Ashley in the Rear-View Mirror

Robert Ashley’s 1983 opera Atalanta is actually three operas: one about the painter Max Ernst (uncle of Bob’s wife), one about the jazz pianist Bud Powell, and one about Bob’s uncle Willard Reynolds, the family story-teller and, as Bob calls him, shaman. Any given performance is made up of one act about each hero, and the acts are interchangeable, so one performance will contain one set of stories and the next night a different set of stories. As Bob writes in his “Future of Music” lecture

At the opera I am transported to a place and time
where there is no disorder. There is disorder on stage, and it is called
melodrama. We don’t believe it. This is important: that we don’t believe it. We
do believe… what happens in the movies…. Therefore, opera can have no plot. It
is foolish to argue that opera – any opera – can have a plot; that is, that the
“characters” and their apparent “actions” and the apparent “consequences” are
related in any way. Opera can be story-telling only. That the story-telling
happens on stage and that musicians are making music in the pit (to reinforce
the story told) is entirely coincidental. The story might as well be told at
the kitchen table with a crazy aunt and uncle as the soprano and tenor.


The original recording of Atalanta is just over two hours long. A few weeks ago, Lovely Music released Atalanta, Volume II, which is also over two hours. Yesterday Bob gave me the entire musical score for Atalanta: five pages of musical notation. He says he needs to write a long essay about how to derive the musical materials for the entire opera from those notations, but doesn’t have the time. So to figure out his process, I’m having to do with Atalanta what I’ve already done with Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, Dennis Johnson’s November, and Budd’s Children on the Hill: play bits of it on repeating loops and transcribe it. It seems I’m spending my life bringing to notation new music I love that wasn’t created via notation, and is often improvisatory (despite my reputation as someone who doesn’t like improvisation). And that raises the question as to why so much new music I love didn’t originate in conventional score notation. 
In other news, I’ve been browsing Volume IV of the Carl Nielsen Studies from Ashgate Press (which I received as partial payment for a little book evaluation work I did for Ashgate). I’m a big, big Carl Nielsen fan. In it, David Fanning presents a theory of the symphony by Russian musicologist Mark Aranovsky, who categorizes the four movements of the typical symphony as representing Homo agens, Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, and Homo communis:

1. Homo agens: man acting, or in conflict (Allegro)
2. Homo sapiens: man thinking (Adagio)
3. Homo ludens: man playing (Scherzo), and 
4. Homo communis: man in the community (Allegro)

My Google searches suggest that this categorization has received almost no attention in the English-language literature. I offer it here in hopes of publicizing it. And I find it perfect for characterizing the four operas of Ashley’s Now Eleanor’s Idea:

Homo agens: Improvement: Don Leaves Linda – Linda in conflict and acting to ensure her own safety

sapiens: eL/Aficionado,
the Agent looking back and trying to reconcile his experiences

ludens: Foreign Experiences, Don Jr. having wild rides with an Indian guide in his imagination

communis: Now Eleanor’s Idea, Now Eleanor finding her destiny within the Lowrider community


It’s kind of an amazing five-and-a-half-hour operatic symphony. (I also have to wonder why I spend so much time on really, really long pieces, when I don’t write very long pieces myself.)


  1. Wyndham says; it’s not quite germane to this note, but I’m pretty sure you know that list, which contains a few mistakes in the spelling, and makes me wonder, though I love Robert Ashley’s music, whether he’s right to say Jean-Luc Therminarias and Michel Redolfi (both french, like me) are really good composers.
    KG replies: Thanks for directing me to the list; don’t know their music.

  2. Rik Malone says

    Kyle, I love the quote from Aranovsky – what a “wow” moment! With your (anticipated) permission, I’ve posted it on the SFCM Facebook page, with credit to your blog.