Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing, staged by Object Collection
October 26–30, 2022
Autumn in New York has a special kind of magic, and the energy this year felt particularly charged. The weather was clear and crisp, providing easy nighttime views of the heavens while fostering one of the better displays of fall foliage in recent memory. Activity has picked up, including nightlife, and the outlines of a new, post-pandemic New York are starting to become clear. And as October wound down, the veil is thin, as they say.
It was in this sort of mood that I ventured into peak Friday traffic to The Brick theater in Williamsburg for the third of five performances of Brooklyn-based performance group Object Collection’s revised adaptation of Robert Ashley’s 1970s composition Automatic Writing, for voices, electronic instruments, and “special recording techniques.” Originally released as an LP in 1979 by Lovely Music, the work largely prefigures the decades-long string of experimental operas Ashley is famous for, and in a lecture I attended in the early nineties, he credited Automatic Writing for catalyzing his work with stream of consciousness text that would form the basis for his first major opera, Perfect Lives. A strange and subtle work, Automatic Writing falls somewhere in the cracks between ambient music, musique concrète, and text/sound art, and it bears little overt resemblance to any of his other recognized works. Ashley, who died in 2014 at age eighty-three, had a long and varied career that included an extended period in California, where from 1969 to 1981 he served as Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, to which this work belongs.
At its core, Automatic Writing is a kind of ritual magic rendered on magnetic tape. Imbued with a sense of occult-like mysticism, it transforms sound and language into a surrealist psychological space. Developed in the studio over a five year period, Ashley wrote that Automatic Writing “became a kind of opera in my imagination” that conjures a set of four shadowy characters. It is this hallucinatory auditory space, this imaginary opera, that Object Collection sought to animate on the stage.
Founded in 2004 by writer/director Kara Feely and composer Travis Just, Object Collection is a regular fixture on the Downtown experimental theater circuit with a developing international profile. While it’s difficult to position the group within a specific discipline, a strong sound/music component is one of their hallmarks. In adapting this audio recording to performance, Object Collection recreated the sonic material while also embodying it with live performers, video, and staging in ways that are familiar throughout the group’s extensive body of work.
It is their particular combination of live video with live music/sound, repetitive gestures, and elaborate costumes—all within a stylized set design—that is immediately recognizable. In this production, the dimly lit stage was covered in a giant, crumpled, black plastic tarp with the four performers arrayed symmetrically in a square. Playing the primary vocal role, Fulya Peker was front and center, wearing dark sunglasses, presumably meant to invoke Ashley, who often appeared in similar shades in promo photos. The additional three performers, Feely, Just, John Hastings (electric guitar), and Chloë Roe (actions), each had a live video camera trained on them, capturing details of their movements that were then transmitted in real-time to three monitors positioned on stage.
For the most part the audio stayed faithful to the primary elements of the original, with a couple of notable exceptions: the part of the translator (Feely) spoke German rather than French as in the original, and the original meandering organ part was rendered by a spacey, reverberant electric guitar. As a cover version, as it might be deemed, it was convincing—everything was familiar, but slightly different.
In this way, Object Collections’s Automatic Writing belongs in part to an emerging reverse-engineered genre of recording transcriptions that includes Bang on a Can’s Music for Airports, from the classic Brian Eno album, and the Wordless Music Orchestra’s rendering of William Basinksi’s The Disintegration Loops. In taking such a work to the stage however, effectively dramatizing a sound recording, Object Collection has taken a major leap, and a risky one. But this is arguably the group’s bread and butter; crossing genres, mixing media and recontextualizing language and meaning are all core elements of their vision. Robert Ashley had a similar vision, and as such taking on Automatic Writing was a well-calculated risk.
While I had a few minor questions—why the black plastic tarp, for example—it was a thoroughly engaging performance, and a wonderful opportunity to delve more deeply into this unique work. It also serves as a kind of proposal for how Ashley’s idiosyncratic works might live on without him, and I hope there will be more similarly ambitious interpretations in the future.