Ashley, Robert – “Improvement” – [Elektra Nonesuch]
OK, I’ll admit it. I was pretty skeptical of this one. I mean, of course Robert Ashley is a genius, but a mid-nineties made-for-TV opera? And what’s up with the Victorian steam-punk woman on the cover. There’s just no way this thing is gonna be hip.
And I gotta say, after listening to the first few tracks, I was EVEN MORE skeptical. It really is an opera! Full of synths and bizarrely layered vocal arrangements so hard to follow that I had to read the liner notes just to understand. I didn’t think I was going to make it all the way through both CDs.
But then something happened, and I understood.
It wasn’t the plot that hooked me, because not very much happens. Scenes take place in mundane settings, like doctors’ offices, cars, and airline check-in counters. The main theme of the second act (as far as I can tell) is an enumeration of the contents of the main character’s purse.
It also wasn’t the very conceptual and supposedly deep symbolism, which I found strangely overt yet utterly confusing. The liner notes clearly explain that this whole thing is an allegory for 1492 Spain, and that characters represent concepts including “America”, “The Roman Catholic Church”, “Integrated Philosophy”, and “The Descendants of Jews and non-Jews (i.e. us)”.
No, it was something about the cold electronic minimalism that finally got to me. The staccato whispers and monotonous choral unison. Highly uncomfortable, but before long it becomes your world. It is all you know. How could music ever have been any different?
The fragmented points of view and sometimes unreliable narration of Ashley himself. Monologues cast out into the ether. Call-and-response dialogues that subsume themselves, crossing the threshold of tolerable similarity. Honest contemplation of the situation at hand.
The importance of eating pasta at every meal.
If you are looking for a “song”, drop the needle on Tarzan (cd2-2). It’s pretty catchy, although the protagonist hates it, and features Ashley narrating the lyrics while the are being sung below.
“The Doctor” (cd2-4) shows Ashley’s unique dialog style, in a form that is still intelligible and occasionally musical. For slightly more difficult listening, check out the Airline Ticket Counter scenes (cd1-2, cd1-6). But honestly pretty much every track is worth playing. Or maybe none are. I can’t tell any more.