ReViewing Robert Ashley's Music With Roots in the Aether,the first opera for television

Arthur J. Sabatini

Printed in MFJ No. 42 (Fall 2004) Video: Vintage and Current

From Portraits to Opera with Television

By the 1970s, Robert Ashley, nearing 40, had been involved in composing, performing and producing new music in all types of emerging and experimental media contexts. Over the years, Ashley scored films with filmmaker George Manupelli, for events in Milton Cohen's Space Theater, and for his own business (which made training films for companies in Detroit).1 As one of the founders of the ONCE Festivals (Ann Arbor, 1962 - 68) and a member of the touring group, the Sonic Arts Union, he regularly collaborated with other musicians and artists. When, by 1970, he became the Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, he built a new music studio there and began investigating, notably with Paul De Marinis, electronic systems for sound production and performance. Ashley's collaborative efforts during the ONCE years underscored his inclinations to create a form of opera which included theatricalized multi-media musical performance. He also wanted to return to making films. He was well aware of artists working with video, but, as with many artists of the period, video and television were evolving more in relation to visual and performance art than cinema.

Like Cage and other composers of the time, Ashley was deeply involved in thinking about and theorizing new music, art, theater, and performance. More directly, some of his work reflexively addresses creativity and the status being a composer in contemporary society. His Manoeuvres for Small Hands (1961) is a piano piece that uses playing cards and draws upon styles and notation techniques of well known composers. Another work, Morton Feldman Says (1965/1970), is a scored transcription of a part of a conversation Ashley had with the composer (actually, it is mostly a monologue by Feldman)

Ashley's experiences with the ONCE Group and his life among musicians, composers and artists -- in America and overseas -- provided him with enduring personal relationships and an ever expanding knowledge of the lives and creative directions of his contemporaries. At Mills, his work centered on teaching, as well as musical, technical and conceptual projects. A series of pieces called Illusion Models explicitly dealt with displacements of sound, motion, visuality and perceptions. Then, in the early 1970s, he recalls, "I sort of instinctively turned toward the two most public forms I could find. I wanted to make these large scale video portraits, which took my interest back to theater and very large scale handling of sound materials."2 Hearkening back to ONCE Group performances, he again became concerned with speech and talking, audiences, and forms of public address, both rhetorically and in practice. He also wanted to resume explorations with theater, multi-media, and using film and video in performance.

By video, Ashley actually meant television in a more conventional sense. The medium appealed to him as a logical apparatus for theatricalizing music and for possibly reaching different audiences. Like other composers, he had long since realized that his grand ideas for opera, or any large scale productions, were unlikely to be realized in the existing musical situation in America, with its symphony and opera halls and their institutional agendas. (This was before well before acceptance of "cross-over" performance or the emergence of 'opera-music-theater'). Using televisions on stage, he thought, could lead to thinking of the mise en scène for music beyond the concert stage model. Essentially, he said, "the theater of the music would be television…It's not so much the television imagery, but what the audience sees is the operation of some sort of recording medium in the presence of the piece. The theater is not just that you see the pictures, it's also that you see the camera persons and all the equipment that goes with the recording."3

At Mills, Ashley had had the idea of simply bringing together a number of his favorite composers and artists "to perform in one place for a long period of time."4 This did not become a fundable project until 1973 when he and other colleagues were able to produce a festival titled Music With Roots in the Aether. The notion of "long time" reflected Ashley's aesthetic concerns with the duration of musical forms and the possibility of music simply going on for a long time because of electronic media. Although successful, the festival itself left him with a feeling that something more was needed or that there should have been recordings or a documentary film.

Recollected in more detail in 1982, he said, "I had been working for years on an idea of an opera whose characters were all my composer friends, and they would be represented in the opera by their music and their conversation."5 His friends included Alvin Lucier, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Pauline Olives, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and Ashley himself. But, the concept that eventually evolved for the work (as suggested by another friend, Bill Farley) was to video tape Ashley and his friends as they talk about their music and then video them playing their own work. The project drew upon many of Ashley's previous pieces and ideas. It would combine elements of live conversation and performance, music in landscapes, and what he called, "musical portraiture."

