Jan 25, 2016
Quicksand furthers Robert Ashley’s distinct and innovative investigation of the American language in a musical setting. Using his signature blend of speech and song, it tells the story of a composer who has been coerced by a Government Agency (the “Company”) to serve as a low-level “courier” (or spy). Traveling with his wife to an unnamed South Asian country run by a military dictatorship, he becomes involved with plans to overthrow the government through his close friendship with two tour guides. With the assistance of four American mercenaries, the composer participates in the capture and imprisonment of the country’s leaders, and the destruction of the torture operation by which the dictatorship has maintained its power.
The novel Quicksand was published by Burning Books in 2011, and in 2012 Robert Ashley asked his friends Steve Paxton, Tom Hamilton and David Moodey to collaborate with him in bringing the “opera-novel” to fruition. They have offered below a few notes on this project.
Steve Paxton: Notes on the Choreography
As a performer/improviser with Lisa Nelson, I used two of Ashley’s early works. One was dense with text, one was essentially mumbling. “The Park” and “The Backyard” from his Private Parts comprised the soundtrack for PA RT (my 1978 work with Nelson). Automatic Writing–with some other inclusions–was the soundtrack for our Night Stand (2004).
Ashley considered his proposals operas. With the two elements of Private Parts, he spun a tale of two individuals, each deeply involved in their own private worlds; the texts included their physical circumstances plus thoughts they had; allusions, digressions, memories, interests. The audiences for our performance couldn’t grasp all of it ... the dance got in the way. This resulted in the heard images surfacing throughout the dance, hearing and seeing split in two. Lisa and I performed this work from 1978 to 2001. I loved the support of the narrative’s twists and different levels, the musical atmosphere coming to prominence, then becoming background again.
Automatic Writing was a very different score. Two voices predominate, Ashley’s and Mimi Johnson’s. Ashley’s voice has been musically altered into indecipherability. Mimi Johnson whispers translations in French. It seems to be a situation of a man in existential distress with a soothing companion. It is rather the opposite of Private Parts; his voice without thoughts, allusions, interests, digressions, memories. It was far more challenging to perform with, being a constant and barely inflected present. Together the two scores demonstrate the breadth of thought in Ashley’s approach to opera.
A thought that Bob “had the odd talent of remaining still as his music and text swirled” was in my mind as I accepted Ashley’s invitation to choreograph Quicksand. But what I found was a very different approach. The text is a story of spies, in an unnamed far-Eastern country, and a revolutionary event. The music is a background of delicately modulated electronic chords. This is Ashley in the guise of a classic noire author, yet another departure from his previous work. The text for Quicksand doesn’t swirl much.
This is a first commission for an opera for me. Dance within operas was frequently in the form of divertissements, not necessarily linked to the plot. I used this approach, with some references to Ashley himself, the author, and to a rather romantic connection he mentions in the text. In the main, though, I used the dance as relief from the ongoing three-hour text.
I felt that the divertissements should not overwhelm the text. They tend to be low-key, fairly brief, and occasional. They color and populate the text, provide another layer of activity to the proceedings, but aim to service the atmosphere, and not challenge the ongoing narrative. Ashley left us some general directions, mostly to enable a separation between the elements of dance, text, and light. He obviously did not anticipate illustration of the elements of the text. Nor would he have enlisted me if that had been his desire. I only wish he had lived to see this production.
Tom Hamilton: Notes on Making the Orchestra
I joined the Robert Ashley ensemble in 1990, with a background as a composer and performer of electronic music and as an audio producer and engineer. We began by focusing on the electronic orchestra for Bob’s opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda). In the 25 years that followed I collaborated in the making of orchestras in nine operas and many shorter pieces. As Bob always held innovation and change in the highest regard, there are formal designs and gestures that were very different from one piece to the next, and often we made up the studio techniques on the spot, adjusting the elements empirically until they sounded right within the intended context. The processes that we evolved in those 25 years certainly informed those that I used in preparing this present music.
Quicksand went through a long gestation and actually two different versions. After an initial attempt at recording a vocal ensemble piece that was strictly metered and very stylized, Bob decided just to tell the story himself as fast as he could read it. He was aiming for a kind of run-on vocal style and encouraged me to edit out as much silence between the words as I could manage. He also wanted to break away from his former practice of measuring the orchestra in bars and beats, and to break away from conventional musical time altogether. The music was to be paced strictly by durations of sounds within a harmonic scheme, and I was charged with making an orchestra that fulfilled that plan. I fashioned a demo orchestra for Act I that tested these ideas in a kind of homogenous setting and played it for him in January of 2014, the last time we saw each other.
The actual musical material is based on the 16-chord sequence used to structure Ashley’s earlier opera eL/Aficionado. In Quicksand, those chords are used in two ways: First in their original linear sequence, heard as kind of a harmonic cloud that changes with each of the scenes in each act; then, as isolated groups of chords in a different order and of different durations, superimposed on the original harmony and sounded by timbres that change at their own rate. The result is an unstable harmonic landscape, never fully grounded in any familiar context – a patch of musical quicksand.
David Moodey: A Note on the Lighting
It was an honor and privilege to work with Robert Ashley. Over the course of the last 15 years I worked on every new opera that Bob wrote and produced. He entrusted me with designing both the lighting and the settings. As an artist, because of the creative freedom he gave me, I was able to grow and expand my capabilities. We became close friends. We talked about his works, his goals with each new piece, the state of art and life. My craft and my life were enriched by his presence and our collaboration.
Bob never told his collaborators exactly what to do; he allowed them to respond to his work with their own. With Quicksand, he provided structural guidelines—a place to start. In my case he left me free to create lighting that helps the audience connect to the opera visually. The libretto tells the story in a more or less linear progression. I don’t have to tell the audience whether it’s day or night, indoors or out. What I hope I have accomplished is the creation of a light environment that, along with Steve’s choreography, enhances the story's emotional content.