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CD Feature/ Robert Ashley & Ensemble MAE: "Tapdancing in the Sand"

img  Tobias

Some consider language a hinderance. To Robert Ashley, it is a vehicle. His music is driven by its rhythm and implicit images, rendered cohesive by its ability to bind disparate entities together and propelled by the magical appearance of a narrative. even in places where chaos has struck. “Tap Dancing in the Sand” follows one of the seminal figures of American composition in the 20th century from his pre-Sonic Arts Union days well into the realms of the new millenium.

Speach and vocals play a part in all of the material at hand, even though this may seem more obvious on some occasions than on others. The title piece to the collection, for example, uses Ashley’s lyrics to a video opera project dating back to 1979. Purposely “oraculous” (Robert Ashley) with regards to content and recited with wilful, hypnotically unorganic intonation, the text draws the listener into the musical texture of rhythmically abruptly changing piano chords, sustained vowls, truncated wood wind figures and warmly rolling drums, then ends to let the instrumentalists continue the open threads with nervous, small-intervalled melodies. 

“Hidden Similarities”, written especially for the CD, snippets different spoken word contributions into a scenic story. Because this story will only manifest itself to those familiar with Dutch, language is here reduced to its sound dimension – a feat further enhanced by the fact that some of the artists involded in the recording of this piece are audibly not native speakers, adding an exotic flavour to an already unusual linguistic timbre.

In both pieces, as well as in the lonely beating-heart fantasy of “Outcome Inevitable”, in which singing takes on the qualities of an instrument, Ashley comes close to the genre which has probably approximated the idiosyncracies of language more than any other: Jazz. There is an urban necessity to “Tap Dancing in the Sand” and a nocturnal sensousness even to a soundscape like “Hidden Similarities” which makes them sound cool despite the complex compositional processes at work underneath their surface.

Quite a contrast with the two closing pieces, which highlight entirely different aspects of the album’s main theme. “She was a Visitor” repeats the title from beginning to end, creating a focal point and a basis for group improvisation. Through the use of repetition, Ashley dissolves the meaning of the words into the sounds of its phonemes, destilling a haunting ambiance from an initially neutral sentence.

“In Memoriam”, from 1963, is an early drone piece, which goes back to the most essential parameter of speach: Breath. Taking up fifteen minutes, the track goes from a gradually building wall of harmonics to a thinning-out finale, which savours each faint outflow of air as if it were the last.


In its entirety, the album presents a panopticum of artistic takes and angles and demonstrates that music may be better suited for descriptional purposes in this regard than language itself. What makes this vision even stronger is that it is presented by a group, which has an equally impressive and far-reaching history to its credit as the composer it set out to honour: Instead of just playing, the Ensemble MAE really talks to the listener, creating a two-way stream of conversation – and turning into a vehicle for communication by doing so.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ensemble MAE
Homepage: Unsounds Records

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