Robert Ashley
conducted by Jeremy M. Davies and A D Jameson
as part of "Writing's Dirty Secret"

WDS: How do you write? That is, do you write in shorthand, longhand, or do you use a typewriter or a computer?

ROBERT ASHLEY: I should say before anything that I am talking about writing words to be sung or, in rare instances, words that “generate” a larger musical idea. (Explained below.) I have never (until recently; see below) tried to write a novel or a poem or anything solely to be read. I write now on a computer word processor—Microsoft Word. That started in 1987 when my wife, Mimi Johnson, made me get out of the dark ages of the Correcting Selectric by buying me an Apple. This is of interest, maybe, only because a lot of my texts, librettos, whatever, that are best known were written on the Correcting Selectric. That is, written prior to 1987.

I had to become friends with the word processor. The word processor requires and gets from me a different kind of writing. This fact is impossible to explain. The process with the typewriter was that I would “rehearse” the paragraph or the phrase before I sat down to type it. (Rehearsing involves walking.) I could say it as though I had memorized it. In other words at the typewriter I was just transcribing. Of course I’m talking about opera librettos, so maybe writing prose to be read is different.

Now, with the word processor I sort of “think” it on to the screen, where I can see if I like it. This is similar to “thinking” at the piano when you are improvising. But few people understand it that way except the people who do it.

When you say walking, when you used the Selectric, do you mean that you would walk around while doing this?

Yes, I mean walking around. I found it hard to feel the rhythm of the sentence or the phrase unless I was standing up and walking around—pacing.

And would you recite the text to yourself aloud, or silently? Is this a process you regret having given up, or is it a relief?

Both aloud and silently. It’s a blur now. I don’t regret having given it up, because I haven’t entirely given it up. It’s less consistent now. But occasionally I have to get up and move around to get the rhythm.

Do you prefer working on a typewriter to a computer, or vice versa? Since you mention that the process is different, do you find the results to be different as well? Do you ever go back to using a typewriter, or would you?

I could not go back to the typewriter now. I have taught myself to write at the computer. I can recognize the typewriter style in things I wrote at the typewriter. They are slightly stiffer. (For instance, the text score to Atalanta (Acts of God). Even with the Correcting Selectric it was a pain to correct something. The great “advantage” in writing at the computer is that changing is so simple. So I’m sure the results are different.

Are materials important to you, or can you use practically anything?

Materials are most important to me. I have never written words by hand although my handwriting might be said to be good. My musical scores are very handsome and “finished” when I put them to paper. When I could see better (I’m almost eighty and the eyes are not what they used to be) I wrote the technical notes that joined the words to the music in a “graphic” form (matching columns, arithmetic, and such) in very small handwriting, trying to get the whole of a composition on a single sheet of paper so that I could see the form.

Are those scores available anywhere? [May we include one as an illustration?]

Yes, I can find one as an illustration. I have to do some searching.

It’s interesting that you mention wanting to see the whole form at once. Do you find that more difficult using a word processor? (Adam: I know that I do: I am always printing my work out, so as to be better able to view it.) Or do you have strategies to get around that, or is it no longer as important to you?

There is a tendency to print out a large finished part in order to rehearse it at a different place. Reading at a computer and reading from paper are very different musically.

Has your approach to writing changed as new technologies have become available?

It has changed because the circumstances of my writing has changed. I had a “day job” for thirty-seven years (until I was fifty-one in 1981) that was mostly many hours a week. I so think I practiced writing by hearing it “internally” (when I was supposed to be doing something else). I have found every new technology to be a sort of “inspiration” when I have mastered it. I write more words now. And I have learned to “think” at the computer. That is, when I have a rhythm to work with, the words seem to come almost without effort.

What other materials do you feel you need to have at hand in order to write, aside from your primary tools?

For many years I smoked marijuana all day (in California it was practically free during the time I lived there: 1969–1981). I thought of it as a sort of miracle of inspiration in that it made me want to work—as opposed to “resisting” work. I have never imagined that it affected my “thinking” in any way. I don’t know why, except that I seem to be mostly strong enough to handle it. For a few years in the 1970s and 1980s I used “heavy” drugs now and then. I liked them a lot, but generally they were too expensive for me.

