the untrained voice, the uniquely intricate and intimate vocal qualities that can be obtained through the use of microphones and the rhythmic complexity of the music inherent to American English with its rapid fire, staccato articulation of syllables.

Ashley has been called the grandfather of rap, one who has had a profound impact on other innovative musical artists, including such figures as David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Often, his texts are intoned through the subtle bending of single pitches in order to extract as much meaning from the words as possible in telling a story. Some try to compare Ashley’s approach to the music of speech with Schoenberg’s “Sprechstimme” as exemplified in his expressionist melodrama, Pierrot lunaire. It is actually very different. In Schoenberg’s idea, the singer must maintain the rhythmic precision of the musical notation, starting each pitch as given, but then, departing from it, falling or rising in a way that works against the perception of singing. The resulting pitched speech must fit the musical constructions, never attempting to evoke mood or the meaning of words, but rather sticking to the musical form and allowing the pure tone-painting construction to render the composer’s intention. The text also unfolds at a somewhat slower pace than the speech rhythms in much of Ashley’s work. Similarly, in traditional opera, if we were to hear singers actually speaking what they are meant to sing, the words would unfold at a painfully slow pace, often taking about a minute or more to say just a few words. In Ashley’s style of singing, the music is inherent in the language itself, in the natural rhythmical and tonal articulation of syllables. For the singer, the work starts with the words. The music is in the words. The words come fast. You repeat a line until it feels right, natural, and find the inherent melody in those words. What you emphasize or stress determines the melodic shaping. Sometimes Ashley intentionally sets syllables in not-so-natural rhythmic structures, placing stresses on syllables that would normally be un-stressed. This can lead the listener to question or re-think meanings.

Unlike classical singing, in which great emphasis is placed on honing the instrument for accurate pitch and tone production with vibrato, proper diaphragm support, etc., this style of singing maximizes use of the microphone to enable extreme subtlety in characterization and de-emphasizes the need for the power of bel canto vocal production. Meaning is given more emphasis than pitch accuracy, inspired by great singers like Billie Holiday, about whom some said, in her day, that she “wasn’t really singing.” The microphone allows great intimacy to flourish, for the meaning to come across over vocal pyrotechnics, without ever having to raise the voice above almost a whisper. And, if one listens carefully, when people are really talking, you find that they are actually singing—it is so musical: they are throwing their pitches all over the place when excited, dropping to hushed, deep tones when serious or somber, radiating a wonderful range of musical expressions.

Roddy Schrock
(L to R) Robert Ashley, Jacquline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley, and Thomas Buckner (foreground) performing Ashley’s Celestial Excursions.
Photo courtesy of Performing Artservices, Inc. ©2003

The process of developing each Ashley opera is different. First the doorbell rings and a large stack of paper arrives, the score. The scores rarely contain much that looks like traditional, five-line-staff, musical notation. Mostly, they consist of pages upon pages of text, all set out in some systematic, graphical way to show the rhythmic structures involved in the lines and the coordination intended among the ensemble members and commonly an underlying, electronic orchestra. Sometimes, a score may simply consist of words on paper, with a single pitch assigned to each particular character. Some scores are in simple time signatures, like Improvement, in which the entire first act is in 3/4 and the second in 4/4. Sometimes it is very different, as in Celestial Excursions, where the rhythmic complexity changes radically from scene to scene, and ensemble members must sing individually difficult, complicated patterns against each other. Sometimes where the syllables fall in time is not specified, but is left up to the performer to invent. Sometimes there are extremely complex rhythmic assignments, with every syllable specified as to where it is to land, pitches changing on every numbered line and ensemble members required to match each other exactly in both rhythm and the nuances of articulation. Sometimes a soloist is free to roam from the rigidity of the notated line, as long as she/he can catch up before the scene changes or dramatic pitch or tonal shifts occur. Soloists may have very different texts from the chorus accompaniments, and the orchestra might be doing something rhythmic or, in contrast, quite arhythmic and disparate. In performances, we are sometimes fed line counts through in-ear monitoring systems, especially if there is little or no rhythmic information in the orchestra, or if various members of the ensemble are following different texts.

Early on, Robert would often send a reading of the score that he had recorded himself with simple pitch references. More often than not, though, we would be sent a recording of a line count recited by Robert along with a click track and pitch cues. Occasionally the electronic orchestra part would be completed in conjunction with the subsequent learning and rehearsal process. More often, however, the orchestra would be added after the group had worked independently without having heard what the accompaniment might be like.

The task is always to tell a story. Often the stories are somewhat abstract or not immediately accessible in clearly linear form. In the moment of telling that story or anecdote, the ensemble must find how to communicate and to bring great joy or break hearts in the process. To help evoke the striking emotional qualities of particular characters, singers might be placed in registers that stretch their vocal qualities dramatically. What has also been unique in this work is that once the singers achieve deep understanding of the compositional intentions, Ashley’s scores actually afford great freedom, though not in the sense of improvisation. The works are always different, and each performer or interpreter really has to invent their character in each piece.

Though our ensemble membership has remained pretty constant over the years, we have never all lived in the same city. We work independently with scores and rehearsal tracks and then join our interpretations during rehearsal periods held in the composer’s studio in New York City. This is when the excitement begins. Often, Mr. Ashley cannot imagine what the ensemble will sound like, how the music will work, until he hears it for the first time with all of us in the room singing the complicated, rhythmically challenging materials through his own microphones, his own electronic processors and his own speakers. Sometimes he just listens to us for many hours before giving any direction at all. We invent, bend, try it this way, then that, until we find the right interpretation of the words on the page, the emotions of the characters inside the pitch assignments and the heart of the story. Very often, Ashley gives little or no direction ahead of time indicating simply, “I’ll know it when I hear it.” It is nearly impossible in a single hearing for listeners to capture every phrase, word, syllable and musical element, but when the story washes over the audience, we know we’ve got it right.

A particular challenge in the newest work, Concrete, is that the ensemble is not tied to a time signature or time structure in any way. The electronic orchestra just floats. The singers perform stresses indicated for certain syllables emphasized according to a scheme drawn from idiomatic, colloquial statements contained in the titles of each scene. An example is, “Take time / to think it over…” The underlined, stressed words outline a particular rhythmic shape that will be applied to every line in the scene, but without ever being tied to a beat. The singers must feel the stresses and rhythms of these syllable groups and perform them through pitch and dynamic changes, elongation or any other variations that sound interesting. In the solo sections of this work the performer has complete freedom to tell her/his story choosing pitches from the orchestra sounds, which will be constantly shifting, different and unpredictable in every performance. Mr. Ashley will be generating the orchestra mix in real-time, with the assistance of sound designer, Tom Hamilton. It is a very different work for us in this way, and it will also be the first time Mr. Ashley will not be singing with the ensemble.


Jacqueline Humbert‘s work as a performer, visual artist and designer of graphics, costumes and sets has been exhibited, published, recorded, broadcast and presented throughout the world since the early 1970’s. She is particularly well known for her collaborations with leading, innovative artists, filmmakers, choreographers and composers, as exemplified by her 25-year contribution to Robert Ashley’s music as both a principal singer and designer. Other composers—including James Tenney, Joan La Barbara, Larry Polansky, and Alvin Lucier—have also created work for Humbert’s unique approach to the voice which have been collected on the CD, Chanteuse (Lovely Music, Ltd., LCD 4001).

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