About the Grant

$20,000 to support Concrete (MAP 2006), a new electronic opera by Robert Ashley.

About the Project

Robert Ashley’s Concrete will be sung by the vocal ensemble he has worked with for the past 20 years, Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert and Joan La Barbara. Tom Hamilton, another long-time member of the ensemble, will provide vocal effects and mix the orchestra with the voices. A unique aspect of this work is that Ashley will create the computer-generated orchestra live for each performance. Thus, each performance will be original in the “dialogue” between the voices and the orchestra.

There are nine scenes. Five are “discussions” among the four singers in a rapid but rhythmically altered conversational style. The topic of each discussion is an idea that is “right in front of us,” but that is rarely discussed. Why are the buildings in a large city so perfectly aligned when it is known that the Earth is round? Why is it that games people play, and especially sports, are so often done counter-clockwise? What makes people keep secrets? These questions might be called the ruminations of an old person who finally has time to think.

The other four scenes, interleaved with the discussions, are solo-voice stories, obliquely related to the topic of the previous discussion. They are about people whose lives hold some secret — something they have done that only a few close friends know about. All of these characters were in some way gamblers — gambling money and their lives on actions that were dangerous and in some cases illegal. The stories (all true) are in all cases rather dramatic, but all are sung in a vocally embellished story-telling style.

The importance of this opera for the listener is in its singing technique. Each singer is entirely free of any obligation to bars and beats in the expression of their character as part of a discussion and as a story-teller. All of the singer’s decisions about pitch, inflection, manner, etc. are derived from what happens melodically and harmonically in the orchestra. The “discussion” scenes, in spite of the relative seriousness of the subject, are to be heard as pure fun in the pronunciation of American English. The story-telling scenes allow the singer an unprecedented freedom in speech-rhythm, pitch and inflection to tell a long and complicated story.

Ashley’s role in creating the orchestra uses a relatively new computer program (Ableton “Live”) that has gained popularity among dance club DJs, but that has not been used in longer, “serious” works. It allows the operator to place pre-recorded “samples” (in this case, all created by Ashley) anywhere in the on-going mix and to create any level of harmonic and rhythmic density in the mix. The samples can be re-used and re-processed in any way to create orchestral “themes” for the nine scenes. Thus, in each performance the singers will be working with a new orchestra, but one that is based on familiar materials.

Related Websites

Robert Ashley
Robert Ashley


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