Robert Ashley Documents the Aether April 25, 1977

Judging from the image on the color-tv monitor, we are on a boat gradually approaching the Golden Gate. The soundtrack consists of Robert Ashley talking to David Behrman about his music. I figure that the two men are also on the boat with the camera, and I expect to have a view momentarily. The camera doesn’t cooperate with my desires, however, and continues to focus straight ahead. Then, after maybe 10 minutes, it rises and begins to circle overhead, looking down on the buildings of San Francisco. A tricky cut? A flying boat? I eventually realize that I must be seeing all this from a helicopter. Ashley and Behrman continue to talk on the soundtrack. Their conversation is quite informal, with many incomplete sentences and some very long pauses. Breezes blow in the background. About 15 or 20 minutes into this videotape, the camera comes back to ground level. There has still not been a single cut. Off in the distance we vaguely make out two men sitting at a picnic table. Gradually we get a closer view and discover Ashley and Behrman, in perfect lip sync.

The tape runs on for another 40 minutes. Sometimes the camera flies away, returns, and finds the speakers standing on a hill or walking somewhere. Most of the time we must be content to watch them from a distance, or not see them at all. The soundtrack continues to be informal but insightful. There are no cuts.

By the time the hour is over, I realize that I have experienced not only some remarkable camerawork by Philip Makanna but also a perceptive portrait of Behrman. The tape reveals him as a quiet, modest man who doesn’t like looking at the camera any more than this camera likes looking at him. His short answers often leave the interviewer at a loss for words. He frequently deflects the conversation away from himself and onto other topics. Ashley points out during the interview that his music has an intimate quality and is intended for small audiences. Everything fits together.

On a more subtle level, the tape also made me understand a little more about Ashley, who is the producer and director as well as the interviewer. I remembered that for some years he has been doing performance pieces that involve spontaneous conversation, and I begin to appreciate the amount of study that has gone into making his talking performances seem so casual and unstudied.

This is only one of the 14-hour-long tapes that make up Ashley’s ‘Music with Roots in the Aether,’ on view at the Whitney Museum through April 20. There is an hour-long interview and an hour’s worth of musical performances devoted to each of the seven composers included in the series. Some of the settings and camera angles used in the performances are as unlikely as those used in the interviews. During the performance of Behrman’s ‘Music with Melody-Driven Electronics,’ the camera frequently looks on via mirrors so that one loses a sense of direction. Gordon Mumma is interviewed while oiling his bicycle, and is shown playing his musical saw in an unpopulated amusement park. Philip Glass talks mostly about money and practical matters and becomes distracted by children playing in the background, while the camera occasionally picks out twitches in his fingers. Terry Riley gives his interview while milking his goat in rural California, and then goes into a sort of rustic-modern house to play some of his solo organ music. Alvin Lucier is represented by three works, one of which takes place during the interview. Pauline Oliveros does one of her often discussed but seldom heard accordion-and-voice performances. Ashley himself is interviewed by an assistant, and presents a theatrical work called ‘What She Thinks.’ The series reveals a good deal about the artists, and presents their works with care and understanding.

I think the main reason Ashley feels this music has ‘roots in the aether’ is simply that it is not completely notated. Of course, it is not exactly improvised either. In most cases the performers may make only extremely limited choices. In Glass’s music they must even stick to prescribed melodic fragments. In all cases, however, the sense of timing and pacing is rather free. Neither the composer nor the performers can predict how the music will take shape in a particular performance, or how long the performance will last. Some of this is determined by, well, the aether.

For Ashley, I think his title also implies a lack of historical roots, but I’m not sure about that. Certainly all of these composers owe debts to John Cage and other composers who launched a general approach to indeterminate music in the ’50s. All of them have been influenced to one degree or another by Eastern ideas, and I sense a spirit of jazz here and there. Certainly they all have been influenced by developments in electronics. On the other hand, none of their works sound much like anything that came before. But whether their music has specific historical origins, or whether it did to some extent spring out of the aether, it must all come from about the same place. All seven composers are around 40 to 50 years old, all are Americans, all are probably as well known in Europe as they are here, and all create relatively static pieces that generally take a long time. They do comprise a sort of category, however nebulous, and perhaps the most valuable thing about Ashley’s videotapes is that they help define this category. Furthermore, by putting everything together, they make it clear that something significant has been going on within this category. Of course, Ashley does not claim that these seven names should be regarded as any sort of definitive list or school. In fact, he had originally planned to include one or two others in the series, and it would not be difficult to see a number of other American composers, and perhaps even a couple of British ones, as part of the same basic phenomenon.

I have been emphasizing the subject matter of ‘Music with Roots in the Aether.’ But documentaries are also works of art in their own right, and it seems to me that this one is particularly successful, even though it’s as long as about eight or 10 typical feature films. Ashley’s settings sometimes verge on the bizarre, but they always end up seeming appropriate in one way or another, both in the interviews and in the performances, and as I mentioned, his own extremely casual talking and interviewing method is an art in itself. Not only does the no-cuts technique present a unique challenge that Makanna’s camera meets ingeniously time after time, but it is also appropriate to the long, unbroken continuities of the music. That lone camera moves slowly and somewhat predictably, a bit like the music itself, but neither is ever boring. There is no editing on the soundtrack either. The tapes come spectacularly close to actually capturing a live-performance quality.

At one point, after having seen quite a few of the tapes, I suggested to Ashley that ‘Music with Roots in the Aether’ might well be his own finest creative work, but he only shrugged. Perhaps he thinks of it mostly as a documentary of other works rather than as a work of his own, perhaps he was just being modest, or perhaps after almost 20 productive years as a creative artist he just finds it too difficult to make such comparisons.