Portrait and portraiture were terms Ashley had used before, in relation to ONCE Group events and film. In 1968, one of Ashley's collaborations with George Manupelli was titled Portraits, Self-Portraits and Still Lifes. In a program note, he remarked on the importance of film in his musical life. He added,

It is all too true that film music is a different kind of music for the composer, requiring all of one's skill (luck) to make the bond as natural and unobstructive as possible. The truism says that successful film music is unheard. I believe rather that it is always heard and that the mystery lies in not being able to determine whether a particular emotional situation is a visual or aural high point. In good films the relationship is the most ambiguous.6

For Ashley, this also pertains to song, music in theater, and opera. Interestingly, Ashley's concepts of music and film extended toward conveying the individual voices of persons, as characters, and their speech patterns in specific landscapes. In that sense, as he says, his approach "was not portraiture in the dramatic sense, but portraiture in a more graphic arts sense."7 But there was more to the idea of Music With Roots in the Aether.

I intended, first of all, to make a work of "musical theater" in the medium of video, not a polemic. Music With Roots in the Aether is the realization of an idea I had worked on in various ways for about ten years -- to make an opera of personalities and to illustrate those personalities with actual quotations, e.g., to quote the music of David Berhman by having David Berhman perform his music. (Another work in this idea is Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity, in which mise en scène. Wehrer is the soloist.) Because so much of my work has to do with "speech" and its relationship to music, I conceived of Music With Roots in the Aether as a series of "duets' -- another composer and myself -- alternating with "solos" by the composer. In each of those seven portraits the theater of the music is established in the landscape we inhabit and in the uninterrupted ("performed") camera style of the video recording.8

Set variously in preselected landscapes, such as Terry Riley's farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California, Ashley formulated questions for each composer. The questions, which he did not discuss with them, set up the "duets." Thus, the medium of video would allow him to achieve a type of intimacy found in photographic portraiture. As for the situations, Ashley and his principle collaborator, Philip Makanna, established some working guidelines for each shoot. Using a single camera and a rule stipulating that the interviews would run with no cuts or edits, Makanna would focus on Ashley and the composer for an hour in a "familiar everyday place, familiar to the composer, with some activity personal to the composer besides the making of music." This would be followed by a "practice"/performance setup and place where the music is actually worked on…"9 For example, Ashley and Riley talk while sitting on simple wooden stools as Riley milks a goat. It is a warm bright morning and bird calls, cicadas, and the splash of milk into a pail fill out the soundscape. Later, Riley, wearing a white robe, sits in rough hewn studio nearby and plays his Shri Camel: Morning Corona on a Yamaha electric organ.

In program notes, interviews, and writings, Ashley refers to Music With Roots in the Aether variously as opera, "a music-theater piece in color video," and "video portraits of composers and their music." It is also called a "video art documentation of radical trends in contemporary music; and a series of "Landscape with...(composer's name)."10 Many who see Music With Roots in the Aether, and for many reviewers in the late 1970s, the fourteen hour work was clearly an inventive documentary featuring ranging interviews with and performances by seven brilliant musicians. Ashley's staging of the encounters, his control of the voice tone and speaking patterns, and the overall pace of his questioning elicited responses from each composers that allowed them to reveal their ideas and thought processes in intimate, rivetingly intelligent scenarios. A few reviewers recognized the elegant camera movement and expressive imagery in each section of Music With Roots in the Aether as well as the thematic interplay of Makanna's camera with the composers gestures and voices in the settings Ashley chose. Others noted how Ashley himself was a composer and friend of his subjects and not only an interviewer but a pretty interesting character in his own right. All this should have provided a clue as to what Ashley was attempting to do with Music With Roots in the Aether, a work which remains impressive after thirty years. Far from being a documentary, Music With Roots in the Aether is not only Ashley's first video opera, but may be the world's first original opera for television (followed by his Perfect Lives). Albeit, as I will explore in this essay, Music With Roots in the Aether requires that we slightly readjust our definitions of video and television, the artist interview, installation and performance art, music video, and -- well -- opera.

