Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

According to Robert Ashley, the composer himself, “Well, if I say
it’s opera, it’s opera! Who’s running this show, anyway?” The composer,
who died in March of last year, was known for anecdotal libretti and
“television operas” that invite close listening and that range in tone from
tragic to comic to cosmically, bewilderingly existential.

Crash , the last of his operas, was performed at Roulette by
Varispeed, an experimental music group consisting of a younger generation of
Ashley disciples: Brian McCorkle, Dave Ruder, Gelsey Bell, Paul Pinto, Aliza
Simons, and Amirtha Kidambi. First performed last year at the Whitney Biennial,
Crash was reincarnated for four nights in April by director Tom
Hamilton and producer Mimi Johnson. The opera is divided into six acts of
fifteen minutes each, during which three of the speakers, in a Cageian fashion,
take turns talking for 30 seconds each: “Thoughts” rambles, as if partaking
in a phone conversation, about fourteen-year life cycles, evil short men, and
the frustrations of neighbors; “Crash” swirls out a string of poetic fears
and musings; “The Journal” stammers out descriptions of each year from
Ashley’s life. Meanwhile, the other three voices murmur quietly in the
background. The members of Varispeed rotated through the parts so that, by the
sixth act, each had taken his or her turn assuming each of the voices and their
varying tempos and amplifications.

Roulette TV: ROBERT ASHLEY // Crash: Act 1 from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.

Unlike other of Ashley’s operas, which feature loosely outlined piano or
electronic parts, Crash is distinct in its accompaniment: each of the
three trains of thought, which thread in and around each other like a braid of
multicolored ribbons, is joined only by the quick but quiet mumbling of three
other voices and an array of three different photo projections. This symphony
of voices and abstract images allows the focus to fall not just on Ashley’s
texts but on the spotlighted speaker and the hills and valleys of their
inflections, vocal register and timbre, and unique embodiment of the
“character”. So although the opera is sparse in requisites, it feels
inordinately full and rich in tone as the six voices—four voices at any given
moment—complement each other in continually new ways. (The interpretations of
“The Journal” were most striking in their differences, as each of the
members of Varispeed adopted the required stutter in a particular way.)

Despite this sense of evolution in the ever-fluctuating vocal combinations,
there was an overall sensation of constancy and meditation throughout the
comforting rhythms and switch-offs of the 30-second segments. Each time one of
the characters started back up, no matter who was speaking, the carefully
intricate yet seemingly stream-of-conscious themes and anecdotes of Ashley’s
life fell into their familiar patterns. The mathematically predictable
structure of the opera was the perfect framework for Ashley’s unpredictable
and often humorous observations. Each of the vocalists managed to capture the
ponderous, philosophical, and psychological ramblings—which in the case of
“The Journal” were highly linear and easy to follow, while during
“Crash” they were more obscure—with not just humor but sensitivity and

Another reason, aside from the scrupulous performance of Varispeed, that
Ashley’s personal accounts and musings never felt heavy-handed or forced were
the photographs by Philip Makanna, who collaborated with Ashley on the
latter’s 14-hour video opera/documentary Music with Roots in the
. Throughout the “projection score” by Katie Cox, Eric Magnus,
and Andie Springer, the abstract and peaceful visual component did not feel
like a contrived, maladroit powerpoint sequence as so many new music
projections do. Rather, the photographed landscapes not only depicted the
American scenery so important to Ashley, but also allowed the audience to
“hear the singing and the texts without the typical visual distractions”,
as Ashley desired. In combination with lighting designer David Moodey’s
skillful spotlight maneuvering and Kate Brehm’s stage management, the photo
projections did not hammer home a message but allowed the viewers to form their
own responses alongside their listening. This was the rare opera experience
wherein the visual and aural experiences were united with not a blip of

More straightforward than Ashley’s other operas, which can be oblique and
convoluted in narrative and musical structure, Crash delivers a
wondrous yet meditative experience. Written at the end of the sixth
fourteen-year cycle of his life—and it’s surely no coincidence Ashley died
just before his 84th birthday, considering his self-imposed
significance on the number—the opera feels as if Ashley is looking back on
his life while also looking towards the future, using the voices of young
people to explore concepts of voice, story-telling, and, yes, opera.

Rebecca S. Lentjes

image_description=Robert Ashley
product_title=Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash
product_by=A review by Rebecca S. Lentjes
product_id=Above: Robert Ashley