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Robert Ashley, "Automatic Writing"

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cover imageEarlier this year, Lovely Music reissued Robert Ashley’s 1978 landmark Private Parts album and now along comes its follow-up: 1979's similarly groundbreaking and idiosyncratic Automatic Writing.  On its surface, this album remains a haunting and uneasily dreamlike affair, as it anticipated both ASMR and the evolution of ambient music by several decades and still sounds improbably contemporary today (or perhaps just too singular to feel like it belongs to any era at all).  Beneath the surface, however, lies something far more fascinating and deeply conceptual than mere ambient music (or most late 20th century modern composition, for that matter): Automatic Writing is the culmination of Ashley's experiments in using his mild form of Tourette's Syndrome as a compositional tool.  Unsurprisingly, making such a quixotic endeavor work proved to be quite a challenging and oft-exasperating undertaking, but Ashley's five years of trial and error ultimately resulted in one hell of a strange and memorable album.

Lovely Music

This reissue restores Automatic Writing to its original vinyl form, excising the two additional pieces that were added for 1996's CD reissue.  Part of me is a bit disappointed by that, as I quite like both of those shorter works, but vinyl can only hold so much and something had to go.  Aside from that practical reason, however, “Automatic Writing” benefits greatly from being presented as a stand-alone piece, as it is a deliberately meandering and understated mélange of mumbles, whispers, and barely-there organ melodies.  As such, the spell it casts is a very delicate and precarious one, making it extremely susceptible to being overpowered by any more focused and intense accompanying material (a category that definitely applies to previous bonus track "Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon").

Obviously, there is a lot of music in the world that can reasonably be categorized as "dreamlike," but almost none of it takes that challenge quite as literally as Ashley did with "Automatic Writing."  It is not an exaggeration to say that this album evokes the uneasily intimate feeling of eavesdropping on Ashley as he talks in his sleep, but there is also a bit more to the experience as well.  For example, there is also a whispering French woman in the room.  Notably, that woman (Mimi Johnson) was Ashley's real-life wife and, moreover, her words are a newly sensuous translation of Ashley’s own murmured stream-of-subconsciousness.  Also of note: Ashley viewed the piece as a wildly unconventional opera of sorts with a cast of four characters (the other two "characters" being a wandering church organ melody and "Moog synthesizer articulations" that resemble tin cans being scraped in a way that loosely mimics speech).  A curious fifth element exists as well, as a buried rock groove lazily wanders in and out of the piece, mimicking the intrusion of distant party sounds from a neighboring apartment.

The piece never evolves into anything more than that, but it does not need to, as it is a pleasantly absorbing and enigmatic listening experience as long as it lasts.  For those looking for a deeper meaning, however, there is an accompanying lyric sheet that arguably provides a Rosetta Stone for Ashley's mostly unintelligible murmurings.  For the most part, it is a fragmented and impressionistic flow of words that approaches poetry at times and makes repeated references to sadness, falling, sensory overload, drowning, floating, and varispeed (a recording feature used to manipulate time and pitch).  In his original liner notes, Ashley notes that he was in a deep depression at the time due to the world's indifference to his work and that mental state certainly seems to tenaciously bleed into his unconscious monologue again and again.  In hindsight, some of Ashley's woes as a young composer are grimly funny ones, as his attempts to replicate involuntary speech in his live performances were apparently met with legal actions from promoters accusing him of drunkenness.  It sounds like Ashley was also alienated from his peers though, which must have been quite hard–he makes references to "rumors" and ruefully describes himself as "the person you would cross the street to avoid."  That feeling is what ultimately drove Ashley to present his involuntary speech as the core of this "opera," as wanted to portray such a person as one who deserves sympathy.  Whoever transcribed that speech deserves sympathy as well, as the involuntary speech on Automatic Writing is the real deal rather than an imitation (Ashley finally managed to capture some authentic recordings of that state over a summer break in a Mills College recording studio). 

I am relieved and heartened that Automatic Writing ultimately found an audience and that Ashley went on to be a deservedly influential figure, as he went through absolute hell to make this album and got quite a dose of the crushing loneliness that comes with being too far ahead of one's time (see Julius Eastman's career for an example of a considerably darker ending).  As much as I like Automatic Writing, however, it is not nearly as strong as Private Parts (though I do prefer it to all of the more polished work that followed).  Taken as a pure listening experience, "Automatic Writing" is appealingly immersive and unique, but it is primarily the backstory and the process that make it so compelling.  Aside from straining to plumb the depths of his subconscious mind to harness its creative power, Ashley also made very inventive and radical use of both electronics and language, employing "reactive computer circuitry" and purposely modulating his voice into incomprehensibility.  His hypothesis was that "rhythm and inflection could convey meaning" even if the words themselves did not make sense.  He was probably right about that, but the finished piece would not work nearly as well if he had not had the additional stroke of genius to mirror his inscrutable murmurs with a woman's voice breathily echoing him in articulate French.  Moreover, when all of Ashley's bold decisions are added together, it is not hyperbole to say that he willfully abandoned almost the entire accumulated wisdom of the Western musical tradition: he made muddled human speech his focus and boldly relegated melody, structure, and rhythm to distracted supporting players that wander in and out of the scene without consequence.  Even if this album were not successful, I would very much admire Ashley's iconoclastic vision.  Fortunately, the experiment went remarkably well.  While Ashley's extreme constraints prevent this album from quite reaching the same heights as Private Parts, he undeniably transcended his self-imposed hurdles far more impressively than anyone could have ever predicted.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 01 December 2019 19:28  


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