The River Deepens

So what’s up with me is that, for the past few months I’ve been completely whelmed, as anybody who knows me can attest to, by Robert Ashley’s 2003 opera Celestial Excursions. For the uninitiated, Ashley’s operas are more in line with the non-narrative operas of Glass and Reich (Einstein on the Beach, The Cave) than with Tosca. The bulk of the libretto is not sung, but in fact delivered in a spoken manner in very precise metric patterns, occasionally with a single pitch provided for a kind of sprechstimme effect. Here, Ashley’s honed this technique such that often, the singers are creating very difficult, intricate vocal patterns.

There’s something about Ashley’s libretto (about The Elderly and Aging) and the way he’s created these dense, difficult rhythms through the spoken word that’s particularly compelling. And the music! The entire piece is ‘in C major’ (harmonic structure thanks to Kyle Gann’s old-ass website), performed by the electronic orchestra, plus live jazzy piano riffs, developing a kind of limitless atmosphere well-suited to the dreaminess of the content.

Ashley has created 5 characters, each with amazing descriptions:

a man in the witness protection program
washed and dressed and ready for fun
eternal vigilance
formerly a very sophisticated lady
a man of the dark imagination

(Washed And Dressed And Ready For Fun, for 3 oboes da caccia and theremin.)

The first act, “Is it light yet?,” deals in early-morning dreams; Robert Ashley’s ‘character’ establishes the amorphous identity-shifting of the whole piece with his opening line “I’m in the witness-protection program.” There’s a charming love letter, enhanced by Ashley’s delightful Mid-Atlantic drawl; the line “his chief erogenous zone lay inside his head;” a strangely satisfying encyclopædic aria about the Pleiades over the refrain “No;” and the final section, a heart-wrenching dream about an adopted daughter, Walnut.

Where the going gets good, though, is in the second act, “Asylum,” in which the four members of Ashley’s ‘band’ are residents of an assisted-living facility, and Ashley is a kind of counselor. The residents are petitioning Ashley for asylum, and it quickly becomes clear that they don’t mean a Political Asylum, but rather one from somebody/thing named O, ‘One and Only,’ who seems to be a mental apparition. To relieve tension, the residents break into song in short, highly-digestible numbers, a favorite being The Baguette, in which Joan La Barbara argues that 1 cannot both write in English and have a baguette for breakfast (or the opposite, that one cannot write in French and have a breakfast of oatmeal), as typified by Beckett:

Near the end of the act, things get existential; the residents start asking about dualities. “Dead and gone?” “Muslim and Jew?” “Antonym? Synonym? Antony and Cleopatra?” “The burden is always the same?” Before it’s over, Ashley tells a few jokes (“Two cannibals are eating a clown”). The whole thing is delightful.

Ashley’s pop songs—a fixture since Perfect Lives, but here in particularly earworm-y form—have been stuck in my head for months. It’s almost ten o’clock kids! Do you know where your mother is? The harmonies for each of them are always roughly the same, their emotional landscapes ranging from cheerful (The List) to Ethel Merman (After All The Stuff) to Capitalist Mantra (Love That Stuff) to utterly bizarre (Depression, I Like Q). Each, I think, expresses a deeper nostalgia and melancholy apropos of an opera about old age; they’re slightly out of it, harkening back to musics of the mid-20c. The emotional content of these short interludes tracks with the ‘drama’ of the intervening passages: in moments of faster-paced back-and-forth dialogue, we have songs like It’s Only Fun; at the end of a long string of dualities, we have It’s Almost 10 O’Clock. The final song, Years of Desire, has these words:

Years of desire,
A moment of madness,
Ladies’ choice.

Am I crazy, or is this incredibly haunting?

By the final act, “The River Deepens,” we’re all ready for an Einstein-ian nighttime story, and that is exactly what Ashley provides. Each of the 4 actors delivers a kind of stream-of-consciousness monologue about a wide range of topics, from a nightmare involving a road trip to the burning down of grandmother’s house (which has a rare 6/8 feel—most of the opera is in a very straightforward simple meter).

The final one, however, is what really gets me. Delivered by Joan, here a college admissions counselor, the aria tells a short story about a college course invigorated by a student she otherwise wouldn’t have admitted because “she scared me.” The story itself isn’t particularly remarkable, but at the very end, Joan finds the previously-scary student in a coffee shop. The student admits that she was previously haunted by a ghost (a recurring theme in the opera), but the course enabled her to relieve herself of this nuisance (perhaps suggesting why Joan no longer found her scary in the end). It’s all a bit nonsensical; the aria ends with an abrupt, exasperated “I never saw the woman again. Higher education!” In this last scene, the music is constantly churning, as always, yet feels settled, remaining in a very comfortable C major 7 chord, electronic sounds zhooshing above.

After each of the four monologues, Ashley delivers the simple line “The river deepens as it gets down to the sea, the river deepens.” By the final few seconds, the music drifts away, shifting to e minor, and Ashley intones the sentence in a particularly solemn fashion, sending frissons of pleasure down my spine.

The text of the opera often seems ridiculous and random (Twitter spam, anybody?), however there is, in fact, a structure. I was titillated to discover that, for example, ‘Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. N’ in the first act foreshadows the second half of the second act. The character of eternal vigilance rattles off a few random dualisms (“legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, Jews and Arabs, French and Germans, east and west, rich and poor” etc.), and then mentions “old jokes not quite remembered fully.” This moment calls to mind the deep-end that everybody runs off two-thirds through Asylum.

The moral of the story is that you should all watch the 2009 revival at La MaMA here, and also purchase the record here and sing (or, rather, Declaim) about baguettes in the shower.

I’ve had a busy few months. Pulsing & Shaking had its second set of concerts, which were really spectacular if I do say so myself. The second night went on for about 3.5 hours, but I think it was all worth it in the end, when Palladium Percussion killed it in their performance of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla. Onwards to next year! Manhattan Saxophone Quartet also premiered Minor Details a few days later, the recording of which is now up here.

I’m also currently in the midst of doing some arrangements for Derek, from his new album Bahar (out May 5; stay tuned). A bunch of his tunes on this record are all about that bass (clarinet), and so what I’m doing is adding more woodwinds and secret celesta. We’re going to perform these a bunch over the next few months, which I’m so excited about. It’s so humbling to work with an incredibly talented vocalist, providing new/different clothes for beautiful music. Watch this space, we’re coming to a Brooklyn near you this spring!

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