I gave up using marijuana in my mid-fifties because it was making me too “sad.” The fact of drugs of any sort is that it is like withdrawing money from a trust fund (your strength). When you have withdrawn so much that you don’t have enough energy to work, then you have to quit. I have drunk a lot of alcohol for a few years at a time during three or four periods of my life since I was about thirty-five years old (at that age, finally, because I had a job that made it so that I could afford to drink). I haven’t found it to be too inspiring. It tends to wear you out too quickly on a day to day basis. I can hardly understand the fact that so many great writers were great drinkers.

I don’t like to eat much when the work is going well. Up until about ten years ago I was addicted to caffeine in large doses. Then I got a heart problem that forced me to quit. So everything about my work habits is more modest now. It’s not so much fun as it used to be.

Do your working methods change from project to project?

I try very deliberately to change from one project to the next. I don’t like to do something that I already know how to do. The only thing that is truly interesting is what I am going to do next. When a project is completed in a way that assures me, I put all of the materials in a box and put the box in storage. I try to erase from my memory whatever I have just learned. This is presumptuous, of course, but it is a conscious goal.

What kinds of materials, specifically, end up in those boxes? Can you give some examples?

Materials being the performance text-scores, the originals and those annotated by the performers, the production notes (one or two a three-ring binders full of time-annotated scores, notes about synthesizer programs, notes about processor programs, notes about what has to be done, and such) and notes to myself about whether I like something or not.

Are these structural methods that change? Or the ways in which you begin a project, or research it?

I think I would call them structural methods. For music that means different rhythmic feelings, different ways of thinking about the technology of the next project and ideas that are too difficult to put into words.

Can you give an overview of your writing process with respect to the stages of composition, structure, revision?

I try to imagine the work “sectionally” so that I can force a deadline(s) on myself for a first draft. The first draft seems very important. The understanding of what I have done and what needs to be revised comes at all and any hours—while talking, while eating, while shopping, while sleeping. When it happens, I try sometimes to make cryptic notes so I won’t forget. But more often than not the revision wouldn’t go away if I wanted it to.

What do these first drafts look like? How detailed are they? It sounds as though they help you to find the work’s character, so you can then “saturate” yourself with it—is that a fair way of putting it?

Saturate is a good word. A lot goes on before I try to make something. Then there are all sorts of long range plans, short phrases, notes on how to organize what I am trying to do (rules I am supposed to try to follow, but mostly forget as soon as I start working). This gets written down. Some of this goes into first drafts; some gets put aside for later; some gets discarded.

Do you begin by taking notes? Do you work from an outline or other kind of plan?

Sometimes I have elaborate notes without any notion of what they will lead to. Often then these become a very, very specific plan. I don’t know how I get from one to the other. I have come to use the term “template” for the specific plan. In the best of circumstances that template will govern both the words and the music. (Remember, I’m talking about writing words for music or for some form of sound; for instance, a solo reading.)

Could you speak a little about how writing for an eventual performance affects you at the text-composing stage, if at all? Do you write using specific rhythmic templates (where appropriate) or meters, or anticipating specific sounds, instrumentation, or voices?

Rhythm, meter, specific sounds, instrumentation, voices are everything, but I don’t write specific rhythmic templates or begin choosing sounds before I start. They appear as I work on the piece. I like to think I can hear the piece before I even hear it sung for the first time, though I know that hearing it done by my ensemble will teach me things about the piece I had not dreamed of. I have worked with the same small ensemble for the past twenty years. I don’t like commissions from groups I don’t know what they sound like. Trying to teach people something as complicated as making a sound is a pain in the neck. Otherwise, everything is written with an eventual performance in mind. I am imagining the piece. But I don’t think that imagination influences the idea of the piece at all. I am working for myself. I assume that whatever I do will be right.

Do you consider the production stages for your operas to be a continuation of your initial work—in the service of your texts, and requiring a similar discipline with language? That is, are these stages (writing/production) discrete, or are they parts of the same process?

These small distinctions are hard to deal with and explain, because nothing in particular is about the texts. The texts are just part of the whole thing. I start working on an idea and I recognize that the idea involves all parts of the production stage: can this be done technically; how long will it take; who will contribute what as an idea; can I afford it?

Do you have a set schedule?

I “work” six days a week. But as you get older there are more responsibilities (interviews, visitors and worse). I do dumb work from about 10 A.M. until early afternoon. Then, if the rhythm is right and there are no distractions I can work until about 6 P.M. I used to work very long hours, way into the night or all night, but that’s impossible now. I can’t do “creative” work any longer for more than about four hours. But I can’t be very good at what I’m trying to do in a short time. I need to get into the rhythm.

