Attitude Connected to Language

Robert Ashley (born 1930) works on new forms of opera and multi-disciplinary projects. He pioneered opera-for-television. His latest opera production was Made Out of Concrete (2007).

In the operas you wrote, for instance Automatic Writing (1979) and Perfect Lives (1983), it seems the singers are more speaking then singing. Where did this unique vocal technique come from?
I have always been interested in opera, but I was never happy with the combination of music derived from a European source and English language. It seems to me that opera, using English with a European orchestra technique is a failure. So, I was looking for a way to put the English language into a different musical setting.
In America inherited a European opera, which is based on vocal vowel sounds. English, however, doesn’t really need vowels. In English, one of the most important ingredients is the attacks and the stresses as opposed to classical Italian opera. That means that the musical English has to be very much faster as the words go by then Italian, German or French opera. So, the first thing that I had to change was the speed of English in regard to the music. Most people speak English at least within an octave, smaller than an octave, so the second thing I did was that I compressed the vocal range and increased the speed and asked the singer to tune their speech to a particular pitch.

Is it important to you that the English you use is the American language; I mean the language that belongs to the United States of America?
For a long time everybody spoke Latin, and then everybody spoke a dialect of southern France, then everybody spoke a dialect of northern France. It just happens that historically we are at a moment where everybody is speaking American-English. I have a feeling it’s because of certain developments in electronic technology. I think that America, because it is so young, is very vulnerable to modernization though it didn’t invent modernization. I think that modern technology came from something in the Euro-American tradition. You know, from science and that kind of stuff, it is just that America… , caught it first, because we had no background, no protection against it. It would never occur to a French person to invent Coca Cola because they have the Bordeaux, but if you don’t have anything like that… You know, we don’t even have beer! It would never occur to a German to invent Coca Cola, because you have beer. But if you don’t have anything but bad wine and bad beer, that naturally you invent Coca Cola. If you don’t have certain kinds of transportation, if you don’t have a railway system or if you don’t have certain forms of social habits then naturally you invent the car, the super highway.
It’s a huge country so that means that we are likely to invent technological things to try to bring that country together. If you go from the east coast to the west coast it’s like going to another world. All our technological inventions have been about trying to make it easier for people to speak to each other. I think that that’s why we’ve put so much emphasis into the computer, the automobile, to selling the same thing, or having the same thing in a huge area. Our emphasis lies in these big corporate things. For better or worse.

Is there also an attitude connected to the use of English? What way does it influence subjects that you use for your opera?
Well, English to my ear doesn’t sound very good when it pretends to be important. There is a form of thinking in English that is very stupid. If you try to say something very important in English you get a fool like George Bush. I think that perhaps European languages have a form of sounding important, because of the age and history of Europe and because of the tradition of many small states with one castle in the middle and then twenty miles further another state with one castle in the middle. You can have people like de Gaulle, Hitler, or you name it, Nietzche, the pope, and whatever they say sounds very important. In America nobody knows who Franklin Roosevelt is, but everybody knows who Clint Eastwood is. Everybody knows what Jack Nichelson sounds like. So we have form of thinking that is based on extremely simple ideas. What I work with are the ideas of people who don’t think that the ideas they have are very important. Who are humble in the presence of an idea. What I work with, Americans would characterize it as everyday language. It runs as a constant thread through the English language that the simpler you can say it, the more powerful it is.

Printed in: Kunstverein Hannover: Ingrid Calame, Mathilde ter Heijne, Jörg Wagner, pages 127-129