RECORD REVIEW BOB DAVIS
Robert Ashley Automatic Writing Lovely Music/Vital Records 463 west St., NYC 10014
This recording is among the most personal I have ever heard. It's as if it was "overheard" rather than listened to. (What's the sonic equivalent of a voyeur?) The music is very evocative. The principle sound sources are two voices responding to each other, one of Robert Ashley and one of Mimi Johnson. The scant information given on the record jacket implies that they are speaking the same text, Robert Ashley is speaking in English and Mimi Johnson in French. However, both are unintelligible. Unlike Ashley's last release on Lovely Music (Private Parts LML 1001), where understanding the words is paramount, here it matters little. His voice is altered by electronics and it is never possible to make out more than two successive words. Mimi Johnson's is whispering and very breathy. Even though this does not increase the intelligibility, there are times when a fluent speaker could probably make out phrases, perhaps complete thoughts. I can't be sure because I, like Ashley, do not speak French.
The electronic sounds have all the characteristics of squeaking bed springs; slow, sensual expansions and contractions. Ashley's Polymoog playing happens simultaneously with some of the speaking and relates to the other sonic activities in few other ways. there are times when he plays in the upper register a droney kind of background that functions as a setting. But, at other points this is not the case. About midway through the second side, a heavy, disco-flavored bass comes in which I at first thought was my next-door neighbor's stereo. No, my neighbor had gone to Tasmania for the weekend; it was part of the recording! The effect it creates on the recording is like coming to the city for the first time in several years or moving into an apartment house. Things go on simultaneously all the time, but not all of them relate to each other except maybe by cosmic circumstances. And though it's not any species in the counterpoint books, brilliant counterpoint it is. (Counterpoint is defined as "music consisting of two or more lines that sound simultaneously". Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed.)
The entire effect was summed up by Novak, a former student of Ashley's at the Center for Contemporary Music, who observed that it sounded like "Ashley put a cassette player underneath his bed." A symphonic poem of unique and specific beauty. If you appreciate Ashley's work, this recording is welcome, not only for its own accomplishments, but because it shows a continued interest in several elements. Many of his pieces are quiet, minimally private, personal, with the electronics hidden, and human voices used in a gray, undefined way. He has also made use of English and French in the same work before. In live performances Ashley has improvised very personal live texts, everything from confession to preaching, as Mimi Johnson translated along with him. "Are Babies Afraid of Short Sounds" is also included in the Anthology from the Center for Contemporary Music BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF FIRE ($3.00 c/o Box 9991, Mills College, Oakland, CA 94613). If Ashley's landmark career of the past 20-25 years has made no impression on your aesthetic, you may find the recording dull. (Dull Men's Club, 3364-22nd St., suite #7, San Francisco, CA 94110).