When Music With Roots in the Aether was first shown as an installation in museums and galleries, Ashley carefully attended to the visual and audio design so that the images on the television were surrounded by the audio amplification of the conversations, soundscape, and music.11 Following up ideas he had with Illusion Models, he wanted the television screen and sound coordinated so that the television had speakers on both sides and "the high fidelity stereo image, is placed exactly in the position [and] set so that it achieves the utmost illusionistic quality."12 In other words, without using a term that is now common, Ashley, had envisioned an audio/video installation piece (which, today, would likely be done with large or multiple screen video projections). At the time, however, curators placed the televisions and speakers in convenient or comfortable spaces, so this nuanced, theatricalized aspect of the piece was not overtly apparent.

Currently, Music With Roots in the Aether exists in both a seven tape video format and as a published book.13 The two versions present audiences with radically different texts and experiences that do not invite comparison. To put it directly: the book is a document of interviews accompanied by several helpful essays; the video is an opera for television. Published twenty-four years after the videos first appeared, in 2000, the book includes a recently written Foreword Ashley, an Afterward by Tom Johnson, essays by composers not featured in the videos, and transcribed interviews. Ashley's explains that he had originally intended for the book to have commentaries and responses to each interview by composers of a younger generation. "Important ideas are incomplete," he explains, and he wants to explore how the ideas of his contemporaries are advanced.14 More to the point, unlike Europeans, he notes, American composers ceaselessly reinvent themselves and by setting up a conversation between generations, he hopes that younger artists will benefit from having an insight into what their immediate predecessors were trying to accomplish. Ever the dialogist and mutli-media artist, Ashley's video/book concept emphasizes the difference between books and videos and, importantly, extends the conversations, elaborates ideas, and adds new voices. Unfortunately, publication was delayed for lack of funding and support, which are other issues Ashley addresses at length.

Presently, the book is an invaluable record of the creative work and thinking of American composers who, by now, have worldwide reputations. The assessments by the younger composers are critically rewarding. It is a seminal study insofar as in it fills out the history of the era marked by aesthetic changes that persist through the present. Most Ashley's questions, however, are timeless. He asks the composers: "Do you fell you are addressing a specific audience with your music?" or "How does emotion get into your music?" and one could imagine the same being asked of Montiverdi or Mahler. Moreover, in the absence of serious academic attention and amidst inconsistent journalistic appraisal of new music for those years, Music With Roots in the Aether remains credible and suggestive.

As a meditation on composers and their art, Music With Roots in the Aether is not unlike critical writings of Virgil Thomson and Henry Cowell, and, of course, John Cage's Silence and A Year From Monday. In its time, Music With Roots in the Aether resembled the interviews in the musical journal, Source Magazine and Barney Child's highly regarded book, Conversations with Composers. Ashley was likely aware of these books, which are simultaneously studies of new music and composer-to-composer and friend-to-friend investigations.15 I call this type of work aesthetic research, i.e., research by artists. Its value is that when artists talk seriously, the questioning artist may be the only one who can gain access to certain information or states of mind. That is, it seems unlikely that another "objective" interlocutor (a journalist or academic) could create the situation where the responses of the composers interviewed become as informative and revealing, as personal and vulnerable. For instance, Ashley and Lucier share the stress and physical symptoms that often overtake them when working on music. With Oliveros, Ashley creates a space for her to admit to the uneasiness she feels when performing and how music causes change in her life. In the book, these comments are of considerable interest, but in the videos, they come across as complexly felt and dramatically performed. With Ashley participating, the work does has the sense of people "exploring the pathways of active thinking," as Robert Sheff puts it.16

