Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley: Atalanta (Acts of God)

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Composer Robert Ashley's Atalanta (Acts of God) is the first installment in a trilogy of "operas" (Ashley prefers the term "narrative works," which seems a more accurate description) completed by Perfect Lives and Now Eleanor's Idea. The extensive set up behind this 133-minute-long work is based on the Greek legend of Atalanta, with three twentieth century artists -- painter Max Ernst, Willard Reynolds (a storyteller and relative of Ashley's), and jazz pianist Bud Powell -- serving as her "suitors." Nonetheless, there really is no story told, and the time is taken up mainly with free association rambling written by Ashley, delivered by him with help from his associates in this project, Blue Gene Tyranny, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, and others.

This recording was made live at the Teatro Olimpico in Rome, and the audience is so quiet that one wonders if there was an audience present -- perhaps not. The performance is in a mixture of Italian and English, and mostly in Italian at first, yet the text as printed in the booklet is English-only, so you will have a devil of a time figuring out where you are in this convoluted anti-tale. More interesting than the work itself is the story of how Ashley compiled the funding; the composition of the three parts of Atalanta (Acts of God) were supported by two different grants, with a third going toward the work as whole, and a fourth covering pre-recorded instrumental parts that were then remixed as a ballet for a dance company. How creative!

Atalanta (Acts of God)'s thin and dated synthesizer sounds, seldom congealing into anything interesting, stand in direct conflict with the disconnected voices, which seem to talk or sing past one another. At a certain point, one of Ashley's characters says "You may smoke marijuana if you want to"; indeed, this seems best perceived in a haze of marijuana smoke, with everything sounding good so long as it doesn't ruin the buzz. For those of us who choose to remain sober, Atalanta (Acts of God) is a supreme test of one's patience, and as Ashley himself states in the course of his text, "it was a boring idea."

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