“This event is probably not unique”: On communication and metaphor in Robert Ashley’s Improvement
Rebecca Lentjes explores communication and metaphor in Robert Ashley’s opera “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)” and how the work arrives at big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life.
Editorial note: The text of this article has been corrected. Though the Varispeed Collective (Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) has worked deeply with the music of Robert Ashley previously, this production was performed by a larger vocal ensemble which also includes Amirtha Kidambi. Mimi Johnson, through Performing Artservices, produced the opera, and Tom Hamilton served as music director.
The opening words of Robert Ashley’s Improvement are a bit of a head-scratcher: “To continue, I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate in the music.”
Continue what? It’s the first line of the opera. And communicate what? If he didn’t think himself capable of communicating via music, why write an opera, of all things?
Over the course of the next 88 minutes, seven voices attempt to communicate this unexplainable idea alongside an orchestral accompaniment consisting of a MIDI-controlled synthesized harmonic environment. The issue of communication was a concern for the composer throughout his life. Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in 2014, composed “television operas” and other experimental theatrical works employing a vocabulary of ordinary folks mumbling, humming, chanting, and occasionally singing. Ashley conveyed quotidian experiences, such as getting old or getting divorced, in a United States vernacular woven through with grandiose metaphors and allegories: at the end of his prerecorded opening narration to Improvement, he intones, “For the sake of argument, Don is Spain in 1492 and Linda is the Jews.”
Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is Ashley’s first in a series of four operas exploring the experiences and consciousnesses of a collection of ordinary Americans: Don, Linda, Now Eleanor, and Junior Junior. The tetralogy is “based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from different points of view.” In Improvement, the seven vocalists converse with each other in question-and-answer sessions (“Do you have a ticket?” “Yes.” “Do you have baggage?” “Yes.”), interrogating each other Inquisition-style, and adopting different identities when the narrative demands it. The vocalists shift seamlessly from their roles as named individuals to Greek-chorus-style delivery, whispering and echoing underneath. The result is at times laugh-out-loud funny, as when Linda gets a ride from the “Unimportant Family” (“my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.”) Other moments are eerie, and still others are imbued with a profound sense of loss and isolation. But the opera never loses its sense of momentum, of getting the listener from one place to another.
Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked. Even though the texts burble along in a seemingly haphazard fashion, they are arranged according to Ashley’s careful cosmology. An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line such as Mr. Payne’s comments in Improvement that “still words would be useless, if the sound were not the meaning” or “The world moves on the air of music. There’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing we had before automobiles as four-dimensional.” Mr. Payne represents Ashley’s philosopher muse Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600), and his character betrays much of Ashley’s complicated approach to language and communication. Words can be helpful, but are most helpful when they are sounded out loud; music can convey the meaning of words while also transporting you from point A to point B.
Which is ultimately what Ashley’s music does so effectively. Ashley was more interested in the process of musical communication than in its end product. His metaphors and allegories aren’t nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek operatic devices; they illustrate the interconnectedness of human experience across geographies and temporalities and encapsulate human sensation on a much broader scale than a story concerned only with individuals locked into a specific place and time. For these reasons, I must disagree with Ashley: he is possibly one of the only composers who is adequate to communicate “in the music.” Ashley’s operas remind us that sound is metaphor—they make us hear what music really is: sounds that are meant to communicate something beyond themselves.
Improvement, which Ashley wrote in 1985, was first recorded in 1991. The first version existed only as a recording, with the vocalists doubling their own voices in live performance. The most recent production of the opera (presented to sold-out houses February 7–16, 2019, at The Kitchen in New York City) was reconstructed over a period of two years by producer Mimi Johnson (Ashley’s widow) and music director Tom Hamilton (Ashley’s longtime collaborator). (Production information and libretto available here.) Although the subsequent operas in the tetralogy were first performed live, Improvement first existed as a recording (upon which live productions had to be based) for almost 30 years. The assumption being that “this piece was not going to be performed live in concert,” Hamilton told me—ostensibly because it was the first in a tetralogy that its creators suspected would not be of interest to venues or live music programmers. Although some of the original tracks were found for the 2019 performance, some of them weren’t, which meant that the opera essentially was reconstructed from scratch.
Johnson, as producer, was involved in the process from start to finish. She told me that “the orchestra and voices had been mingled irrevocably,” and so both components of the opera had to be recreated. In the first version, the singers were doubling their own voices—which meant they could occasionally take a breath during a live performance, knowing their own voice would be doubled. But according to Johnson, “the new version is 100% live,” with only a click track in the vocalists’ ears to keep the beat. This presentation maintains the sound world of the original, but also imbues Ashley’s opera with a new sense of expressiveness: unexpected sighs or syllabic emphases or vocal inflections resulting in twists of humor or jolts of sadness.