Do you have particular techniques for finding that rhythm? Or does it arise from focusing on the work, etc.?

The particular technique is to start working on the piece. Everything comes from the experience of working on the piece.

What kind of environment do you prefer to work in?

I prefer silence. In fact, when a project is really going well, I can’t even listen to other composers’ music when I’m not working in the studio.

How long does it take you to finish a project? How do you know when you’re finished?

I have written a half-hour Episode for an opera (“The Living Room” for Perfect Lives)—a lot of words, a complicated form—in one sitting: 10 A.M. to 8 P.M. I was conscious of how fast it was going, but I had no sense of urgency. Other operas have taken up to two years. One opera that just got recorded was written twenty-five years ago. I came back to it three times before I knew that it was finished.

Was this Now Eleanor’s Idea? When you say you came back to it, do you mean that the words and/or the construction of the opera changed over time?

Yes, this was Now Eleanor’s Idea. Nothing was changed in the music. I “came back to it” for technical reasons. Because the only good recording we had was of a performance at Site Santa Fe (1996, I think). I couldn’t afford a multi-track recording of the individual voices, and all we had was a stereo DAT. Like the other three operas in that group: “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)”, “Foreign Experiences” and “eL/Aficionado”, “Now Eleanor’s Idea” was conceived very specifically as a television play. In this case enacted with Now Eleanor in a Low Rider TV broadcast studio. It didn’t happen for financial reasons. We did it on stage at Site Santa Fe. The DAT recording was good, but the balances were wrong. I “came back to it” first, I don’t know when, to try to correct those balances. It didn’t sound good. Finally I “came back to it” for the third time when Tom Hamilton, my engineer friend, said he could fix the balances using computer technology. I think it sounds pretty good.

I have the feeling that I write very fast in comparison to other composers, but I have nothing to judge that against. I have written and produced and performed on tour some seventy hours of opera in the last fifty years or so, along with works for other ensembles. But my focus is on a new kind of opera, a kind that uses a lot of words.

You’ve given the impression in other interviews that you don’t consider yourself a writer, per se. However, you have a fairly large body of written texts to your name—it would be hard to think of another long-form composer, contemporary or otherwise, who has been so much the author of his or her own performed texts. Certainly very few are considered great writers by peers outside their medium (as you are by numerous contemporary poets, for one). At the risk of getting into subject matter you’ve spoken about elsewhere at great length, could you say something here about your attraction to the word—and thus to writing words?

I think that question is impossible to answer. Some people are attracted to words. Some are not. I’m happy that some people not in music think that I write well. I do the best I can. As I’ve said, I read a lot: poetry, novels, theoretical articles, whatever I can get my hands on. I have friends who publish small-press books. Probably the reading has helped my writing. I certainly try hard.

What do you do when you finish a project? How long does it take before you begin another project?

Finishing a project is maybe more complicated when the composer/producer is working with words, music, studio production, performers and then touring and performing. So there is no sense of being finished until after a couple of years I become bored with the repertory we are presenting and start changing what we are offering. But with almost every ingredient there is a sense at some moment of being finished. Trying to describe that would be too anecdotal. By then I’m usually involved with some other obligation, so I can’t say how long it takes to get into another big one.

How much outside involvement do you prefer to have? Do you discuss your work with others?

Most people don’t want to discuss your work with you. My wife is no exception. In the most recent work, the opera Quicksand, I have sent what I think of as a finished “prose” draft to selected persons—ones I think might be willing to give me comments—only because I wanted to take on the challenge of setting a “novel” to music without changing any of the words. So I thought it should be readable as a novel. The first person I showed it to did point out some inconsistencies or things hard to understand. But it is just a “prose” draft. When it is in the form to be sung it probably won’t be recognized as a novel. I don’t have many people to discuss such things with and I’m okay with that.

Was there a particular motivation toward taking on the novel form—knowing that it would be effaced in performance?

