A holy of ‘70s avant-garde holies available on vinyl for first time in 40 years; Robert Ashley’s ‘Automatic Writing’ is a spellbinding masterpiece of un/conscious composition influenced by Ashley’s preoccupation with language and the nature of human sounds. It features in Pitchfork’s list of the 50 "Best Ambient Albums of All Time", but it’s far too provocative and ambiguous to fit within any notion of Ambient listening. From the proto-ASMR / dub-through-the-wall trip of the title track to the disturbingly prescient narrative of 'Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon’ - it’s a remarkable album that continues to weave its spell almost five decades on; every encounter will pull in you in a different direction.
Reissued on vinyl for the first time since 1979 by Lovely Music - the groundbreaking label beloved for its catalogue of enchanted avant-garde recordings, including editions of Ashley’s equally seminal ‘In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women’ (1974), and ‘Private Parts’ (1978) - the artist’s most influential LP holds a very special place in the imaginations of myriad listeners and artists due to its uniquely absorbing, liminal blend of voice and very quiet musical backdrop that rarely fails to leave the listener entranced.
By the time of these recordings, Ashley was a well established figure in the American experimental avant-garde sphere, working across multiple disciplines of TV opera, theatre, music, and academic research and teaching. He would bring many of these strands together as director of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre from 1969, and also as director of the famous MIlls College Centre for Contemporary Music which, under his tenure, was a hive of groundbreaking artistic activity during the ‘70s.
‘Automatic Writing’ was realised during the quiet summertime at Mills College over the five years leading up to its release in 1979. The piece stems from Ashley’s idea that his mild form of Tourettes Syndrome - a condition causing involuntary speech - was in itself a form of primitive composition which deserved his closer attention. Various attempts were made to capture the symptoms on tape, but they were too often conscious attempts; and the real, unconscious results only came when the Mills campus was deserted over the summer, and he captured some 48 minutes of involuntary speech, all recorded very close to the mic.
The recordings provided an incomprehensible dialogue which Ashley prized for the meaning of its rhythm and intonation, rather than its literal meanings, and he would combine this with three other “characters” or voices - his wife Mimi Johnson reciting a french translation of Ashley’s original, plus his own Moog articulation and background organ tones - in a form of semi-conscious opera. This elegantly simple idea manifests with ineffably magical results, somehow sounding like we’re overhearing someone’s mental subvocalisation while Al Green croons from another room and a French film matinee plays in the corner. While a glib description, it’s also pretty accurate, but perhaps doesn’t account for the piece’s deeply hypnagogic but sometimes disturbing effect. If you've not heard it before - we implore you to get acquainted.