9 min read

Time's gone by.

Thoughts about Robert Ashley, permanence, transience, and story telling… plus essential new albums and upcoming release dates.

Cogito, ergo sum.

Robert Ashley (Photograph: Joanne Savio)

I started to write this post nine days ago, at which point I already was feeling pressured by time slipping by, with day-job work swelling past its banks to saturate more and more of my productive hours.

It's nine days later now, and a lot of what I was thinking about then feels less present and pressing.

"Think of this stage not as an impersonation, but as a time-displacement exercise."

Since late last night, I've been listening to a new recording of eL/Aficionado, a chamber opera Robert Ashley completed in 1987. And I'm thinking about a whole bunch of new and old and different things.

I'm not yet thinking about reviewing the recording, which doesn't arrive until October 22—the second day in a three-evening live presentation at Roulette, in Brooklyn, delayed from an intended premiere in May 2020. Even after that run of performances was postponed indefinitely, work on the opera's revival continued, which is why a new cast recording coincides with the stage premiere.

What I am thinking about is the ongoing process through which Ashley's operas – idiosyncratic pieces tailored to the technical and expressive capacities of specific individual performers – are being revisited now to accommodate new voices and visions, to help facilitate their continued performance. I addressed this notion in The New York Times on a few occasions: when Varispeed splashed Perfect Lives all over lower Manhattan in 2011; when Fast Forward staged That Morning Thing at the Kitchen a few weeks later; when Varispeed and Amirtha Kidambi gave the posthumous premiere of Crash at the Whitney Museum in 2014; and when that same combination of performers appeared in a new realization of Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) in 2019.

I'm thinking about the opportunities I've had to write for The New York Times—as a regular stringer for seven years, and then later as a sporadic guest, up until NPR hired me. Much of what I'd view as my best work there was about Ashley, even if I don't feel like I can come close to the depth of analysis Kyle Gann brings to the subject. (Kyle's 2012 book and its online companion are essential.)

"The opinion on why we tell these stories is still out, so to speak. And, the idea that any imagined interpretation of the character or circumstances combination, to be facetious, has its roots in some mysterious need to structure details remembered of previous lives – or any lives, for that matter – has no consensus, as you know."

I am also thinking about my writing for The New York Times in light of a new essay by my friend and colleague Olivia Giovetti, published by I Care If You Listen, concerning music journalism and criticism, access, diversity, and privilege in the mainstream/heritage media. The article does not apply to me, specifically, nor is it intended to; I'm thinking about things Olivia didn't address, and didn't mean to. Recommended reading, regardless of who you are or why you care.

I'm thinking that $800,000 a year is an astronomical amount for a writer to be making with a Substack newsletter—even Bari Weiss.

Kayleigh Butcher (Photograph: Aleksandr Karjaka)

I'm thinking about what a glorious job Kayleigh Butcher, a mezzo-soprano, does in interpreting The Agent, a role Ashley created with and for Thomas Buckner, a baritone. Butcher's singing has a spiritual quality that I find wholly arresting; at the same time, I hear – in certain of her inflections, in the way she shapes her vibrato from time to time – nuances audibly specific to Buckner. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing her perform the role in person, at last, at Roulette.

Thinking about Butcher reminds me of Time:Spans, the brilliant new-music festival mounted in New York each year since 2017 by the Earle Brown Music Foundation, for which Butcher serves as program coordinator. Twice during the past week I was supposed to attend Time:Spans concerts. One included world premieres by two composers I hold in the highest regard, plus a recent work by a composer whose music conveys its sublime mystery best in person; the other was the public debut for a new configuration of one of new music's most industrious and important ensembles. Twice, I couldn't be there. It's discouraging.

Thomas Buckner (Photograph: Chris Bowen)

I am thinking about how god damn fortunate we are to have had among us for all these years the singular Thomas Buckner—who still is very much alive and active, I hasten to exclaim! Consider how much powerful, meaningful work Buckner has done, and how much more he's facilitated as an organizer, concert-series producer, and record-company proprietor. No amount of appreciation measures up to what he's owed; we should be singing his praises every chance we get. I've said this before, and I guarantee I'll say it again.

