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Robert Ashley: Concrete

November 5, 2009

concrete“Concrete is a tragedy”, Robert Ashley claimed at a conference in Ferrara before its Italian premiere at the 2008 Aterforum Contemporary Music Festival. He pointed out “It is like Hamlet with no killings”. Well, perhaps he was exaggerating while a bit drunk. The opera has a quite straightforward and transparent structure, four monologues in which the Old Man reminisces about friendships from his youth, divided between four speakers/singers, two men, and two women. The monologues are interspersed with interludes in which the four voices join in kaleidoscopic, overlapping ruminations that are less comprehensible, but have intriguing contrapuntal textures. Ashley gives the performers full responsibility for the delivery of the text: speed, tone, and pitch. The vocal style isn’t exactly ‘Sprechstimme’ – it’s more like highly inflected conversational speech. The accompaniment consists of electronically generated sounds that don’t generally have an instantly obvious relationship to the specifics of the texts, but which do mirror the tone of each story and create an atmospheric subtext. The stories are well written, intriguing, and mysterious, and carry by themselves the record’s greatest strength, correlated closely enough with Ashley’s biography to leave us wondering whether or not they are true. In any case, they make for terrifically entertaining listening, laying bare the basic subject: Imagination vs. Ordinariness.

by ‘the cookshop

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