top of page
  • SPAM

(SPAM Cuts) ‘Tap Dancing in the Sand’ by Robert Ashley


In this SPAM Cut, Josh Thorpe covers the ‘strange space of some new orality’ in Robert Ashley’s sound/text composition, ‘Tap Dancing in the Sand’.

> Here is one of my favourite songs, if that is what it is.

> 'Tap Dancing in the Sand' is a 16-minute piece of music with spoken word. It is performed by Robert Ashley and Ensemble MAE and involves piano, percussion, guitar, bass, woodwinds, brass. It is a gentle work with tremendous activity. You have to listen to it to get the text.

> The author, and the composer, and the voice, is Robert Ashley, who made strange and mysterious music and texts from the 1960s until his death in 2014. He often called his works opera, though they sound nothing like most opera. He also said he was trying to capture something of the American voice, but his voice sounds like no one else’s. And I don’t know anyone who writes like this either.

> First, the emptiness and generality of the text’s opening:

Sitting here.                        Thinking about life                        in all its forms.

An open gesture. A generous nothing of a beginning. A static beginning with endless possibilities. While many writers would prize the grain, the texture, the specificity of place, here Ashley is nowhere particular, just ‘here’. And when he later specifies the place, where is it? Somewhere generic:

The Holiday Inn Hotel                        where I live,                        ordinarily—                        especially                        where I live                        in other places,

Then, further along, the mundanity of breakfast’s pieces of toast and cups of tea. No smell of toast, no sensual quality of molten butter. In fact he doesn’t even use butter, he uses margarine. What could be less sensual than that? And yet he drinks six cups of tea. It seems too much. It makes me feel a little ill, thinking about drinking that much tea. And he doesn’t bring the teapot to the table because,

I like                        the getting up and                        down part

If you listen to the performance, you will hear that the line breaks I’m representing above reflect the rhythm of the music. Here is an excerpt from the score:

> And the rhythm of the music reflects the inflection of Ashley’s spoken voice. If you hear interviews with Ashley you will find that his performance voice is not far from his everyday voice and vice versa. (My friend overheard him talking in a record store to the staff. It was like music.)

> Now if you’ve listened to some of the song, you know there’s something unusual going on. The inflection of the words is doubled in the music. The instruments, most of them, take turns shadowing Ashley’s voice, overlapping often, in a kind of fluttering mess.

> To accomplish this, the musicians had pitches notated, and these derived roughly from the spoken voice, but no rhythms. Rhythms were achieved simply through rehearsal, according to Reinier van Houdt, the pianist on the recording. The players just copied Ashley’s rhythm and whatever happened happened. The difficulty of the task was increased by the instruction that the piano, which signals each change of line, should progress at a nearly frantic pace. And yet the effect isn’t frantic, not to me anyway. It’s simply exhilarating.

> As you will hear, the song carries on for some time with terrific momentum. Ashley’s text drifts quickly through many texts, from barges on the river, to Cicero, ‘whoever he is’, to a character type he calls ‘the woman of the different voice’, to darkling organs, to how difficult it is to leave the world of dreams upon waking and rejoin the self one sees in the mirror.

> Then the spoken text ends and the instruments continue, changing character subtly without Ashley’s lead. But somehow they burrow through to some strange space of new orality. A weird internal speaking in tongues I still hear in my mind now.


Text: Josh Thorpe (Thanks to Mimi Johnson for the score). 


bottom of page