Thoughts on Robert Ashley’s “That Morning Thing”

This is not the morning thing you're looking for...

Composer Robert Ashley’s “opera” (experimental performance piece is a more appropriate name, although if an opera is a multifaceted convolution of music, text, and motion, I suppose this is an opera) That Morning Thing, produced for the first time in 40 years at The Kitchen as part of the Performa 11 biennial, is among the most difficult pieces I’ve experienced. It’s dark. Dark in a way that I wasn’t expecting, dark in a visceral, what the heck just happened to me, I didn’t sign up for this kinda dark. This isn’t (necessarily) a bad thing. But it is a thing that is likely to stick with me for a while. What follows is less a review as it is an effort to come to terms with what I saw and how I responded to it.

Please note, a work like this is bound to be understood in a very subjective manner (if any attempt is made to understand it at all). I make no claims at all that my thoughts are in any way informed, intelligent, or even coherent. Whether my experience with the piece has anything to do with the composers intention is difficult to know, but recording my response may be helpful to myself, or anyone else wrestling with the piece.

The piece starts out innocuously enough. A soundscape of frogs fills the space. An octet of attractive young ladies dressed in identical white dresses and pumps move in deliberate steps, occasionally pairing up, triggering a light show on their respective sunglasses reminiscent of a Times Square strip club. Throughout it all, a narrator recites what appears to be the composer’s thought process behind the entire work, a long winded treatise about frogs, aging, death, and most significantly to my understanding, language. Specifically, the eventual obsolescence of language, how language may eventually evolve or be replaced as a means of communication, the betrayal of language as codified in a concept referred to as “The Dime Store Misunderstanding”, and briefly, the relationship between language, morality and violence.

The details are difficult to recall after a single viewing, since so much is going on, between the field recordings of the frogs, the visual stimulation of the dancers, and the four male vocalists repeating numbers in ways that sound like frogs. But the crux of the Dime Store Misunderstanding is that the transactions in a dime store are so removed from genuine communication, superficially due to the trivial nature of the communication, but more intrinsically because the commodities exchanged in a dime store are part of the mechanics of modern life that negate interpersonal experiences, that they represent a betrayal of language itself. Another concept, the “Key-Punch Problem”, is explained in much less detail, and the logic was harder for me to follow, (partially because the lecture portion was hitting the 20 minute mark at that point) but is roughly described as an essentially non-verbal act of violence, an instantaneous outlashing, where language is destroyed. Shortly afterward, the dancers are seated, the vocalists’ frog songs diminish, and the speaker claims that he has much more to say, but there is no time.

We begin the second act with the most conventionally “musical” portion of the opera. A keyboardist improvises a series of disjointed lines over jazz voicings while a vocalist sings/scats the text “One, Two, Three, Four” repeatedly (note, this was written at least a decade before Einstein on a Beach.) This text, inherently meaningless, is given some sort of meaning through the music. Perhaps this is the next evolutionary phase of communication the speaker/composer referred to in the preceding act. There is clearly an interplay between the vocalist and the pianist, they are communicating something to each other, and indirectly to us.

And then the center of the piece. The game changer. The gut punch.

A lithe woman in a night gown moves a pedestal to the center of the stage, turns a large card over, and strikes some sort angular, yet not extreme, pose for several seconds. Then repeat. And the voice over starts. It’s a noisy, lo-fi, distorted recording of a woman’t voice. She’s distant, removed. She begins each sentence with “I remember…” and what she is remembering is clearly the details of a violent sexual assault. The second sentence: “I remember… he tried… to put his gun… in my mouth…”

The details are small, objective, not sexually graphic, not even particularly violent. They’re almost mundane. Almost. The memories are focused around the mouth and tongue, the details of a kiss that is almost certainly nonconsensual. There is distance throughout; the event occurred in the past, months or years ago. We’re reminded of this with each sentence starting “I remember…”, by the speakers distant unsettlingly detached voice. Yet the details are so minute, so specific, so immediate that we are forced to experience them now.

