The first live performance that I ever presented took place in November of 1990. I was an emerging artist fresh out of graduate school, and had miraculously landed two part-time jobs in Portland, Oregon. One job was as a filmmaker-in-residence for the Northwest Film Center, and the other was coordinating a newly established contemporary art program at the Portland Art Museum. My part-time status meant that I had a lot of bosses, but the person who hired me at the museum and with whom I worked far more than part-time was the equanimous and truly brilliant curator of contemporary art, John Weber. I am so grateful that it was John who ushered me into the curatorial work I continue to do to this day (as does he). The program was small so we packed in everything we could into our two exhibitions and four performance allotment. For the museum director and trustees at the time, it was plenty.
Our first performance was My Brother Called by the composer and avant-garde opera maverick, Robert Ashley. He had continued working on his major opus entitled, Perfect Lives but our museum auditorium had real limitations and he wisely suggested this “other piece” instead of declining my invitation. We spoke on the telephone many times prior to the performance, and each conversation was like a master class in sonic philosophy, music history, properties for unhinging theoretical convention and his elliptical structures for composing. Like his music, he would shift from one surprising and complex idea to an entirely different one almost imperceptibly – it took me a decent pause to recognize he had moved elsewhere. I didn’t say much on those calls, as it would have exposed my thin comprehension of nearly everything he was describing, and would respond to his questions with questions which, thankfully, served to prompt him into more thoughts while giving me time to try to get a better grasp on the windmills that were churning at the other end of the phone line.
This meant that nothing we discussed was going to help me write a coherent press release or a blurb for marketing his project in time for a museum deadline. Which I believe he relished. He was teaching me about what mattered to him artistically, and it included my potential as a part-time employee fresh out of grad school.
On the day of my deadline a stack of pages had arrived via the museum fax machine overnight. It was Bob’s libretto for My Brother Called. It was created by stringing together “Personal Ads” found at the back of magazines and newspapers at the time. (For those who do not know what these were – the equivalent now would be something like a profile post on a dating app except each letter used added to the cost so grammar was thrown out the window: “DWM 37 seeks F companion to help with young daughter; SWM seeks female friend who likes jogging old movies & yellow dogs; GBM attentive good looking seeks GM for travel and fun not more,” along with other embellishments.) Bob had created a precise order for these personal ads. They began by establishing each “character” as an anonymous someone looking for someone and for some particular reason. From random introductions the libretto progressed (over an hour or so) into a kind of dialogue of want ads between so many strangers who were all looking for one another.
I left a message on his answering machine to tell him that it felt like he had created a structure for how longing had a shape and that it was different for everyone. Which is what his music was doing from his compositional interests and references. The project was a continuation of his lifelong portrayal of regular people within his music making consciousness that he called opera but was not of opera. He was able to masterfully disguise insights so that we thought they were our own as we heard them.
Since then, I have been privileged to work with many composers who have generated singular and new terrain in music that carries towering cultural value. Composers lead one to musicians that inspire them, musicians back to composers in a virtuous circle of mutual commitment. You’ll be meeting two of them who are each phenomenal musicians, advocates, creative producers and collaborative forces that are both a glue throughout the contemporary music scene. Lisa Kaplan of Eighth Blackbird (piano), and Nadia Sirota of Living Music and yMusic (viola). They recently collaborated on Nadia’s “Pirate Radio” sessions, and are in conversation together via CAP UCLA. We love them and are in awe of what they, and all throughout their communities, do together. You’ll also be able to catch up with the indefatigable and beloved So Percussion.
In the spirit of the personal ads from the 1990s: “AD of CAP UCLA seeks listeners 4 new music by generous makers doing incred things. Answer questions w/questions, add open ears, glass of red. Visit often. Tips appreciated.”
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance