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The Wolfman

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Album Review

This collection of early works (late '50s and early '60s, all previously unreleased) by Robert Ashley focuses not on the new operatic form he is best known for, but on his first electronic pieces and feedback studies. The earliest piece opens the disc. An eerie composition, "The Fox" (1957) pairs a theatrical reading of a folk song by Burl Ives with a backing track of forward and backward piano clusters with the attack cut off. But that's only an appetizer. The real treat is the 18-minute "Wolfman," a relentless stream of harsh noises. For amplified voice and tape, the piece calls for the vocalist to sing sustained notes while gradually changing specific components of the sound: loudness, pitch, closure of the mouth, position of the tongue. For this interpretation (by the composer, apparently recorded at its premiere in 1964), the singer is backed by Ashley's "The 4th of July," which blends recordings of backyard celebrations with electronics. Both parts (voice and tape) are heavily amplified, so that the singer's notes turn into howls. Of devastating efficiency, the piece must have wreaked havoc back in the '60s as it sets a whole room in motion, the feedback developing a physical strength in a live situation. By definition weaker, this crude recording still packs a lot of punch. "The Wolfman Tape" is a six-minute tape composition created to accompany shorter performances of the live work. A collage of found sounds played back at varied speeds, it provides an early example of Ashley's taste for suggested, polysemous narratives. The tape composition "The Bottleman," 43 minutes in duration, consists of vocal sounds and found sounds mixed in with a setup of a contact microphone and a loudspeaker broadcasting open-circuit "hum." Created as the soundtrack for a film by George Manupelli, it evolves slowly and remains much quieter than what came before on this CD, creating a strange anticlimax. ~ François Couture, Rovi


Born: March 28, 1930 in Ann Arbor, MI

Genre: Classical

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Studied with Ross Lee Finney, Roberto Gerhard, Leslie Bassett. Music degrees from Univ. of Michigan and Manhattan School of Music, worked in Speech Research Lab (psychoacoustics and cultural speech patterns) and was a Research Assistant in acoustics at the Architectural Research Lab. Co-founder legendary ONCE Group in the 1960s, co-director Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in 1970s. Created new kind of opera (sometimes called the New Narrative opera) in works like That Morning Thing...
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