It’s tough to get through. At least one audience member walked out. I went through my own gamut of feelings, primarily anger towards the composer. I felt violated, unprepared, angry that such an emotionally devastating experience was being juxtaposed with a series of wan, uninspiring poses by the dancer. If you’re going to use the emotional sledgehammer of rape to get a response, you better have sometime pretty amazing to say to justify the toll on your audience. (In retrospect, I think this is why I found Boys Don’t Cry indefensibly worthless and unwatchable. There’s nothing to say. It’s just misery-porn.)

Perhaps it was a defense mechanism  (whatever gets me through the act) but I started retreating into my intellectual self, trying to make sense of the piece as a whole, reframing the event as an exploration of language’s abilities and failings. I began reflecting upon the composer’s statements about a non verbal act of violence, how one cannot perform an act of cruelty towards another without first nullifying language, and the pieces origination as a meditation on a woman’s suicide. By the composers own words in the first act, this is a piece about language. It is not about rape. Rape is merely (hah) the hammer used to generate emotional affect in the viewer in order to come about a deeper understanding about language in the face of trauma. This was my understanding, what I needed to tell myself in order to stay in my seat, to trust the composer with another 30 minute of my time.

The scene ended (finally) and the vocalist stood back up. The air had been sucked out of the room. Anything that follows would be impregnated by the casual violence of the previous scene. The next move would be crucial to my continued faith in the journey the piece was leading me on.

And miraculously the composer gets it right. It’s a recapitulation of the first keyboard/vocalist scene, but this time, the vocalist isn’t really singing. She’s pinched and agitated. The text has been diminished to simply “One, Two, Three…” Four is no more. She’s close to shouting, asserting her voice against the keyboard. It’s desperate, uncertain, unsettled, the “Three” comes on the downbeat rather than the “One”. I believed that the vocalist was acknowledging the violence of the previous scene, and that by acknowledging it, somehow justifying it’s presence, assuring me that there is a plan, that there is something to be said. The vocalist’s unsettled demeanor was a secret handshake from the composer saying, yes, yes, that was awful. You should be outraged. Now let’s see what’s next…

What IS next? Something completely (but not completely) different, of course. A “Director” stands sharply and strides across the stage purposefully. He knows exactly where he’s going. One by one, the women in white approach microphones and ask a series of mostly geographical touristy questions in affected singsongy voices.  “Where can you get good chinese food?”, “What are The Cloisters?”, “Do you know everything?”, “Where is California”. One after the other, the Director answers the women in rambling, occasionally accurate, often amusing, almost certainly improvised answers. The director’s demeanor evolves from bemused to annoyed, and finally overwhelmed. We’re exploring language’s ability to communicate information, albeit in a lighter vein than anything we’ve seen since.

Still, in view of the second act, it’s hard not to see the Director’s condescension, and at times outright hostility, in the context of gender and violence. These women are exposing vulnerabilities, a lack of information, and rather than simply give that information in a polite and helpful way, the Director chooses to instead amuse himself (and us by proxy) and ridicule that vulnerability, that lack of information. “Really? You want to know where California is?”, “You’re looking for good chinese food? Why don’t you try China?” If presented separately, this act would be a gentle lampooning of the clueless tourist and the wiseass city slicker, but in the imposing shadow of the second act, it reads more as an indictment of the casual indifference shown towards others on a daily basis. The director is an asshole.

The epilogue is a simple gesture that evokes gender and alienation.The narrator repeats the phrase “She was a visitor here” while the women in white lead the audience in a literal deconstruction of the phrase, repeating the individual phonemes, the words broken into their smallest components and distributed throughout the space. It’s somber and meditative, a reflection on the phrase and the sounds and what they might have to do with each other. Who is the she? Where was she visiting? What happened that requires us to know this?

It is tempting to construct a sort of narrative from elements in the preceding scenes, but that would be far too tidy a package to take away from the evening’s presentation. No, better far to let these things steep in one’s mind. Accept the sights and sounds as they are, let them bounce against what one already knows and believes. Create connections, some obvious, some less so, and eventually allow this new information to aggregate into some sort of meaning, a meaning communicated by something other than language alone, perhaps by something that language has evolved into…