I'm thinking about the beauty, dignity, and refinement Buckner brought to his world-premiere performance of Christian Wolff's Five Songs with S.E.M. Ensemble in 2017—and about the stultifying timidity that prevails among our major performing-arts organizations in eschewing composers like Wolff, who ought to be held up and lionized while they're still among us.

I am thinking about artists no longer among us: not just Robert Ashley, but his son, Sam Ashley, a longtime core member of his father's ensemble – featured on the original cast recording of eL/Aficionado, and blithely evoked by Paul Pinto in the new version – and in his own right a composer and performer of shamanic works. Born on Feburary 5, 1955, Sam Ashley died on May 13, 2021, after a long illness. His final recording – and, evidence suggests, the only one issued under his name, and possibly the sole document of his own work? – is I'd Rather Be Lucky Than Good, which came out in 2019 on the Unseen Worlds label.

I am thinking about artists whose deaths attract no media attention. I've spent a lot of time working on obituaries over the years: first, writing them for The New York Times, and now editing them (and still writing them, here and there) for NPR. They are not a joy to report, but they do present a duty and privilege. Sam Ashley, near as I can tell, did not receive a formal obituary in any media. Nor, evidently, did trombonist and electronics innovator J.A. Deane (Feb. 16, 1950–July 23, 2021), or performer, director, teacher, and Meredith Monk associate Pablo Vela (Aug. 7, 1923–July 26, 2021).

Michael Evans (Photograph courtesy High Zero Festival)

Some figures who were written about in their bases of operation, like composers Stephen Scott (Oct. 10, 1944–March 10, 2021) and James Primosch (1956–April 26, 2021), still warranted wider attention. I'm grateful to see that Michael Evans (Oct. 11, 1957–Aug. 13, 2021), a percussionist and multi-instrumentalist so widely and deeply loved in New York City that posts about his death filled my Facebook page for days, was warmly and insightfully celebrated by Dave Mandl in The Wire.

"We tell stories, and one is judged only on how well it is done."

I want to be more actively involved in telling these stories—while understanding that managing expectation and frustration remain necessary measures.

I'm home with the dogs this weekend, while the women of the house pursue their bliss afield before school resumes, and I'm spending a possibly unreasonable amount of this time restocking the shelves of the new-music events calendar and upcoming releases schedule I make available exclusively to paying subscribers. The next newsletter, which ought to arrive on schedule next Tuesday, will include a fresh batch of concert recommendations.

"You may proceed."

(Quotes from "An Answer Is Expected," from eL/Aficionado by Robert Ashley)


Recordings of note.

Tyshawn Sorey (Photograph: Sharif Hamza)

Two new releases that came out over the last few weeks are among the best things I've heard so far this year—cherishable recordings that demand and reward attention. Fortunately, I was able to write a few words about each in the Goings On About Town section of The New Yorker.

John Cage
Number Pieces
Apartment House
(Another Timbre; 4CD, DL)

Tyshawn Sorey
For George Lewis/Autoschediasms
Alarm Will Sound
(Cantaloupe Music; 2CD, DL)

There certainly was a lot more to be said about both of these recordings. Were I to write at length about the John Cage box, I'd spend more time examining and illuminating the participation of producer and Another Timbre label owner Simon Reynell, whose contribution was more substantive than pushing faders and cutting checks. (Andrew Male wrote an excellent article about the set for The Guardian.)

And in focusing on For George Lewis in my Alarm Will Sound brief, chiefly because of the concert peg, I had to omit mention of the two Autoschediasms performances included in the same set: each a distinctive demonstration of how Sorey has developed conducted-improvisation ideas and techniques absorbed from Butch Morris, and each a successful, assured creation.

