by Bob Davis EARInterview: ROBERT ASHLEY
RA: I wasn't a teacher until I was almost forty years old. I made my living doing music for motion pictures. My income as a composer was just barely subsistence level. I was able to "supplement" by doing movie music. I was just a free-lance composer. It wasn't possible for me not to accept jobs that were really totally free-lance. To my way of thinking, there's not a whole lot of difference between doing a really hard, physical tour, even if you're playing your own music, and doing movie music. Neither one of them even approaches an ideal situation. Some composers maintain that subsistence level by giving concerts. I never liked the effect on my music or on myself of restricting my imagination to a kind of repertory situation.
It's sort of an article of faith for me, the deepest conviction I have about music is that it should be spontaneous, that it should have every element of spontaneity that you can possibly build into it. I took that to mean that even when I was doing the same piece on a tour, I always wanted the piece to affect the environment. I always wanted it to have that theatrical quality or that dramatic manifestation.
Almost every piece that we could talk about is undefined in the score in terms of its formal presentation. The musical materials are there, you have to make that last step as a performer or as the realizer, you have to fill in that last thing yourself. That made the idea of touring to make a living very hard for me. For ten years I supported myself and my family by touring, by playing concerts. It's an amazingly hard job, physically, emotionally and psychically, every other way, but especially physically!
I couldn't have gone on without some sort of financial support and at that time there was none. There was no National Endowment, it was just in its very infancy. There were no state councils, there was no support like that.
BD: So in 1969 you came to Mills College, and designed the recording studio there. What were your ideas about electronic music at that time?
RA: I don't how to distinguish my ideas about electronic music from my ideas about anything else. Most of my ideas have tended to be about things that some composers might say are "extra-musical." I've always been very aware that the music I was writing was intended to portray something, and that what it's trying to portray has changed as I've changed.
In the sense that I want my music to portray things, I've been acutely aware of how music portrays things. The source of a sound, what the sound identifies, is as important to me as its abstract qualities. I like electronic sounds because I'm devoted to the process of change, and electronic sounds are different from acoustic instrumental sounds. I was never particularly interested in what I understood to be the European philosophy of electronic music, which was that it resembled science--I was never interested in precision.
The first work I did in electronic music was mainly in the aria of trying to set up situations that allowed me to improvise, and to have those improvisations recorded, or to take that to different levels. The important change for me was when I started working with the ONCE group, and my interest in theater was allowed to express itself. At the same time, my interest in electronic sounds changed from being the kinds of sounds that one would hear on tape or from some kind of broadcast medium, and into the concept of amplification.
My work with the ONCE group and my connection with real things and real activities lasted until I came to California. Then, since I was divorced from the group, the group dissolved of its own nature. My interest in electronics shifted over to the studio. I designed the recording studio, and it was my whole life for about five years. It brought the poetical and the technical and the musical ideas into one thing. I didn't do any composing for the first three years that I was at Mills. I gave all my energy to the studio. I started working with Paul DeMarinis because he was really doing a lot of wonderful designing. He built two or three circuits for me that were based on the notion of coincidence. I mean the circuits, the musical product of the circuits, were all based on the notion of coincidence.
BD: You mean he was using your thoughts on how the machine should be constructed?
RA: Yes. First I got interested in digital delay. Before there was digital delay, I was interested in it in theory. I knew it could be done but there was no digital delay circuitry around. I was interested in it not for the sort of psycho-acoustic possibilities but because it put coincidence into an entirely new dimension. One could use coincidence almost in the sense that one speaks about pre-knowledge or ESP or all the psychic factors. I suppose from living in California at the time, the notion of coincidence had taken on this kind of grand dimension for me. I asked Paul if he could design some circuits that would do that. The actual hardware circuitry, the chips, for that were not available, but Paul made two or three substitutes. He actually made very brilliant solutions to using coincidence in a musical piece.
BD: You mean the way digital delay was able to alter time scale?
