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Robert Ashley - Now Eleanor's Idea

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Artist: Robert Ashley

Album: Now Eleanor's Idea

Label: Lovely

Review date: Nov. 15, 2007


Robert Ashley - "Act I Change excerpt" (Now Eleanor's Idea)


    “While the avant-garde is conventionally imagined as sharp and pointy, as hard- or cutting-edge, cute objects have no edge to speak of, usually being soft, round, and deeply associated with the infantile and the feminine.” (Sianne Ngai, "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde"

There’s a moment in Peter Greenaway’s profile of Robert Ashley and his best-known work, the television opera Perfect Lives, when the above term fills the screen. It’s a broken off chunk of libretto: “long live the AVANT long live the AVANT GARDE.” You don’t need to strain to hear the way Ashley’s preternaturally gentle voice and the music that buoys it casually shave off the term’s jagged associations. Beyond its plot, Now Eleanor’s Idea – a four-act, 90-minute opera which premiered in 1994 and whose television version was never completed – is interesting because of its particular attenuated relationship to the traditional notion of the avant-garde.

Ashley’s work doesn’t take form by staking out an oppositional position to this idea. The way Ashley handles the term has the kind of matter-of-factness we typically don’t associate with culture-work. Though his subject matter is grassroots stuff – a native of Michigan now living in New York, Ashley’s work frequently focuses on the minutiae of regular folks’ lives in the Midwest – Ashley’s beyond doubt a major figure in the American avant-garde at the same time that his work has little to do with academia or subversion. The documentary itself recognizes the privileged place of plain language in Ashley’s work and the way the AVANT GARDE bit described above doesn’t reduce to intuition v. intellectualism. Here’s an interview excerpt from a moment before the part under consideration, wherein Ashley explains his music’s putative origins:

    “There was a great emphasis in my family when I was a child to be very careful about how you said things, I mean there was some sort of social connotation to the way you talked, to the way you pronounced words so that I think that was my principal musical education.”

In Now Eleanor’s Idea, as in Perfect Lives, Ashley performs a good part of his own libretto as the unnamed narrator. Ashley, now a cute old man equivalent to his voice, is an important proxy for the listener: his work proceeds from a certain quality of speech that, like Gertrude Stein’s, has a double-surplus of commonplaceness and strangeness, which seems invested in the everyday to the point of near-preciousness.

The stray sounds that animate the moment described above from Greenaway’s documentary – wandering, regular percussion, Gene Tyranny’s too-fluid piano, electronically processed call-and response – are, along with the faded video itself, as good an index as one could hope for. What’s being indexed is a little trickier to say. It could be how little or how much Ashley’s work, its context, or the relation of the former to the latter has changed.

What is immediately recognizable in comparison with the earlier television opera is the limited presence of traditional instrumentation. It’s not simply the absence of Tyranny’s piano (which rarely acted like a piano regardless of his tonality), but an even greater emphasis on the cadence of specifically American and typically banal speech. Act I (titled “Change”) is exemplary in this regard: it’s nothing but dense exposition, delivered in a way that’s neither singing nor pitched speech, and still entirely distinct from speech itself. Incorporating metaphysical digressions, it is perhaps the only act one needs to follow along with the libretto: this, the most information-packed act, sets up Now Eleanor’s Idea, the opera’s TV-show-inside-a-TV-opera.

Protagonist Now Eleanor, played by Joan La Barbara, is a teller in a bank in an unnamed mid-size Midwestern town whose life is redirected after she witnesses a bizarre robbery. The situation becomes baffling and transforms into A Sign for Now Eleanor when the stolen money is replaced the day following its disappearance. The Sign precipitates Now Eleanor leaving her job, and soon after she fortuitously receives a call from an ex-lover who works for a television station in a neighboring town. Remembering her as “unusually comely / And yet reassuring in her / Appearance, not exotic at all,” he recruits her to the evening news team, where she develops her Idea as a television special investigating the incident at the bank. Seeking to locate a particular accomplice – a middle-aged man whose foreignness had captivated her at the time of the robbery – “She goes to / The borders of our Spanishness, not exactly / Incognito, and starts looking for / The pattern in the weave that leads her to / The spider, as it were.” “The Borders of our Spanishness” turns out to be Northern New Mexico; it’s unclear if Now Eleanor does in fact find the unknown person, this pursuit quickly loses focus as she falls in love with chicano lowrider culture. This furnishes her not just with a point of entry into a foreign yet not-foreign Americanness, it alters almost entirely her conception of knowing: this is what she calls “The Miracle of Cars.” This is where things get metaphysical, and more difficult to summarize. Act II mostly consists of what we take to be the Idea’s raw material, a field recording of a long-form description of modifications done to two lowriders by Arthur “LowLow” and Joan Medina over roughly 10 years. By Act III, Now Eleanor has become something of a Spanglish-speaking metaphysical talk show host. Act IV is the culmination of what is now clearly an epic journey, with Now Eleanor fulfilling her work through the singing of an ancient song, one which “cannot be misunderstood,” and will release the people (presumably the Northern New Mexicans she fell in love with, but probably all people) from unhappiness.

The scope and stakes of the piece increase exponentially from one act to the next. Still, Act I’s framing goes a long way, keeping the piece from turning into new-agey self-parody, and keeping it rooted in both the physicality and aesthetic specificity of its subject matter. Experienced independently, the four 20-minute acts making up this opera are as narratively and musically ambitious as most anything else on offer as contemporary avant-garde. It’s particularly relevant at the moment: negativity (posited against whatever dominant power) has coagulated into an extension of the powers it ostensibly rejects (pop-cultural schadenfreunde and the blunt secessional violence of noise music are two examples). The extent to which Ashley’s belonging to the avant-garde is problematic is also a measure of the richness of his work. Whatever criticisms one may level against Ashley seem equally to be arguments on his behalf; while the metaphysics of this opera get mushy at points, Ashley navigates cultures and subcultures in a way that avoids both monumentalizing and infantilizing his subjects. These aspects of his work, those which extend beyond style or format, are those that will be the ultimate measure of his life’s work. Now Eleanor’s Idea can’t help but feel incomplete out of context with the works whose inspiration it shares, but it’s as good a place to start or end as any.

By Brandon Bussolini

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