Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

The voice of the late Robert Ashley—a recognizable mumble of a low yet
crisp American drawl—filled the immense performance space at the Kitchen
with a distinct presence, despite the empty stage and his March 2014
death. Some might have perceived the experience of Ashley’s recorded
voice reciting the words of his detective novel Quicksand as somewhat
akin to listening to an audiobook; yet for any Ashley aficionado the experience
only affirmed the composer’s ability to draw novel experiences (no pun
intended) out of American speech patterns. The spoken words of Ashley’s
“television operas” and this “opera-novel”, unlike the
sung texts of “normal” operas, do not have their meaning obscured
by the voice as an aesthetic object; instead the narrative sentiment and aural
rhythms of speech become intricately bound as a vehicle not only for musical
but for philosophical contemplation. The world première of
Quicksand, produced by Ashley’s widow Mimi Johnson, highlights
the ability of voice, and of vocal storytelling, to animate words and
sentiments even in the form of an unsung, unassuming murmur: even in the
physical absence of a human body.

In the last few years of his life, Ashley wrote a novel, Quicksand
(Burning Books, 2011), recorded himself reading it out loud, and collaborated
with composer and audio producer Tom Hamilton on the transformation from novel
to opera-novel. After an original version that was more in the tradition of
Ashley’s television operas, involving a “strictly metered and very
stylized” vocal ensemble, Ashley and Hamilton broke away from
conventional musical time altogether, and Ashley instead read the 150-page book
as quickly as he could, with Hamilton editing out the silence between the
words. Hamilton also composed an electronic orchestra accompaniment which is
based on a 16-chord sequence from Ashley’s earlier opera
eL/Aficionado (1993), his goal being to personify the quicksand of the
title with “an unstable harmonic landscape, never fully grounded in any
familiar context.” Instead, the sounds flit around the audience’s
ears, a solitary fly buzzing and multiplying into a swarm of electronics and
drones, smoky in texture as the air in the performance space, which became
filled with the acrid scent of smoke at the beginning and end of each act.

Another Ashley collaborator, choreographer Steve Paxton, had a similar
approach. Dancers Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar wander around the stage in a
series of mostly irrelevant motions, their bodies frequently obscured by a
massive parachute quilt, under which their muffled human forms twisting the
colors and folds into new shapes and designs. Paxton notes that Ashley
“did not anticipate illustration of the elements of the text”; his
divertissements are meant to be subtle, abstract accompaniments to the plot and
never to overwhelm the texts. A recurring formation is Konjar seated and typing
in thin air while Gahan stands next to him, folding her arms across her body,
at times wearing a plant on her head so that she resembles a palm tree.

At times the two dancers pace across the stage, their movements ranging from
measured and careful to gracefully spastic. At others, the dancers are nowhere
in sight, and instead a choreography of lights and colors provides the visual
backdrop for Ashley’s wry mumble. David Moodey’s lighting shows
rather than tells, with colors materializing as an externalization of emotion
or mood rather than indicators of time of day or location. Sometimes colors
waft across the quilt, floating from green into blue into pink, while at others
a divertissement of spotlights and darkness plays out across the quilt. The
opera’s central visual component, at times the quilt hangs from the
ceiling like a flag, while at others it crumbles and collapses, snatching
Konjar and Gahan into its deflated obscurity.

The only other prop in the opera is a giant cardboard gun, which makes a few
key appearances and seems to aptly serve Ashley’s larger points. Of
course, the opera-novel isn’t really just a spy story, as most of
Ashley’s works are “about” much more than what appears on the
surface. In Quicksand, the fictionalized version of Ashley (an opera
composer who periodically receives assignments involving guns, watches, secret
passports sewn into his carry-on, and the dismantling of dictatorships) has
been sent to a fictionalized South Asian country by “the Company”.
Ashley uses his trademark irony and self-deprecating humor as the fictionalized
version of himself joins his wife for a yoga retreat but ends up hiding on the
hotel bathroom floor, clutching the gun that mysteriously appeared in the
drawer next to his bed. I say “ends up”, but this is the scene with
which the story begins, filling in some gaps but leaving others to the

The plot hops through time as witticisms abound, keeping the listener
engaged despite the detachment of the visual and aural elements. The hitmen
sidekicks assigned to him by the Company are referred to as “the
Steelers” due to their resemblance to pro football players.
Ashley’s incredulity over his missing bag and the questioning of the air
hostess—“What is she talking about? It’s a carry-on. I
carried it on.”—is delivered much more fittingly when spoken rather
than in print. (The audience cracked up both nights I attended.) Although
Ashley explores global issues with a gripping (if anything but linear) spy
narrative, at heart this is an opera about different kinds of people and
different kinds of love: “You can see it and maybe you can touch it.
Maybe you can talk to it, but you can never have it.”

Rebecca Lentjes

image_description=Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)
product_title=Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen
product_by=A review by Rebecca Lentjes
product_id=Above: Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)