What shall you focus on? The unremarkable main course, or the intricate and imprinting details of the side dishes? Both have been placed on your table, side by side, to offer that important distinction. Automatic Writing will help you appreciate the side dishes, the dessert, the drinks, everything except the main course. The spotlight should not always be shined on the most reaction-inducing part of a work. When the main section is plugged and muted to near silence you are forced to focus on the everyday rummaging of life and its unbelievably loud characteristics, which would otherwise go unnoticed. Here you listen to sounds that would normally go unnoticed, but today you notice them. Today you give your full attention to the unattended and break the cycle of endless routine.
I remember the first time I heard this record. I was confused and, admittedly, bored... but still intrigued. This album sounded like nothing I had ever heard. "Musique concrète"... what in the world is that?
One of my favorite things about music, and all other art forms, is progressing through the phases and the experiments idly, slowly evolving your taste. You really don't notice it until you look at your previous opinions in contrast to your modern thoughts, but it becomes apparent very quickly. If I was to rate my current favorite records a couple years ago, I'd likely give them near zero scores. Perspective is a funny thing, isn't it?
Robert Ashley's 1979 work "Automatic Writing" has been one of my favorite projects for some time now. It's only my second perfect rating (currently), and I can't see anything joining the roster anytime soon. I've grown very accustomed to its presence over my many listens, and each time it encapsulates me in a warm inescapable globe of positive sensations. As with most of my top albums of all time, it is very important to me.
I'll split this review into two sections...
In Section A:
Background information of the album, Robert Ashley, and my personal connection with the record.
In Section B:
My opinions on the album & why I enjoy it so much.
~Section A (Background information)~
Mr. Ashley has been a general interest of mine for some time, his many projects peaking my attention. Throughout roughly 50 years he regularly composed experimental music, pushing the boundaries of opera and other theatrical works. From the very beginning, Ashley placed himself as a key figure in the performance of his pieces, often through the use of his particularly uncommon voice. Once you have heard his distinct voice once it will become very obvious when he is a part of another artist’s work.
“Automatic Writing” is my favorite of his works. The piece took five years for him to complete and was released in 1979 under the label Lovely Music. The following I will describe should help set apart this work from similar works, as it is truly what makes it so unique.
In the 70s, Robert Ashley had come down with a “mild case of Tourette's syndrome”. One of his symptoms was involuntarily talking, muttering, and repeating during his sleep. When he discovered this, he thought it could be fascinating to make this a part of one of his works.
“It is against the ‘law’ of our society to engage in involuntary speech, that’s why we are embarrassed to talk to ourselves. That’s why Tourette had to leave the room.” -Robert Ashley
He thought, and correctly I may add, that incorporating this involuntary speech into one of his pieces may transcend it into something extremely special and one of a kind.
When you listen to Automatic Writing, you are listening to ...automatic writing. Quite a genius title, isn’t it?
Not much like this has ever been done before, keeping Automatic Writing at a very legendary status.
All of this means a lot to me, as someone who has been diagnosed and suffered from Tourette’s syndrome my entire life. I’ve never before seen art to this degree using the syndrome and it is absolutely beautiful and incredibly meaningful. It shows the more gentle side of the disorder which the media often fails to recognize.
Movies, TV Shows, News, etc, often portray Tourette’s syndrome as a disorder that makes someone constantly swear, scream obscenities, or hurt others in some way. The reality is, this is actually extremely uncommon in cases of Tourette’s.
“The most widely-known symptom of Tourette's syndrome is the verbal tics that result in people blurting out swear words, however, this is actually very rare among sufferers. The involuntary utterance of swear words, or other inappropriate remarks, is actually only experienced by around 1-10% of Tourette's sufferers.”
It is wonderful to see such a beautiful composition utilizing the softer side of this syndrome, and it means a lot to me. I hope the stigmatization of Tourette’s syndrome, one day, comes to an end.
~Section B (Opinions & Review)~
Though it took me some time to appreciate this record, it is now my second favorite album of all time. I love every little detail, every beautiful intricacy, every sound, every feeling. When I listen to this album, I imagine myself sitting outside of an apartment building on a balcony. I’m peering into this dimly lit room, where a man is in the bed with his wife. He’s talking in his sleep, occasionally growing in a negative emotion, but his wife always calms him down. In the background, there is a club blasting music. I’m sure there are many people there, dancing, enjoying themselves, but I find more interest in this apartment. I’d rather watch the life of these two individuals than force myself into a more unnatural environment.
It is very relaxing and gorgeous to me. I’ve seen this album, and other similar works, compared to ASMR before, and I can completely understand why this would be the case.
It is a perfect composition of sounds, leaving just the right amount of room for emptiness, while still feeling full enough to retain your attention. It’s extremely intimate and real, like putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes for an hour. You grow to feel very connected to each characteristic over time. I can’t go very long without listening to at least part of this record, as it truly feels that important to me. It is the type of experience that sticks with you and you never dare forget.
Beyond the connection I have with this album due to Tourette’s Syndrome, there is much more that feels like a part of me. Though the album sounded incredibly alien and strange at first, it evolved with me over time and I’ve grown to view it as something that is completely connected with me. A perfect piece of art that pushes nearly every boundary to create one of the most pleasing soundscapes I’ve ever heard.
I hope you enjoyed reading this review, and if you did I highly recommend listening to this piece. It may be uncomfortable at first, it may be difficult to get into, but trust me, if you are ever able to truly appreciate it, it will be something you never forget.
I’d like to start reviewing more records on AOTY, but unfortunately I’ve been dealing with a lot lately. I hope you all understand. I hope that one day in the future, though, I am able to regularly write about the albums I love again.