“Siegfried falls back and dies. At a silent command from Gunther, the vassals lift Siegfried’s body on his shield, and solemnly carry the dead hero towards the hill-top, with Gunther following sorrowfully. The moon breaks through the clouds, throwing an increasing light on the funeral procession as it reaches the summit. Then mists rise from the Rhine, gradually filling the whole stage until the cortege is invisible and the stage completely veiled in mist, as the noble, tragic music of Siegfried’s Funeral March sounds forth.”
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“No intellect is needed to see those figures who wait beyond the void of death – every child is aware of them, blazing with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe. They are the stuff of our earliest dreams, as of our dying visions. Rightly we feel our lives guided by them, and rightly too we feel how little we matter to them, the builders of the unimaginable, the fighters of wars beyond the totality of existence.
“The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great. We say, ‘I will,’ and 'I will not,’ and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.”
“And even as this old guide-book boasts of the, to us, insignificant Liverpool of fifty years ago, the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
Friday Afternoon at the Opera: Games of Love and Death
Nobody shall sleep!… Nobody shall sleep! Even you, o Princess, in your cold room, watch the stars, that tremble with love and with hope. But my secret is hidden within me, my name no one shall know… No!…No!… On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines. And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!… (No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.) Vanish, o night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!
–Original text by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
“Pushkin employs a vocabulary of renunciation, of denying the thrill that control over another person might yield, but denying as well the satisfactions of sexual involvement. Boris Godunov contains such an alternative, when Boris tells his son to avoid sexual involvement and, in his farewell speech … also warns him not to speak too often or too loosely.”
“A few critics have remarked that my operas have no plot. That’s not entirely true, but I wasn’t surprised. Many contemporary operas have no plot, because our idea of what a plot means has changed a lot since the Italian composers of the nineteenth century used plot to express political ideas. So, the no-plot criticism is valid–though perhaps not particularly important. Almost all of my operas were composed without any thought of the need for a linear plot.
"Contemporary opera–my work in particular, but, that of a lot of other composers, too–is usually a gathering of characters with stories to tell. The why-the-characters-are-together has replaced the notion of plot.”
–Robert Ashley, from the introduction of his novel, Quicksand
“Whereas to make sense of a lyric tragedy a classical education is essential, the plot of La Serva Padrona makes no intellectual demands whatsoever. It has only three characters, one of whom is mute, and deals with simple people, taken from la commedia dell’arte, telling the story of Uberto, a silly old man, being tricked into marriage by his crafty female servant, Serpina. Sex is dealt with playfully and erotically, while in lyric tragedy it is part of a highly elaborate masque….
“… the much older La Serva Padrona is the more subversive, doubly so indeed, for in turning the tables on Uberto, Serpina is triumphing both as a woman and as a servant.”
Friday Afternoon at the Opera: Something Other than Pleasure
“To view Jose as the discursive norm (as Dahlhaus does) obscures an important point. His high-minded denial of sensuality, his incessant push for something other than pleasure of the moment cause him to be musically violent. He whips himself up into frenzies that cannot be satisfied except through destruction. Even within the "Flower Song,” he cannot attain climax except by establishing musical ceilings and then forcibly penetrating them.“
Robert Ashley’s primary gig is as an opera composer. Not operas like you would see at the Met, like Turandot or Don Giovanni. Ashley’s operas consist mainly of rambling monologues, mostly intoned by Ashley himself with his dry Michigan accent, over atmospheric music. It might sound ridiculous but it actually works very well. His most famous opera, Perfect Lives, is the story of a very avante garde bank heist, but the text is only peripherally related to the story. Instead, it’s as if Ashley taps into some subterranean river of words that courses somewhere deep in the unconscious mind and siphons up thoughts and associations and insights that only see the conscious light of day when we’re on the verge of sleep. It’s not that the story isn’t important, it’s more like the text exists under the story, and we’re following the story from inside the characters’ unconscious minds. It’s part poetry, part theater, and part spiritual tract.
Quicksand is Ashley’s attempt at a straightforward novel. An obsessive fan of mystery novels, he decided to make his first novel a mystery. What he ended up with is more of a cool-headed political thriller that, despite having the rough contours of a thriller, has none of the conventional tension of the genre. The unnamed protagonist, who bears a strong resemblance to Ashley, is a secret agent for the US government, and during an overseas assignment, in an unnamed nation resembling Burma, he gets sucked into a coup plot. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that the coup goes down without a hitch, and the protagonist at the end of the novel is barely any different than he was at the beginning. He encounters no serious obstacles along the way. There really is no drama to the plot, at least in the conventional sense of obstacles that need to be overcome, reversals, etc.
But this appears to be entirely intentional. In his forward to the novel, Ashley has this to say about “plot”:
A few critics have remarked that my operas have no plot. That’s not entirely true, but I wasn’t surprised. Many contemporary operas have no plot, because our idea of what a plot means has changed a lot since the Italian composers of the nineteenth century used plot to express political ideas. So, the no-plot criticism is valid—though perhaps not particularly important. Almost all of my operas were composed without any thought of the need for a linear plot.
Contemporary opera—my work in particular, but, that of a lot of other composers, too—is usually a gathering of characters with stories to tell. The why-the-characters-are-together has replaced the notion of plot.
Instead of plot, voice is the main attraction. I’m pretty sure that a good deal of my enjoyment of this novel came from hearing Ashley’s voice in my head as I was reading it. His voice is airy, very high in the throat and somewhat scratchy, very laid back. Here’s a link to the iconic opening scene of Perfect Lives, which will give you a taste of Ashley’s style:
So, the novel–it’s an odd mix of high-stakes thriller and Robert Ashley opera. I loved it, but maybe it’s an acquired taste.
I loved most of the stories in this collection. In The Wife of R., a woman (the wife of R.) never leaves the doorway of her home, from where she gathers all manner of information about her neighbors, even going so far as to bribe the local children with candy to get the best first-hand gossip. What does she do with all the stories she learns? What could have been a story about the nosiness of people in dense, poor neighborhoods becomes, by the end, a tale of devoted, quasi-ecstatic love.
All of the stories here are very short–thirteen in total occupying just 111 pages. Kilito’s economy is a function of flensing away conventional narrative and letting the logic of memory lead the dance. During the seven pages of A Glass of Milk, we go from Abdullah as a child to the interior, comic-book-inspired life of the son of his school’s principal, to the adult Abdulla and his elderly, not-long-for-this-world mother, with only a glass of milk as the pivot point. It’s a neat trick, emotionally effective, and it lends a sense of fantasy to these stories.