Although the book will likely be more read, or referred to, than the video is watched, Ashley's achievement far surpasses being a mere historical study. Music With Roots in the Aether transforms the interview format into an aesthetic form and, in the process, the entire fourteen hour performance becomes what Ashley intended: an opera for television. That is, if you watch Music With Roots in the Aether as a type of theater with music and conversation, talk performance with music, or as an in situ video art/moving picture event about music making, landscapes, and creative lives, the notion of an informative "interview" or documentary becomes secondary. In each dialogue, Ashley and his interlocutors sit or walk about as staged characters who engage in a discussion of a common themes. In some cases, Ashley even poses the same questions. Two of the talks occur during musical performances (Lucier, Ashley). In three others, outdoor sounds provide a sonic background (Berhman, Mumma, Riley); and the indoor situations in two (Oliveros, Glass) have sound art components (crackling fire, children talking). Since all of the sections have extended concerts by the musicians (from 35 - 58 minutes), one formal way to think of Music With Roots in the Aether is as a series of vocal duets followed by musical selections.

Naturally, all the composers knew that Ashley was doing "a piece," not just an interview. Each to them had agreed to be part of a mise en scène performing actions while speaking and, later, playing their music. Ashley, an extraordinary conversationalist, adjusted his verbal delivery and responses to draw out his friends. In a personal conversation with me, he said that Alvin Lucier, was, perhaps, the only one aware of his tactics. He also said that "in each of those two hour portraits, the composer's speaking style and his speaking presence is what I think of as an obvious fact -- that their music sounds just like the way they talk. There's no denying that."17

Rhetorically, then, Music With Roots in the Aether sets up three propositions that inform its curious dramatic performance: composers are performers, they talk like their music sounds, and as a group, they have something in common. Here is the evidence for this argument, Ashley seems to be saying to viewers, now decide. Doesn’t Glass' rapid talk, with his tendency to interject several ideas in the flow of a single response, sound like the fleeting, overlapping lines music? Is there something about Alvin Lucier's stuttering that informs the subtle structuring of his music? Listen to Oliveros' gentle yet steady tone, then hear her play the accordion. Thematically, it could also be argued that the two theories -- 'speech as music' by itself and 'speech as the key to musical composition' -- are not only discussed but dramatized and performed, repeatedy, throughout the videos.

Stated another way, Music With Roots in the Aether is an opera about composers and talk, about making music (and little money) and new technology, about language and landscapes. It could be categorized with Là Boheme, Der Meistersingers, and Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron. Okay, it has no conventional plot or character development, but, nevertheless, there is a recognizable, if somewhat dated, scenario or two. It can be thought of it as the video equivalent of a classical or Renaissance dialogue by Plato, or Giordano Bruno, which seems alluded to by its very title. In that sense, the plot of the dialogues is simple, picaresque, mostly pastoral: Ashley, an Orpheus on holiday, is travelling through the Aether seeking out composers who can explain the meanings and ways of the new music and their lives in our times. He finds them at home, on their farm, in schoolrooms, and sports stadiums and not only questions them but hears their music. He learns much and finally turns the questions to himself, the result of which is a highly theatricalized and wordless performance, called What She Thinks. (In the book, Ashley includes part of a self-interview and explains the circumstances that led him to do the video of What She Thinks.)

