Reading Robert Ashley

Issue no6
2017
Doorbraak
Will Holder (left) and Alex Waterman in Amsterdam

“We are dialoging, y’ know what I mean?”

If you don’t know what the deal is, then the deal is about the conversation. Many conversations or a multiple one in this case. Conversation between Will Holder, Alex Waterman and Robert Ashley, reading and listening, performers and the audience, book and opera, sound and typography. But, let’s start from the beginning.

Since 2004 typographer and writer Will Holder and cellist and composer Alex Waterman had been working on developing graphic scores for Robert Ashley’s operas. Over fine-tooth comb went Dust (1998) and Celestial Excursion (2003), both, originally featured voices by Ashley’s “band” (Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner and Jacqueline Humbert) - are striking arrays of stream of consciousness poetry revived into a sublime form of a minimalist opera. The fruit of this research is a book Yes, But Is It Edible? - over seven hundred pages volume published last fall by New Documents. Next to the Agape, Between Thought and Sound and Tiger’s Mind – it is the fourth and the final book of the series dedicated to collective reading processes and the role of printed page in this.

To celebrate the grand finale of seven years’ work Will Holder and Alex Waterman set off into a tour of reading performances, where one of the stops was an invitation from Kunstverein Amsterdam. On a Friday night at the intimate stage of the De Roode Bioscoop theater, sitting at a table, they presented audible excerpts of the Yes, But Is It Edible?.

Will Holder (left) and Alex Waterman in Amsterdam

The book, following the idea that composing is a way of living, reading and listening together, is designed to be read collectively. So that even the performance begun with Holder and Waterman reading from one page. Two characters: main voice and a chorus. Sometimes they were reciting melodiously, as if singing and sometimes they were simply speaking.

Their voices overlapped but at the same time complemented each other. It had something to deal with an atmosphere of good friends chatting in a bar. Alike because of the interweaving quality of the sounds as well as cheap and cheerful tone of a talk. Somehow its warm and intimate character at the same time didn’t make the spectator to feel uneasy or hampered. On the contrary, he was the most welcome not only to listen and witness but to be a part of it – by being engaged in creating imaginary setting and characters. Reader and listener were in a constant conversation. “F’k it, nobody’s listening”, appeared at some point in a script.

The interaction between voices alternated. Sometimes one of them created narrative, while the other its background. Then they intertwined, whilst in the next song they performed a dialogue or more extreme – they exchanged sentences like players a ball in a ping-pong match. At times one voice took emotional side, whereas the other occupied more rational position. Like right and left hand or two sides of a brain that carry out separate functions but are incomplete without each other. This double structure reminds me of John Ashbery’s two column poem Litany, written to be read by two people simultaneously or B.S. Johnson’s novel Albert Angelo, which tells a story of an unfulfilled architect from two perspectives that often lead into a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue.

While Robert Ashley gave an opera a structure of everyday speech, Holder introduced a spoken language to the book design, so that musicians and non-musicians might produce new versions of Ashley’s productions. Now that we can certainly say that he took contemporary opera beyond the opera theater “Yes, But Is It Edible” shifts the typography beyond the graphic design and transpose reading aloud into another dimension, where it becomes a collective composition of stories told musically.

During hour-long reading Holder-Waterman duo masterfully performed monologues for two voices. Monody dialogues. It created particular dizziness that magically drew into its vortex, allowing to lose yourself for a while. “Oh, shiih, we are dialoging”. Yes, but is it edible? It is and even more, it is actually delicious.


Will Holder and Alex Waterman read Robert Ashley / Roode Bioskoop, Amsterdam, 13th March 2015

Will Holder and Alex Waterman, Yes, But is it Edible, New Documents, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-927354-09-4

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2017