RA: No, actually what I meant in this case was the possibility of being able to preserve events intact so that the events did not change their character because of time, unlike echo or all other kinds of delay systems.
BD: So events still happen in the same time...
RA: The theoretical possibility of that kind of delay is that you can control when an event is going to happen, for practical purposes. Even though it happens "now" in a sort of cosmic sense, you can make the consequences of it not apparent for "x" amount of time. So the idea had really profound meaning for me. That was the basis for two or three pieces--I was working with the poem, "In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven there were Men and Women" by John Wolgamot, working on ways of expressing the poem or ways of setting the poem and one of those expressions was the "String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies."
BD: Few people have heard that piece...
RA: It was intended in conception to be a setting for an accompaniment for the poem. The way the Quartet is made, the way we actually performed it uses coincidence that is based on just one stage of delay. The score for the string quartet is a circuit, a block diagram or functional diagram of interactive circuits and it's a seven stage circuit that can be permeated by the events of the poem or it can stand by itself. We've performed it a number of times using only one stage of delay. You can use up to seven stages of functional delay.
I was trying to work with things that were almost imperceptible events. You can see in the string quartet that the acoustical origins of the sounds are extremely short sounds. They're popping sounds of a string being released very slowly. So that the texture of the piece is made of these short sounds. And the electronic transformations happen when these short sounds overlap in some part. So that means that the transformations are infinitely smaller. So what they become are just changes in harmonic structure, changes in format structure. You hear something that's essentially a train of pulses and those pulses are only different from each other in the most minute way. In my most current work I want to turn away from that. I felt that the work at the Center was done, and that the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills had been completed as an entity in that now it was able to run itself. I sort of instinctively turned toward the two most public forms I could find.
One is that I wanted to make these large scale video portraits, which took my interest back to theater and back to very large scale handling of sound materials. Instead of little tiny things, it became a matter of, for instance, in the interview part of the portrait of David Behrman, we're on the top of Angel Island and the camera man, Phil Makanna, is in the center and David and I make a complete circle around the camera at quite a distance. Since it takes us an hour to get around, it's sort of like a clock. And the sound changes in this rather enormous scale depending on which way we're facing. We're walking together, basically David is following me, and each of my positions was in a different relationship to the wind. So what you get, basically, is four different qualities of speech that's modified by wind sounds. And each of the portraits has that large scale public address, or large scale treatment of the sound. The sound dimension changed from these incredibly small, subtle things, of working in the studio at night by myself into this sort of large scale use of sound.
BD: Though it seems that the shift in sound the wind would make over an hour would be subtle for the audience.
RA: Oh, it is subtle. I didn't mean it was gross, I just meant that the scale of things had changed.
BD: When you have the electronics that hidden you must be trying to discourage people from sitting there and saying, "There's the ring modulation."
RA: Yeah, exactly. This would be a good place to say that I've always felt very uncomfortable with the Nineteenth Century idea of music reaching its excellence in abstraction. There is a tradition in European music which grew up in the Seventeenth Century, I guess, that almost every composer with the exception of Wagner and Liszt had a major tendency to want the music to be abstract, to want it to be just a matter of sounds. And you'll find that expressed vehemently in Stravinsky. And it's theoretically the basis of Schoenberg's work, although he doesn't deal with it. And of course that's what Cage is all about. Cage is exactly in that tradition. And as much as I love John's music, I found myself totally opposed to that philosophically. I've always wanted the music to be about something. And in my case it was always about person structures. It was not portraiture in the dramatic sense, but portraiture in a more graphic arts sense.
As the music society started accumulating more and more electronic apparatus, I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that music started to be about the sounds themselves, which seemed to be an extension of that idea about abstraction. In other words, ring modulation came to be about ring modulation, and filtering came to be about filtering. That made me uncomfortable. That's why I got into the idea of public address. And I think it's a natural thing to go from public address into these very secret realms of electronic music so the listener would never feel that I was presenting an abstraction as the main form of the piece. I'm not a structuralist in any way. So, you're right, the sound of the four positions we took in regard to the wind is pretty subtle but that's because that's not what the piece is about. That's just the way I was able to keep the piece alive.