It won’t be effaced in performance. It will be changed. The techniques for writing a good opera libretto are (have been for a long time) rather specific: a lot of attention to “character”; anecdotes to illustrate ways of thinking or ways of telling a story; the way the text should be complementary to the technique of the singer; and such. I seem to have come to be good at that. The novel as a way of telling a story is different; a very good libretto, in print, would never be mistaken as a novel. So there is a sort of challenge in trying to make the novel make music. As an example (anecdote), I studied “Finnegans Wake” for many years without any success. I read all the books. Then I met a very generous and very gifted Irish artist whose father had been famous in the many small theaters in Dublin a century ago. This Irish artist spoke the dialect of “Finnegans Wake”—because of his father—and he knew where the ideas of the novel came from. So for a few years, every time he came to New York, he would come to my studio and record long passages of “Finnegans Wake” with a lot of commentary. He liked to sing it and I liked to hear it. My recording engineer friend thought it was one of the best things he had ever head. I have the tapes now. I have no intention to use any of those recordings (so if anybody from the Joyce Trust reads this, forget it). But what I learned was priceless. “Finnegans Wake” is a long song. It is also an extraordinary novel, as we all know. So, a novel can be sung. Maybe I can compose an opera using the text of a novel. Unfortunately, I can’t bear to think of “rights” and that kind of legal junk. I can’t bear to hear professional voices read novels on CDs from the bookstore. So, first I had to write a novel. A few people who have read it say it’s a good novel. Nobody who has read it has suggested that I am imitating Joyce, or that I could even do such a thing. But I have a novel that can be sung. The work will probably take me two years. Then I don’t know what will happen to the project.

How important is reading other literature to you and your writing?

I read almost all the time when I am not “working.” That is, daily, in the evening. In the past five or six years I’ve read all of the great mystery stories. More than once. For instance, I just finished reading a mystery novel by Robert Crais (one of the great ones) that I bought and read a year ago. A few hours after I finished it I started again at the beginning. This was a mystery of its own when I began doing it. Then I realized that “who done it” is not the point. The point is to listen to the author’s skills with rhythm and syntax and such.

As for music, I never think of the listener’s physical experience with my work because I’ve been doing it so long that I know that experience. I know what the listener expects of my work. I am famous among the people I am famous among. Recently (in order to answer some questions) I had to re-read three librettos that were written over the past twenty years or so. I was surprised and pleased with how good they are.

The libretto of Perfect Lives was published in book form, and reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press. And it’s possible to listen to the CD version of Perfect Lives without watching the videos. Do you mind if people encounter your work in such a way? Or if they focus on simply one aspect of it? For example, we’ve read the Perfect Lives libretto numerous times—and Adam has frequently transcribed its words while listening to it on CD—in order to better experience it as poetry. (We consider it one of the great American poems of the twentieth century.)

Thank you. I think Perfect Lives is a work of genius among my many collaborators. I have watched the video without listening to the music. I have listened to the music without watching the video. I have read parts of the text at poetry readings. On a couple of occasions I have simply read it to myself (I mean, long after I wrote it.) Once in a while you do something right.

How important do you think it is for audiences to have access to your librettos? Regarding Quicksand, do you think that people should have the opportunity to read it as a novel?

I think anyone should have access to the librettos, just in case they are interested in librettos. Otherwise, there is the problem that you can’t listen to an opera and read the libretto at the same time—for instance, at the Metropolitan Opera. Listening and reading are separate things that you do with your mind. So they have to be treated separately. I would like the prospect of people reading Quicksand as a novel. That would make me feel good about my work. And I would like the prospect of people reading Quicksand as a libretto. The reader of both would learn something; I don’t know what.

What do you find to be the discomforts of writing? Are there aspects of writing that are unplanned or uncomfortable?

I am surprised recently to recognize that I have begun to “resent” working so hard. I’m sure it has to do with age. I’ve worked eighteen hours a day my whole life. That’s getting boring. But I don’t know what else to do. I don’t like nature (a weekend in the country); I don’t like “walking”; I don’t have any hobbies. I just like music. And I like “working.”

Has your writing practice had any discernible physical effects on you?

I am blessed with good health, but of course that’s “relative.” Anecdote: fifteen minutes after I “knew” that I had just finished an opera libretto called “Celestial Excursions” (and had drunk all day about 20 cups of tea) and I was supremely happy, I had a heart attack of a sort (atrial fibrillation). The doctor said, “Age, stress and caffeine.” That was bad news. I really liked caffeine. But otherwise physical has no meaning, except that I am getting older and less strong.

Robert Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1930. A distinguished figure in American contemporary music, he holds an international reputation for his work in new forms of opera and other multi-disciplinary projects, including his groundbreaking "operas for television." His recorded works are acknowledged classics of language in a musical setting.