Ashley’s libretto does not specify these sorts of things. His timings are exact down to the second —Improvement runs precisely eighty-eight minutes: no more, no less—but he granted musicians the freedom to interpret the stories and conversations and ramblings however they chose. Ashley’s textual narratives are inextricable from his musical scores: typically, there is one row for each line of the libretto, with columns indicating extratextual information, such as which vocalist should be speaking, a tonality on which the vocalist should be centering their speech, and how many beats per line and beats per minute. In the case of Improvement, the chorus is presented in all caps, solo voices are lower case, and Ashley indicated that “all lines for chorus begin on the first beat” and “underlined syllables fall on the beat and are somewhat accented.”
The team rehearsed the opera five days a month for roughly two years. The cast members—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—were not strangers to Ashley’s oeuvre, having performed in the 2011 remounting of That Morning Thing and in Ashley’s last opera, Crash. Gelsey Bell, who was tasked with reincarnating the role of Linda (originally played by Jacqueline Humbert), explained in the New York Times: “There’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from [Humbert’s] in many ways, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.”
When I sat in on a rehearsal in January, the performers seemed equally as concerned about doing justice to Ashley’s work as they were about adhering to their own personal sense of creativity and musicality. After Hamilton brought their attention to a problematic moment (line 614, in which Linda sings “right at the airline ticket counter” with chorus) the group hashed it out, with Bell ultimately deciding to “just do it the way I’ve been doing it” and the others making slight rhythmic modifications so as not to throw off the overall flow of beats and syllables and sentiments. Simons then began sifting through a box labeled “Bob’s ties,” selecting shirt and tie combos for McCorkle, Pinto, and Ruder before the three male cast members went out to get haircuts together. The cozy rehearsal space reverberated with warm excitement, mingled with a touch of silliness and a touch of reverence.
The performers did not need to attempt to communicate Ashley’s presence from beyond the grave; he could do that for himself. The only voice that was carried over from the first version was Ashley’s own: at three different moments in the opera, Ashley’s narration crackled through the air, slamming our ears and hearts with the weight of something that seemed much more solid than invisible sound waves. “I am inadequate to communicate in the music,” the voice ironically claims, but Ashley’s operas are so much more adept at communicating than “traditional” opera. The conversations, mumbled soliloquies, and half-remembered songs within Ashley’s operas refuse to objectify the sung voice. Instead they allow the spoken or sung voice to communicate universal concerns and human experiences within the immediacy of the sound waves themselves.
Ashley’s cosmology always concerned itself more with communicating big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life. Ashley’s musical language reflects this interest in escaping traditional conceptions of time. As he himself put it in an interview with Kyle Gann:
The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple other guys, music had always been about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. … There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me. … That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.
In focusing on the sound rather than the event, Ashley’s music communicates events and entities and ideas beyond the sound. Ashley’s resistance to musical “events” imbues the entirety of Improvement, in which Don and Linda’s breakup (and their subsequent airport mishaps) represent suffering on a much larger scale and across a much grander scale of time.
Ultimately Don and Linda’s breakup is irrelevant. It’s not about Don leaving Linda; it’s about violence and persecution as central themes to human existence. Through repetition of words and sounds, Ashley makes us hear how Linda’s situation—even while isolating and alienating for her—is just another variation on the repetitive nature of human experience. When the “Unimportant Family” picks up Linda after she gets left by her husband, she is reminded that her discomfort—in the van, in her new life circumstances—does not make her special, no matter how lonely or isolated she might feel:
This ride is uncomfortable, I know.
…there is a certain wornness about it,
and this wornness makes the
reminding him or her that this
event is probably not unique.
Bell’s rendering of Linda’s suffering was so apt, managing to capture the sadness of Linda as an individual as well as the sadness one goes through even while realizing that others have gone through it too. She is able to express this while also conveying the allegory of Linda’s role as a metaphor for much “bigger” and more abstract ideas.
And so Improvement, as an eighty-eight minute “event,” does not exist for the sake of sounds becoming ideas or vehicles for linguistic communication. As Ashley himself stated in the libretto for Improvement, “music has no calories.” Instead, the sounds become communication itself as they direct our ears to what exists beyond these sounds happening in this moment in time. They help us to see and hear and think beyond ourselves. Improvement is not “about” Linda and it’s not even really “about” the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It’s about how the event of heartbreak ultimately can be kind of funny and mundane—because there’s a certain wornness about it, because it’s probably not unique. It’s about how the universal can exist within the particular. It’s about the conveyance of human suffering with musicalized sound.