Robert Ashley: Celestial Excursions

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  • Celestial Excursions (2003) opera for five solo voices, prerecorded orchestra and electronics


After the ground-breaking work, Dust, godfather of experimental opera Robert Ashley returns with Celestial Excursions. Ashley’s latest endeavor explores remarkably uncharted territory—the kind of language that is common among “old” people who talk all the time or not at all, to anyone passing by or to themselves. The opera premiered at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin, before coming to The Kitchen for it’s U.S. premiere in April 2003.

Celestial Excursions delves into the wild intermingling of reminiscence, regret, love, nightmare, old sayings, and songs on the radio—all seemingly to no purpose, except for the operatic end of relentless speed and precision in ensemble singing and the possible stage magic inherent in illusion, hallucination, and a physically changed state of the senses. The opera’s originality lies in a use of a new vocal technique Ashley has built over the last twenty years, which enables several stories to be heard at the same time. In an intricate vocal system, a principal voice is “chased” by other voices whose parts rotate in sequence in a given order. The result of this technique creates a complex jungle of voices, delivered with an extraordinary rhythmic intensity rarely heard in ensemble singing.

As for all of Ashley’s latest works, the orchestra music of Celestial Excursions was composed in the computer-synthesizer studio. All the voices and the orchestra (on multi-track tape or on disc) are processed again during the concert in order to match the sound of the opera to the performance space. And for this CD release, Ashley went back to the studio with live recordings to rework the piece, extending the orchestra in the final act.

With the exception of a few condescending and silly movies, “old” people are one of the few “minority” groups basically unrecognized in the arts. Not that they care, but among the “marginalized,” old people are the most marginalized, because, obviously, unlike racial or ethnic groups or the poor, they have no future. Or rather, in the most important sense, their future will never change for the better.” — Robert Ashley

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