In 1975 the composer Robert Ashley embarked on an ambitious work titled Music With Roots in the Aether. He called it an Opera (or piece of theater depending on the case) for television. The work is comprised of seven, two hours sections. Each “episode” is dedicated to investigations, interviews, and performances of his one of his peers – David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley respectively, with the final reserved for himself. The result is difficult to address. It’s a single artwork, and should be considered within the terms that it was conceived. As such, it’s structurally difficult – both as a totality, and within individual gestures. It also remains one of the most involved documents of this generation of composers, and is incredibly important.
The history of early video art is threaded by fairly consistent themes and tropes. The most notable is a direct engagement with the possibilities that this new technology opened, particularly through its capacity for long duration, and relatively low production expense. Many artists of this era embarked on a kind of extreme Cinéma vérité, where the camera was left running as life unfolded, and creative intervention was reduced to a minimum. This is the context from which Music With Roots in the Aether grew. The platforms on which Ashley engages his peers, be they a boat, sports field, room etc, are conceived as theatrical stages where life and construct collide.
Music With Roots in the Aether feels very much of its era, which is to say it’s a little dated, and slightly gets in it own way – depending on what you want to take from it. The unstructured nature of Ashley’s conversations with the artists makes it hard to gain from them, while the film’s intellectualism often overshadows its protagonists. I’m totally sympathetic with what he was after, and respect it. I just wish it had been more refined upon conception. It also would seem irresponsible to present 14hrs of challenging film without some warning. It should also be implicit that I think their viewing is essential. There is no equivalent document of this generation. It offers insight into how these artists considered their place within the context of the 1970’s, as well as personal considerations of their respective practices. The Lucier, Riley, and Oliveros episodes also have particularly stand out musical displays.
With all that behind us, I leave you with the films. I hope I’ve been able to offer some context and preparation. It seemed important, given their nature, to attempt to explain their more difficult attributes – with the hope of allowing for easier access to all the wonderful things they contain.
Music with Roots in the Aether – David Behrman
Music with Roots in the Aether – Philip Glass
Music with Roots in the Aether – Alvin Lucier
Music with Roots in the Aether – Gordon Mumma
Music with Roots in the Aether – Pauline Oliveros
Music with Roots in the Aether – Terry Riley
Music with Roots in the Aether – Robert Ashley