The first time I heard Robert Ashley’s name, I was walking out of a music theory seminar. A slightly irritating student was asking my professor if he could do his final presentation and paper on Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives. The professor seemed apprehensive. Looking back, it might have been because there had been scant scholarship on Ashley at the time. (I also like to think it was because Perfect Lives is bigger and better than the stuff of a term paper.) The tone of their voices and the tension in the room intrigued me, however, and I hurried home to begin my Robert Ashley obsession.
Recalling that event this week, in the wake of Ashley’s death at age 83, makes me consider not only how glad I am that I didn’t have to listen to that guy’s presentation, but how much has changed since 2009 in terms of Ashley’s reputation. Two books about him came out last year, but, more importantly, his music is reaching live audiences with a greater frequency than ever before. Since 2011 — and this is just in New York City — there have been numerous stagings of his operas (including three very different versions of Perfect Lives), a festival of his chamber music and a variety of other one-off performances, most of which Ashley was able to be involved in personally.
It’s unfortunate that this sort of patronage did not follow him throughout his career, but unsurprising. In a 2011 Time Out interview, Ashley offered his astute take: “”There’s a sort of time lag that’s constant…You get an idea, and then 30 or 40 years later that idea suddenly becomes more important and moves forward.” To me, Ashley’s timeframe seems relatively generous; 4’33″ was premiered in 1952, but during the celebration of the centennial of John Cage’s birth in 2012, some of his pieces were getting only their second or third performances. If the public at large still thinks Cage’s music is “new” (as the people I saw walk out of his Songbooks in Carnegie Hall must), then it seems a miracle that Ashley’s music has gotten this amount of attention this soon.
The composer made his first strides during the ’60s as a cofounder of the ONCE Festival, the brainchild of a cohort of like-minded experimental composers and performers based out of Ann Arbor. Here, Ashley presented his first “opera” works and performance pieces, which usually involved little to no traditional singing, and abstract or non-existent plots. The most notable of his works from this period was the vignette-based That Morning Thing, which contains the well-known component pieces Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon, for female voice and electronics, and She Was a Visitor, a work for speaker and chorus (in the live setting, the audience participates according to instructions in the program) which explores its four titular words ad infinitum, until they become a jumble of independent sounds. It’s amazing to look back at This Morning Thing, which was revived at The Kitchen three years ago, and note how much of his mature voice Ashley had found at this early stage. This is without even mentioning many other important smaller works he wrote during this time (see The Wolfman).
Like many “collective” enterprises of that decade, the ONCE clan eventually disbanded and Ashley began to work more and more frequently alone, making recordings of himself speaking constantly for as long as possible. Some of the results of these experiments would become text in a six-part series of half-hour videos that featured Ashley wearing oversize shades, a silk scarf and lots of face glitter, a strange, blank-faced suburban couple dressed as spacemen, subtitles (unrelated to the text being spoken), floating geometric shapes, disembodied and jewel-adorned fingers playing a grand piano and lots of tracking shots of cornfields. This was Perfect Lives, which is — despite how all that might read — probably the most groundbreaking opera of the second half of the 20th Century.
For many listeners, including myself, an early recording of the first and last episodes of Perfect Lives provided a good entry point into Ashley’s catalog: Lovely Music’s 1977 LP Private Parts: The Album. The ensemble consists of a tabla player, Ashley’s preferred keyboardist Blue “Gene” Tyranny and Ashley as sole vocalist. On Side A, “The Park,” Ashley’s subject is sitting on the edge of a hotel bed, pouring either water or vodka (Ashley usually had a glass of each on stage when he performed) into a “fluted glass sans ice” and going through the ritual of listening to a phone’s dial tone and then hanging up. The text is at turns philosophical, anecdotal, mundane and flippantly humorous, rendered by Ashley in a near-whisper. It’s a character study without a character; even when Ashley shifts to speaking from first person to third, it’s unclear how many consciousness-es he’s speaking for: “This is a record/ I am sitting on a bench next to myself/ Inside of me the words form/ Come down out of the tree and fight like a man/ Two G’s and eggs/ This is not a record/ This is a story/ I want to say something about myself/ I am not sitting on a bench next to myself, whatever that means.” In the final video version of Perfect Lives, the “record” lines are not omitted, leading one to believe that the text refers to the more metaphorical act of “record[ing]” a moment mentally, rather than the production of a physical record. But that reading is still highly speculative, and also who is in the tree? And what are “G’s and eggs”? It’s always struck me that there are standalone moments like this one throughout Ashley’s catalog which seem to embody its entire spirit, like fractals.
Ashley’s operas became increasingly complex, both musically and conceptually, following Perfect Lives. Atalanta (Acts of God), one of Ashley’s most ambitious works, features everything from long passages of ghostly Italian recitative, collages of baby noises and stray phonemes, to Ashley calmly discussing tomato soup. The post-Atalanta operas feature increasingly linear stories which permit the audience to glean more definite impressions of characters, though none of them stick around for long. Later works such as Dust and Celestial Excursions surprise in their emotional intensity; they are full of moving and occasionally harrowing stories about characters who are relegated to the fringes of society, either as a result of traumatizing experiences or declining health.
I was lucky enough to see one of Ashley’s final operas Concrete (or The Old Man Lives in Concrete), in 2012. The experience was simultaneously intimate and oddly disassociative. Like many of Beckett’s characters, the speakers in the opera just sit in place and recite; the only choreography is the lighting. Their intoned, lyrical Sprechstimme, or spoken singing, fills the room and mixes in with the prerecorded “orchestra,” which envelopes the audience with glacial electronic ambience. Ashley described the specific digital sounds each character’s presence triggers as their “sound costume,” which he meant to be different from the mere “accompaniment” a traditional opera pit orchestra provides. Even in the last five years of his life, Ashley was still searching for ways to reinvigorate the art form he had already advanced far beyond anyone else in the past near-century.
Because few complete scores exist for Ashley’s pieces, and many of them can hardly be considered to have a fixed form, the problem of how we continue to perform and preserve Robert Ashley’s music after his passing remains a considerable one. Ashley’s own performances on record and video sometimes seem like the final and only version of the works, as if they could not exist without his instruction and voice. However, he regarded his works as open-form texts meant to be attempted in various ways by different people, though he rarely offered solid advice about how to best do this without him around. So what will happen to Robert Ashley’s music without Robert Ashley? It will take artists creatively interpreting what source material we have left to evoke a bit of the Ashley-esque without poorly imitating it by rote. To get anywhere near that without the man himself will take a great deal of work, but in the service of preserving one of the most indispensable catalogs in American art music, it’s more than worth the headache.