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Robert Ashley: Music With Roots in the Aether

In 1976, Robert Ashley completed a massive project called Music with Roots in the Aether, a television opera for voices and electronics consisting of fourteen hours of videotaped interviews with seven composers: David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Robert Ashley—along with hour-long live performances of their music. They’re more or less what you’d expect them to be: casually informative interviews with some of the most important composers of the past thirty years, one artist interviewing another about their work in a casual setting. They’re a little bit dated, but charmingly so, with conversation meandering in and out of personal trivia, chit-chat about the music scene, and lots of arcane theory expounding all of these musicians’ personal visions. After each interview, there’s a selection of musical performances by the interviewee. All in all, it’s a great snapshot of the period, and we’re lucky that someone went through all this trouble to preserve a very valuable piece of musical history.

However, I began to think: What makes this art? Or more specifically, why would a series of interviews and performances be dubbed “a television opera for voices and electronics”? Moreover, the title is curious. Why “aether”? And what kind of music really has its roots in the aether? Taking it at face value, I thought I might be missing something here.

Aether: A medium that was once supposed to fill all space and to support the propagation of electromagnetic waves. Fair enough; certainly applicable to a group of electronic musicians. Then there’s the synonym “ether,” which in the mid-1800s was used as an anesthetic alongside nitrous oxide, not only to dull the pain but also to create heightened states of awareness. Dr. H. J. Bigelow, writing in 1846, tells us that his self-experimentation with ether produced exhilaration worthy of Egyptian hashish. And let’s not forget T. S. Eliot’s opening lines to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table

—which makes perfect sense in terms of both the intoxication aspects of the drug and the transmissive qualities of aether (with an ae).

Electronic music and altered states of consciousness. Robert Ashley has commented that “when you listen to music you are in an altered state of consciousness,” into which is encoded a sort of key or an obligation to open yourself up as a listener or viewer to one of Bob’s operas by allowing yourself into that altered state. He has said that “the audience that I’m writing music for likes to get into the same state of mind that I’m in, I guess. Which is an attention to worlds and music at the same time and that kind of daydreaming quality that I experience. In other words, when I’m happiest, I’m in a kind of daydream where I can hear words with music. I don’t try to write down what I’m hearing, but I try to write down something that will make that same experience for the listener.”

Aether, then, is a loaded word, full of dreams and secrets— a fluid, transmissive medium, ready to heap its treasures upon those who approach her with the right state of consciousness. Antiphanes told of a certain city where words congealed with the cold the moment they were spoken, and later, as they thawed out, people heard in the summer what they had said to one another in the winter. Similarly, Rabelais, writing in 1532, alludes to this phenomenon in his frozen-sounds episode of Gargantua and Pantagruel, where out at sea, with little in sight, a strange assortment of sounds are heard. The captain of the boat explains that the boat is passing by the Frozen Sea, which was the site of a bloody battle between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. During the battle, it was so cold that the sounds froze and the whole battle was silent. Now that it is springtime, all these sounds— long inaudible— are being released and creating a racket, although not in their original temporal sequences of action.

The mathematician Charles Babbage held similar sentiments: “Thus considered, what a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.”
Aether, then, has storage capacities, both physical and metaphysical, but never are these qualities quantifiable to the uninitiated. In other words, the aether contains all sorts of unwritten histories.

But Bob Ashley has always been interested in the unofficial histories, the unwritten histories—the living, rather than the museum-entombed. He says, “Aether fills the void, as in not knowing when you might get a chance to hear somebody make music, or where is the nearest town where something might be going on… or whether you got the idea that wakes you up at night from the hard-to-hear part of what comes over the radio, or from something you read about in a magazine about electricity, or from something you just dreamed up.”

So it all starts to make sense. Music with Roots in the Aether is an unofficial history of an unofficial generation. Visually, parallels between Ashley’s “television opera for electronics for voices and electronics” and Cezanne’s paintings can be made. Like Ashley, Cezanne was interested in making the aether visible; his brushstrokes of the air itself mean as much as the solid, worldly forms he painted. In Bob’s videos, the camera focuses as much on the space and aether around the subjects as it does on the subjects themselves; they’re as much a portrait of the medium of transmission as of the composers. It says something about this generation. Unable to brand themselves with a recognizable style, lax in self-promotion to established institutions, and more interested in experience than in product, Ashley and his peers are less known than they should be. In a culture that demands quantification, this group has instead chosen the route of the aether. For Ashley, aether is a medium of transmission, holding the secret history—that is, the history of his generation.

Ashley tells us, “There has always been an audience for contemporary music, even when the audience has had a hard time finding it. The advantage for the audience of the music-with-roots-in-the-aether phenomenon is that the music is easy to find, because the composer has taken the responsibility for making it findable. This has created a knowledgeable and devoted audience across the country. Otherwise, the idea wouldn’t keep growing. The problem is that with the composer doing it virtually alone—that is, a large number of composers doing it with no substantial support except from the network that they have created—when one composer gets tired, the music is lost and the connections are broken one more time…Aether.”

Connections…networks…reaching out to the unknown…making it findable…Aether…Where have I heard these terms recently? Of course—as they relate to my computer, with its Ethernet port as a feed to the largest network of unofficial history and culture the world has ever known. The treasures held in the aethernet rival those of Babbage or Rabelais. Every day, sounds materialize out of the aether and stream across my speakers as sure as if I were dropping a needle onto vinyl. If somehow I were able to materialize the data flowing across my home wireless network, the aether I breathe would be rife with sounds and letters.

One of my favorite Ashley quotes is as follows: “I know a lot of people who watch television for five hours straight; I do it myself. My idea of my music is to jump in bed, with whatever you like to be in bed with, drinks and whatever, there’s the TV, the music is coming out of the TV, and you watch it for six hours.” That idea, as enticing as it sounds, is now a little bit out of date—nobody has the time today to devote to laying in bed and watching television for those periods of time. But we do spend that much time or more every day in front of our computers. And it’s here that it all converges: aether, television, technology, unofficial histories, decentralization, anti-institutionalization, and radical means of distribution. It’s got Ashley written all over it. More democratic, more autonomous. It’s the most perfect setting for opera: Words, images, sound all flow across a screen flatter and more artificial than our television sets. It’s a medium with its roots in the aether.

On the vast P2P file-sharing networks, Ashley and his generation are famous. Fans from around the globe swarm to download their music. As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, I’m probing the Homie3 file server. As I’m reading the server news, the first item I see is:

<< whoever is uploading the lucier stuff in member space is a bloody gem : ) thanks >>

I click on the Uploads folder and peek into the Member Space to see which of Lucier’s work is currently being uploaded. There are folders for the Archipel Festival and a folder called “Roots In The Aether.”

I peek into the Ashley downloads folder. There’s no less than eight of his discs sitting there. Same goes for Riley, though he’s got over fifteen CDs available for download. Same goes for Behrman, Oliveros, etc. Same goes for all the musicians with roots in the aether.

“Will something of substance replace the Aether?” Ashley asks. “Not soon. All the parts are in disarray,” answering himself with glee. And he’s right. Ashley and his gang were prescient by investing the future in the aether, for, as we now know, the future went that way.


Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. The author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb, and the editor of I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, Goldsmith is also the host of a weekly radio show on New York City's WFMU. He teaches writing at The University of Pennsylvania, where he is a senior editor of PennSound, an online poetry archive. More about Goldsmith can be found on his author's page at the University of Buffalo's Electronic Center:


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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