I have spent a lot of energy on the installation of the portraits. I've shown them in most of the major museums and a lot of other places, and every time I spend a lot of energy designing the way they're seen, and designing the way they're received by the audience. And it becomes almost another kind of version of the problem of public address. I'm totally fascinated by the phenomena of seeing a little picture and having a very realistic sound. Not necessarily a big sound, but a very realistic sound in the immediate area of the picture. When you're looking at a television set with loudspeakers on either side of it, the high fidelity stereo image is placed exactly in the position set so that it achieves the utmost illusionistic quality.
Now I've started working on a piece called "Perfect Lives (Private Parts)." It's a series of seven songs, and two of them are on the record Private Parts (Lovely Music LML 1001). Those are portraits of imaginary people. They're portraits of people who have been in my mind forever, almost. I mean they're like my interior family. The piece is set up like it falls upon the evangelistic public address piece. Now instead of improvising my talk I'm reading a rather carefully scored text and the in the reading I'm trying to make a sort of singing style that uses two ingredients. One is that it uses repeated nuances so that there will be a whole section of the piece that uses the same nuance in every sentence. The other ingredient is to put the delivery of the song in a musical context so that along with the repeated inflections there are involuntary inflections.
My main thing seems to be to make music out of setting up the text in such a way that the smallest nuances are very revealing. But, I'm trying to get my delivery by singing of those texts so that there are nuances that I have no control over. I can't explain this except that it has to do with your vocal presence, your voice, your breathing and that kind of thing, the pitch obligations of the piece. So that when the performance is most successful for me there are nuances that I don't even predict and I'm totally surprised myself by the meaning of certain sentences because it seems to be a subconscious manifestation. it seems to be a manifestation of things I don't even recognize in the texts themselves.
BD: When these pieces exist in their best form are they recorded or are they performances?
RA: They've only had two forms so far. There is a recording that we did. The instrumentation is various kinds of keyboards. I hesitate to say that it's also a kind of reflective portrait of Bob ("Blue"Gene Tyranny) Sheff, because if I say that it sounds like Bob Sheff is one of the imaginary characters. It's not that. It's just that I've worked with Bob for half my life and we've done so many different kinds of things together that I kind of wanted to make that work, that relationship very public. So, the piece seems to have these two qualities; one is these secret people, the people in my imagination, and the other is that I'm setting up structures that reveal Bob Sheff. If I may do that without seeming crude.
BD: You mean the structures reveal Bob through his keyboard playing?
RA: Yes. So the instrumentation is all electronic keyboards, or acoustical keyboards that are treated as though they were studios. When we've done it I've tried to make the grand piano sound as if it were a recording studio. No sound in the space is acoustical sound. All sounds come from the speakers.
The two songs on the record of all the seven are the simplest. We've realized them simply, using acoustical piano, studio miking, Clavinet, poly-Moog, my voice and tabla. But they are also the simplest songs, textually and in the structure of the sound. The very first song that's on the record is the very first of the songs. It's the simplest. And I'm almost embarrassed to admit that they get more complicated as it gets on. The last song is a double song, it's twice as long as the others and it's got this huge organ part.
BD: You don't mean double in the sense of simultaneity?
RA: No, it's a double subject. Each song is about a person or a pair of people; a place, an imaginary location for this person; and a way of seeing. I mean in particular a lens technique. Or a shot like a pan or a tilt or something like that. Each one of the songs is a different shot. It's a different master shot, with inserts just like a film. It is a film. An imaginary film.
BD: A film for your ears.
(Transcribed by Bob Davis, Ann Conradsen, and Loren Means.)