Robert Ashley, "eL/Aficionado"
Robert Ashley‚Äôs enigmatic opera of interrogation was frequently performed between 1987 and 1993, and a previous recording was released on Lovely Music in 1994. The cast of a 2021 production in Roulette, Brooklyn, are featured on this new rendition, with Kayleigh Butcher, as The Agent, and Brian McCorkle, Bonnie Lander, Paul Pinto as Interrogators #1, 2, and 3. Above and beyond Ashley‚Äôs melodies, each participant singer is assigned their own distinct pitch around which they improvise vocal inflections to portray intent and meaning. eL/Aficionado displays the compelling depth of Ashley‚Äôs dazzlingly creativity, which is somewhere on a line leading from Edward Hopper and Samuel Beckett to Laurie Anderson and Len Jenkin.
This piece has a clarity of enunciation and easy pace (Ashley favored 79 beats per minute) which gives it a hypnotic and relaxed feel. Yet it is also a work of complexity and intensity which sustains interest over repeated listens. I recommend a least four or five o really get into it. I love the way the language of personal ads and descriptions of real estate heighten the atmosphere of double meaning. These could be coded assignments, perhaps target subjects for The Agent detailing their locations and plans of their residences to aid home invasion, snooping, or worse. The singing and narration are mostly not easily identified as operatic in the classic sense, but they establish the necessary mood. The use of synths adds to the sense of a Kafkaesque trial in a dream landscape. I am reminded of an excellent presentation by Matmos of Ashley‚Äôs Private Lives at a festival in Knoxville in 2017, where I nodded off briefly at one point but awoke quite confident that, given the use of repetition and the skillfully disguised material, I had not missed a vital clue. The hypnotic mood of eL/Aficionado is similar; as meaning goes in and out of focus, reassuring voices become sinister, and whispers mislead or give helpful prompts. Yet repeat listens offer up some real jewels, for example the meaning (in The Agent‚Äôs department) of the word ‚Äúbrother‚Äù and the reference to a ‚Äútime displacement exercise‚Äù and information which must be taken "to the grave." Part gumshoe exit interview, part meditation on the way artists interpret (and alter) their surroundings, part comment on the universality of double lives, part snapshot of the shifting reliability of memory, part critique of society as spectacle; eL/Aficionado is as mysterious and life-enhancing as spending purgatory unable to leave the grounds of the Getty museum because you lost your companion and forgot where you parked.