As a film/video and installation, the stylized visuality of Music With Roots in the Aether is another key to its aesthetic complexity. Philip Makanna's camerawork functions to structure, comment upon, and provide an alternative take on the conversations and musical performances. He handles the camera gracefully and settles it in on telling images, settings, and moments of dialogue during the performances. With noticeable still photographic technique, he frames scenes and selects perspectives and angles that metaphorically enhance the conversations. For example, as Ashley and David Behrman stand on a hillside overlooking the San Franciso Bay remarking on music across cultures and history, Makanna leaves their voices in the background and pans the Golden Gate Bridge from shore to shore. At another point, when the discussion turns to technology, he follows the microphone wires and video cables trailing the speakers. Thus, Makanna's cinematography and camerawork underscores the musicality of each composers' voicings and their relationship to the landscape. This does not fictionalize the composer's statements altogether, but reaccentuates the meaning of what they say by highlighting mediated treatment and visual recontextualization. Thus, while Ashley and Glass converse very seriously about the economic stress of making a living as composers, children sitting behind them in the room play around and look bored. Makanna picks up on their antics and invites the viewer to consider the self-understanding these artists have given the context of their conversation (this includes Makanna awareness of his role). Imagine Dimiti Rostopovich or Milton Babbitt agreeing to such an interview situation or allowing the roving commentary of a cameraman.

Another one of Ashley's comments about Music With Roots in the Aether was that "the multi-camera (multi-viewpoint) technology of television is so deeply related to the essence of music that I am looking forward to the day when all television is live. In my mind music and television are the perfect couple."18 There are several ways to understand this remark, each of which point toward Ashley's deeply interdisciplinarized and, often, visual conception of music. First, it calls attention to how central performance and the staged/theatricalized event is to Ashley's aesthetic. It also reaffirms the creative role of individual musicians or other collaborators. In Perfect Lives, done with John Sanborn, this "multi-viewpoint" becomes thematically accented as the incidents in the story are "told" musically and visually from the points of view of the character/musicians (The Narrator, "Buddy," The Worlds greatest Piano Player, and the others). Of visualizing music, Ashley says, "My calling or skill as a composer is that I can conceptualize what the relationship is between pictures and the music to a degree where there's a language for talking to the visual artist."19 Of course, for Ashley, the fundamental musical concept involved speech and the voice, which, as in many ONCE Group pieces, meant that the work, since is not in the form of traditional songs or poetry, became something else. With the ONCE Group, it was "musical portraiture' and for Music With Roots in the Aether, opera for television.

In short, to see Music With Roots in the Aether as a documentary or a series of artfully recorded interviews is to miss its ways of making meaning and genre blending significance. This is not to say that the idea of playing with fictional and documentary film genres and capturing ordinary talk was not originated by Ashley and Makanna. It was a regular feature in underground film circles film since the 1950s. John Cassavetes and Robert Frank made short films where people talked spontaneously, as did Andy Warhol in early works such as Haircut. In the visual art world, Emile de Antonio's conversations with Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and others, in his stunning Painters Painting, could be seen as a precursor to Music With Roots in the Aether (although it takes place mostly in the artists' studios). Other commercial films in the same category, then, were Fellini's Roma and The Clowns.

Nevertheless, no artist had seriously suggested that videos of ordinary talk in landscapes, even by exceptional individuals, even composers, is a form of opera. But, why not? If opera is defined as characters talking/singing with musical accompaniment (English does not have an equivalent for the German term, sprechstimme) in a staged mise en scène, using elaborate stage or audio technology, as part of a performance event that has a narrative (i.e., not a concert), then Music With Roots in the Aether is an opera. (Had Ashley decided to be more down to earth and included John Cage in his opera, these points would seem to be all too obvious.)

There is also, the matter of scale. Ashley did what he could to create a theatricalized staging for Music With Roots in the Aether in galleries and museums. Today, when large-scale projection and multi-screened video are so feasible, the operatic qualities of Music With Roots in the Aether seems even more apparent. Ashley also chose the elaborate length to emphasize his operatic intentions. Lengthwise, Ashley's next opera, Perfect Lives, would be over three hours. His multi-sectioned, as yet unfinished, Atalanta (Acts of God) is even longer. although only parts of it are on video.