Two more recordings newly released this week that I recommend unreservedly: Enigma, a ravishingly penumbral string quartet by Anna Thorvaldsdottir played gorgeously by Spektral Quartet on a new Sono Luminus EP (note that as of this writing, if you want a physical disc you have to go to the label site, not Bandcamp); and The News, the latest ECM recording by the Andrew Cyrille Quartet, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist David Virelles, and bassist Ben Street. And I'm fascinated by A Kind of Mirror, an intriguingly sonorous, bracingly physical collaboration between pianist Miki Sawada and composer Brendon Randall-Myers partly inspired by their shared love for long-distance running, and look forward to spending more quality time taking it in.


New this week.

Andrew Cyrille Quartet: L-R Cyrille, Bill Frisell, David Virelles, Ben Street (Photograph: A.T. Cimarosti)

Douglas J. Cuomo - Seven Limbs - Nels Cline, Aizuri Quartet (Sunnyside)

Andrew Cyrille Quartet - The News (ECM)

Field Works - Maples, Ash, and Oaks: Cedars Instrumentals (Temporary Residence Ltd.)

Ieva Jokubaviciute - Northscapes - compositions by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Lasse Thoresen, Bent Sørensen, Kaija Saariaho, Raminta Šerkšnytė, and Pēteris Vasks (Sono Luminus)

Jennifer Koh - Alone Together - music by 40 composers (Çedille)

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe - Candyman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Waxworks)

orquesta del tiempo perdido - traantjes (Astral Editions)

Brendon Randall-Myers - A Kind of Mirror - Miki Sawada (slashsound)

Dave Seidel - Elegy for Harold Budd (self-released)

Tyshawn Sorey - For George Lewis/Autoschediasms - Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe Music)

Anna Thorvaldsdottír - Enigma - Spektral Quartet (Sono Luminus)

Trio Sin Tiempo (Leo Genovese, Mariano Otero, Sergio Verdinelli) - Ritmos de Agua (577 Records)


Just announced.

David Sanford (Photograph: Joanna Chattman)

September 3

The Claudia Quintet with Eileen Myles - Evidence-based (Flexatonic)

September 8

Nina Dante + Bethany Younge - Lizard Tongue (TAK Editions)

September 10

loadbang - Plays Well With Others - compositions for quartet and strings by Taylor Brook, Heather Stebbins, Eve Beglarian, Reiko Füting, Scott Wollschleger, and Paula Matthusen (New Focus)

Annea Lockwood - Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point - performances by Nate Wooley and Yarn/Wire (Black Truffle)

Yarn/Wire - Tonband - compositions by Wolfgang Heiniger and Enno Poppe (Wergo)

September 17

Erin Rogers - 2000 Miles (Relative Pitch)

Byron Westbrook - Mirror Views (Ash International)

September 24

Maria Finkelmeier & Jean Laurenz - Descended (Bright Shiny Things)

David Sanford - A Prayer for Lester Bowie (Greenleaf Music)

Henry Threadgill Zooid - Poof (Pi Recordings)

October 1

Kristof Hahn - Preludes (Room40)

October 8

Stewart Goodyear - Phoenix - compositions by Anthony Davis, Jennifer Higdon, and Stewart Goodyear, plus canonic works by Liszt, Mussorgsky, and Debussy (Bright Shiny Things)

Toshimaru Nakamura - Culvert – No-Input Mixing Board 10 (Room40)

claire rousay - it was always worth it/ilysm (Mended Dreams)

October 15

Jacob Cooper & Steven Bradshaw - Sunrise (Cold Blue)

Marina Rosenfeld - Teenage Lontano (Room40)

Philip Samartzis & Eugene Ughetti - Array (Room40)

Chad Smith - Three (Cold Blue)

October 22

Robert Ashley - eL/Aficionado - Kayleigh Butcher, Brian McCorkle, Bonnie Lander, Paul Pinto, Tom Hamilton (Lovely Music)

Kazemde George - I insist (Greenleaf Music)

Jessica Pavone - Lull (Chaikin)

October 29

Steve Coleman and Five Elements - Live at the Village Vanguard Volume II (MDW NTR) (Pi Recordings)

Patrick Shiroishi - Hidemi (American Dreams)

November 5

Kristof Hahn - Six Pieces (Room40)

Marina Rosenfeld - Index (Room40)

November 19

Christopher Otto - rag'sma- JACK Quartet (greyfade)