In the penultimate scene of Robert Ashley’s Improvement: Don Leaves Linda, Linda keeps singing about “Twenty-eight million, two hundred and seventy-eight thousand, four hundred and sixty-six people….” That’s 28,278,466. So I Google the number. I pull up a hundred random sites, invoice numbers, auction IDs, and so on. And there on page three I see the name: “Blue” Gene Tyranny. And “Blue” Gene has written an article in which he mentions Ashley’s early ONCE festival piece Public Opinion Descends Upon the Demonstrators, in which sounds from the audience are amplified. There are six different versions of that piece, depending on the size of the audience. The smallest version is for 6 people in the audience, and, as “Blue” Gene notes, the largest is for 28,278,466 audience members or more. And the first words of Act II of Improvement are: “This act is about – uhn – public opinion.” Turns out for Ashley 28,278,466 somehow symbolizes the end of the world, but he doesn’t remember how he arrived at it. (I’ll spare you the speculation: 28,278,466 factors out to only three prime numbers, 2 x 1097 x 12,889. I couldn’t have figured that out without “factoring large numbers” sites on the internet. And it’s not in the Fibonacci series.)
Three of Bob’s operas, Improvement, Foreign Experiences, and Now Eleanor’s Idea, have something curious in common: they’re all 6336 beats long. 6336 = 9 x 11 x 64. Improvement is divided into two acts of 3168 beats each, 1056 measures of 3/4 and 792 measures of 4/4. Foreign Experiences and Now Eleanor’s Idea have four acts each, 1584 beats long, some in 3/4 and some in 4/4. Bob started out from wanting to write operas for TV, so that each “episode” had to be the same length. But Bob also studied in college with the great Bach scholar Hans T. David, who was his favorite teacher, and who edited The Bach Reader in the 1940s, as well as writing the definitive 1937 article on The Musical Offering. David was obsessed with symmetry in Bach, and the way in which certain movements added up to the length of other movements, or whose lengths represented the proportions of other formal partitionings. Luckily I can read a lot of David’s writings on JSTOR. I think Bob got his penchant for numerical proportions not only from TV format, but first from Hans David’s fascination with Bach’s proportions.
I’m almost done with Volume 3 of Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music (having read Volumes 4 and 5 already), and I’m blown away by, among other things, the quantities of details he can integrate, especially on nonmusical subjects. And, remembering my work on my Cage book, I’m realizing how much the internet has changed the experience of writing scholarly books. No more does one have to go to the library, or travel, or search out rare books. Almost everything one needs is on the internet somewhere. For Bob’s operas I have to research Giordano Bruno, the auto industry, the establishment of Israel, the Carlos Castaneda books, Spain’s expulsion of the Jews, and a hundred other things. Fifteen years ago that would have meant a lot of time in various libraries, and some of it (like 28,278,466) would be virtually unsearchable. Now I do it all sitting on my porch. And almost no tiny question that arises goes unanswered.