Varispeed performing in the Essex Street Market. Photograph: Michael Nagle/The New York Times
"A Fresh Stamp on a Veteran Composer's Work"
The New York Times, November 9, 2011
Originally this was going to be two separate, straightforward reviews of concerts in which new performers, mostly young, took up works by the veteran composer Robert Ashley. Instead, it turned into a single notebook that performed essentially the same function, but gave me the opportunity to really think about the two events in context and to really get at the fundamental difference between the two events.
The first, presented by the Incubator Arts Project, was a concert of chamber music badly in desperate need of champions and new performances. To say that I was shaken was an understatement; I literally could not comprehend how it was possible that I'd never previously encountered a performance of a work as refined and beautiful as Ashley's string quartet in memoriam … Esteban Gomez, nor could I imagine anyone using the idiosyncratic and touching specifics of Thomas Buckner's voice more effectively than Ashley did in Tract. After the latter work, I made a beeline over to Tom Hamilton, Ashley's longtime sound-design partner and a fine composer-performer in his own right, to find out just how the piece was made.
In the other event, members of the collective Varispeed honored Ashley, while also expressing plenty about their own musical personalities and showing an exuberant camaraderie, by staging scenes from his video opera Perfect Lives at two-hour intervals in locations around the East Village and SoHo. This event, presented under the auspices of Performa 11, was a gas to follow from start to finish; look for your diligent reporter in two of the images in the slideshow of Michael Nagle's photos included as a sidebar to the main article.
The next event of Ashley's extraordinary month arrives this Saturday, November 19, when The Kitchen hosts another Performa 11 presentation: the New York premiere of That Morning Thing, Ashley's first opera and the source of two of his most famous pieces, She Was a Visitor and Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon. Directed by the steel-pan player, composer and multimedia artist Fast Forward, who studied with Ashley at Ann Arbor during the ’70s, the cast includes longtime Ashley cohorts like Hamilton and "Blue" Gene Tyranny alongside younger performers, including all five members of Varispeed.
And thus are legacies maintained and extended. Hallelujah.