About the Aether

The seven conversations and landscapes in Ashley's journey begin with the David Behrman tape, whose opening shot is from a helicopter swooping across the bay, under the Golden Gate bridge toward Angel Island. Among other asides, we hear Behrman say, "We certainly have a bird's eye view of our surroundings now, Bob." Several minutes later, the camera frames the two speakers on a picnic bench and we realize that their conversation has been taking place on the ground while the filming began from above. This verbal and imagistic dislocation, self-conscious filmic trickery, and a direct comment about the fact that the area we are seeing is a "land of many histories" is Ashley's first subtle way of saying that even though the dialogue that will follow is functionally explanatory, do not overlook that this production is allusive, connotative, and aestheticized. Ashley is, after all, an artist of voices, dialogue, the music of talk, and landscapes.20 One of is lifelong themes is also the mediation of experience.

Ashley explained his intentions for the landscape with Behrman, and, indirectly, the entire series, in one interview:

…we're on the top of Angel Island and the camera man, Phil Makanna, is in the center and David and I make a complete circle around the camera at quite a distance. Since it takes us an hour to get around, it's sort of like a clock. And the sound changes in this rather enormous scale depending on which way we are facing. We're walking together, basically David id following me, and each of my positions was in a different relationship to the wind. So what you get, basically, is four different qualities of speech that's modified by the wind sounds. And each of the portraits has that large scale public address, or large scale treatment of the sound.21

The large scale sounds he is working with, he continues, differ from those he was previously concerned with in his studio work with Illusion Models.

From the vista overlooking the San Franciso Bay, the successive settings for the series vary from indoor to outdoor sites. In one, Ashley and Philip Glass face each other in director's chairs as elementary school children try to sit quiet before busting into playfulness. In the Alvin Lucier video, Lucier, dressed in a fly fisherman's outfit, talks while standing by a canoe indoors in a cement walled warehouse or gymnasium. Gordon Mumma arrives on a bicycle in a empty football stadium and Terry Riley and Ashley converse on the front lawn of Riley's farm. Pauline Oliveros talks in a serene living room, complete with a floral bouquet and fireplace; and, lastly, Ashley recorded himself and other performers at an outdoor concert. Behrman, Glass, Riley, and Mumma play their music after the conversations. During Lucier's video, a performance of his "Outlines of Persons and Things" (for electronics and two dancers) takes place; as Ashley and Oliveros talk, she undergoes a cosmetic make-over session by Carol Vencius in a piece titled, "Unnatural Acts Between Consenting Adults." Meanwhile, Linda Montano, like a figure in an open casket, lays on an opened grand piano.

For each video, Ashley drinks a beer or coffee and wears different casual clothes, which amount to subtle costumes changes. In three videos, the composers engage in sustained actions: Mumma, wearing tight fitting racing body suit, tunes up his bicycle; Riley milks a goat (and he and Ashley drink the milk); Lucier casts with a fly-fishing rod (and creates sounds). With Behrman, Ashley walks; and the serious, analytic exchange with Glass occurs as the two sit in a white room while sixth graders act up for the camera.

Ashley finds music in the aether. It has its roots in California farms and a football stadium. It is among grade schoolers, a living room, and warehouse or gymnasium cum theater. Composers repair their bikes or allow their fingernails to be painted. Ashley, a composer and friend, wonders aloud about such things as music and personal knowledge and his aversion to children. The musical performances are also varied: Behrman's Music With Melody-Driven Electronics is in an outdoor amphitheater; Riley plays in a barn; Mumma in an amusement park.

Is this the Aether of classical and mystical thought? Apparently not: these are merely the places of everyday life, social interaction, mundane activity, talk, and leisure. Clearly, this is not the music of elites or the idolized, suffering genius composers of Europe (or Hollywood movies). The aether, suspiciously, and as confirmed in many of the conversations, is as ordinary and beautiful as a day in the life of America, recorded imaginatively, without cuts, from accessible vantage points. It is absolutely fitting, therefore, that Mills College, where Music With Roots in the Aether went through final production, is in Gertrude Stein's childhood home town, Oakland, California. Author of The Geography of America and the highest priestess of the quotidian, Stein famously said of Oakland, "There is no there there," which is just about as sound a definition of the aether as you can get.

To be more precise, according to "Blue" Gene Tyranny, the aether: is a lighter-than-air medium postulated and rejected periodically in science and in the philosophy of natural science. Its many guises range from gravitations (and so called "silent sound") to the "theory of affections" in classic literature to a quantum plane at rest waiting to be locally magnetized. Whether "things" need to be transferred from place to place through such a medium or aether, or whether to an observer it is an illusion that transference is going on -- e.g., two ideas grew up simultaneously yet independently -- is a question or answer up for grabs…22

Some of the remarkable statements and images in Music With Roots in the Aether underscore these speculations. Ashley and Behrman talk about music being made by changes in the shapes of clouds as the camera lingers on the movements of the clouds. Oliveros tells Ashley that she always felt they shared ideas about words and music even before she actually ever heard his work. With Riley, Ashley wonders if the affinity among their composer friends derives from meditative or inner experiences. Glass says he came up with his music while in France with no knowledge of what LaMonte Young or other American composers were doing. The aether, Ashley implies, is a place and, perhaps, a historical time/space phenomena where ideas are circulating and glimpsed but not exactly formulated into dogma or principles. In another era, as a traveler, Ashley's role might have been to find common ground, but the characteristics of the aether require a different paradigm.

Makanna's images and camera movement add to the theme of an emerging new art form as well. His tendency is to isolate hand motions or single objects in the foreground or background (e.g., a flower arrangement, a Ferris wheel.) He is attracted to the sources of light and yellowish colorings, and, on occasion, the lens drifts into soft focus. He discovers motifs in the situations -- a shadow or the juxtaposition of furniture with bodies -- and returns to them casually as if searching for a signifying connection. When shooting the musical performances, he is absorbed by the playing and performers' actions and he brilliantly adds touches to the video that reveal his response, whether to the atmosphere or players' expressions. In one ingenious passage in the Glass episode, Makanna keeps gliding back to a kid eating then playing with the crust of a pizza. The boy's restlessness and inventiveness with his improvised toy mirrors Makanna's predicament as a cameraman trying to attend to his subjects and their self-absorbed conversation.

Throughout Music With Roots in the Aether, Makanna's unhurried sense of time complements Ashley's slow movement and vocal hesitations and occasional stuttering. For example, in the dialogues with Behrman and Oliveros, the pauses between statements become more marked, even uncomfortable. Late in the program, Oliveros actually prompts Ashley to ask another question. (At moments, the productions have the temporal feel of a Happening or late Beckett play.) In short, Makanna seems to be saying that although the aether is a difficult place to do television, there is something going on if you are curious and patient enough with the camera. Video, perhaps, is the best medium to portray these composers and their music. The aether, after all, is an imaginary conception of space and, from the beginnings of the 20th century, it has become saturated with electronic waves, produced for transmission for radio and television. Who knows how this has effected out sense of hearing? It surely has transformed human beings' conception of listening and, as Ashley is showing, the ways of making music.

Overall, by producing a video in a series filmed by one artist and crew, the landscapes, talk, and musical performances become visually unified by image selection, technique, and the formal limitations of the medium. Nevertheless, the craft, lyricism and musicality of the programs are evident. Apart from Ashley's presence, in each video Makanna finds at least one luminous, purely still photographic moment: Ashley, Lucier and two dancers surrounding a canoe, the postcard perfect shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The rule of one camera, one take is fitting for the subject and the times, but it is in his next project, Perfect Lives, that Ashley closes in on his ideal for television opera.

Ashley, of course, sought to expand the boundaries of video with and its relation to images and music in Music With Roots in the Aether. In one program note, he wrote:

the style of the video presentation comes from the need I felt to find a new way to show music being performed. I have always objected to the meaning that camera editing in television -- which derives from the most mundane and dumbest practical considerations in film-making -- gives to music. (Film is montaged, first of all, because it has to be. Cameras can't run very many minutes at a time. Everybody who has ever tried to film music being made has had to deal with this problem. Then it got over into television from our habits.) The idea of the visual style of Music With Roots in the Aether is plain: to watch as closely as possible the actions of the performers and not to "cut" the seen material in any way -- that is, to not editorialize on the time domain of the music through arbitrary space-time substations….
I think the camera ideas of Philip Makanna and the sound recording of Maggi Payne use a kind of concentration of attention that is very new to "visual" media and that is more like music than like film or television.23

Since one theme of Music With Roots in the Aether is the emergence of a new musical forms and situations, advanced by inventive composers, it is part of Ashley's strategy to also suggest that something else is on the way: opera for television. He did not exactly have MTV in mind, but as Perfect Lives predates MTV and Behind the Music, he has been recognized by some as having been one of the first artists responsible for introducing the idea the music, if not opera, for television.24

Ultimately, as an installation piece or, by now, a home video, Music With Roots in the Aether is in a television format. Like eight-part televised histories of art or jazz, the collapsing of images, sounds, voices, and movement to a small screen organizes the material and sets up viewer expectations. While we are more used to kaleidoscopic imagery and multi-channel viewing (using remotes), the habits of television watching have not changed much for the general public. If the character, plot, theme, and narrative approach I have suggested in this essay is somewhat artificial, it is so because after decades of experimental video, we have learned to see videos in more cultural and aestheticized dimensions. Even so, the Music With Roots in the Aether remains a complex video that has intriguing visual, verbal, and musical elements.


1. On the use of film and projections in Milton Cohen's Space Theater, see Gene Youngblood, Extended Cinema, 1970. p. 371.
2. Unpublished interview, with Bob Davis, circa 1977.
3.Peter Gena. "Everything is Opera." Conversation Between Robert Ashley and Peter Gena. Formations vol. 2, # 1. 1985, p. 44.
4. Robert Ashley, Music With Roots in the Aether. MusikTexte, Köln: Germany, 2000, p. 12. Hereafter, MWRITA.
5. Thomas Holmes, Recordings of Experimental Music. vol. 4:2. 1982. p. 14.
6. Ashley. Unpublished score.
7. Davis, unpublished.
8. Ashley, unpublished lecture at the Institute for Studies in America Music at Brooklyn College, 1/10/79.
9. Both quotes from Robert Sheff, aka "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Unpublished mss.
10. This is from "sample" program notes, lectures, and promotional material.
11. It premiered at the Festival d'Autome a Paris, Paris, France, October 1976 and traveled to New York City (Whitney Museum of American Art, April, 1977; The Museum of Modern Art, June, 1977) and onto other galleries and museums in America, Canada, and Europe for over ten years.
12. Davis, unpublished.
13. The book is cited above. The videos are available through Lovely Music, Ltd., 260 West Broadway, New York, NY 10013.
14. MWRITA book, p.8. The book does contain essays, including, Maggi Payne on Gordon Mumma, Paul De Marinis on David Berhman, Peter Gordon on Philip Glass, and more.
15. In MWRITA he remarks that the conversations are "casual and forthright. And it has the flaws of the composer-interview." p. 8. Interestingly, he does not say what such "flaws" are.
16. Unpublished mss.
17. Nicholas Zurbrugg, August 31, 1982. Unpublished Interview.
18. Ashley, Unpublished mss.
19. Gena, p. 45. This was after completing Perfect Lives.
20. For more on Ashley and landscape, see my "The Sonic Landscapes of Robert Ashley." In 20th Century Theater and Landscape. Elinor Fuchs and Una Chauduhi, eds. University of Michigan Press. pp. 322 - 349.
21. Davis, unpublished.
22. Sheff, unpublished mss.
23. Unpublished mss.
24. Irony: the first MTV video, 1982, by the Buggles, was titled "Video Killed the Radio Star."