Robert Ashley
Remembering Robert Ashley (1930-2014)

Remembering Robert Ashley (1930-2014)

Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley in 1985 during the Chicago performances of Atalanta (Acts of God). (All photos herein courtesy Jacqueline Humbert unless otherwise noted.)

By now most readers will have already heard the sad news of the passing of composer Robert Ashley on Monday, March 3, 2014. There have been numerous obituaries from around the world which have offered extremely eloquent tributes to his enormous contribution to American music and, in particular, to contemporary opera. Since Ashley’s work was by design extremely collaborative, we wanted to honor his memory on NewMusicBox by having his key collaborators—each of whom are important creators in their own right—share their personal stories about working with him over the decades.—FJO

Joan La Barbara
Thomas Buckner
Jacqueline Humbert
Tom Hamilton
“Blue” Gene Tyranny
Sam Ashley
Melody Sumner Carnahan
Dave Ruder
Alvin Lucier


From a performance of Celestial Excursions in Germany, 2004: (left to right) Robert Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley, and Thomas Buckner.

Joan La Barbara

To begin at the beginning, I first worked with Robert Ashley in 1974 at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, a wonderful structure and, as I recall, round.  The Sonic Arts Union had been invited by Festival d’Automne, and David Behrman and Alvin Lucier had each conceived new vocal pieces for me.  David’s was Voice with Melody-Driven Electronics and Alvin’s, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas.  Bob decided to have me play solo viola, which lay in my lap; I dragged the bow over a string very slowly making non-pitched ticks that were fed to a complex electronic gating system which allowed a story Mimi Johnson was telling to be heard by the audience (or not) depending on whether the gates were opened or closed.  I didn’t quite understand how the gating worked but as I listened to Mimi, I realized that she was relating a story about us and was getting to a part that I wasn’t sure I’d like revealed in public, so I managed to get those gates closed.  It was a good time to be in Paris.

I interviewed Bob for the SoHo Weekly News, a publication that was left free on SoHo doorsteps in the ‘70s. (Ah, those were the days…)  I had decided to write preview articles because I was appalled that my fellow composers were being reviewed so badly (if at all) and that perhaps by providing some insight into the work in advance, they’d get a better chance at being understood by critics as well as the audience (especially since some eschewed program notes altogether).  Bob and I spoke about the “internal dialogue” as he called it, the “conversation” that one has with oneself before allowing words to leave the mind and take up their existence in the outside world.  It was a concept that fascinated me, affecting a lot of my work and one piece in particular, Performance Piece, which I subtitled Ashley gave me an idea, dealing with the process of thought involved in real-time composition (sometimes referred to as “improvisation”) and requiring that in performance when I was thinking in “pure” sound, i.e. music, I would reveal that but when I started analyzing, as we often do when composing in real-time, I had to let the words flow out.  It is more difficult than it sounds, involving crashing the barrier between left and right brain activities.

Bob’s clarity of thought in conversation was astounding, delving deeply into process as well as profoundly exposing personal experience.

The operas reflected his view of the world, taking his own stories and blending them with historical fact, fiction, and fantasy to build complex interwoven tales that required several hearings to fathom (if then).  During pre-rehearsal periods, the individual singers would discuss the nature of their characters with Bob, learning only somewhat later how he had constructed each one based on his perception of some aspect of the singer’s own personality and persona layered into the texture.  He gave us each tonal centers onto which we imparted our own take on the story, the message, and how the person we were playing might inflect it, based on background, circumstance, upbringing, status, life history.  And yes, there were the “songs” that we each, as all good singers do, made our own.  But the words, the tonality, the chord structures, the underpinning, the music, were all Bob.  (Though we did grouse a bit from time to time about not being given more direct instruction, we did get direction, correction, and encouragement to go further with each interpretation.)

If I had to pick one opera as a favorite, I guess I’d choose Dust.  It is direct and clear in its political message—that old men wage wars and young men fight them (now young women, too, but the Korean war, which Dust was about, more or less, was fought by young men—except for the nurses, doctors, drivers—but I digress).  It has songs that can be sung and remembered.  It wears its heart on its sleeve, the way Bob often did; it was raw, revelatory, insightful, direct, and confrontational, with a few obscenities thrown in for emphasis.  The characters were larger-than-life in-your-face tell-it-like-it-is, yet with that tinge of sadness, melancholy even, reflecting back as it drove home the truth inside the stories.

The production process was complex.  Bob wrote and rewrote before the drafts were sent to the singers.  The instructions were in the scores but the depth came in individual sessions when we discussed the characters and their pain, their joy, their world views.  Then we each went our separate ways to work on how to let one’s voice reveal the inner truths, the opinions.

We worked several weeks in the recording studio at Mills College, creating the tracks for Improvement, learning to “ghost” each other’s vocal inflections and deliveries, adjusting to each other’s quirks and traits, subsuming one’s own personality into another’s to “get it right.”  These were the work sessions that went into the CD tracks, that became the backing tracks, that were played back through in-ear monitors, that we then improved upon in live performance even as we had to keep matching what we had already done.  Not easy, these tasks.

Layers of complexity: verbal, sonic, vocal; intentionality hidden, lessons imparted.  Bob was continually reshaping the performance, even moments before we walked onstage.  “Do it faster”  or “Lay back, don’t push.”  Process that as you exit the wings.  The “Notes” came before, rarely after each performance.  Not to throw us off balance but to up the ante, sharpen the awareness, rip the rug out so we wouldn’t become too secure or settled in any one interpretation or delivery.

Now Eleanor’s Idea had several versions, especially with the advice letters, as Now Eleanor (the name of the principal character) gradually receives the information, the “word”, the language, the passion.  It goes beyond speaking in tongues to absorbing and processing the culture of The Other.  Lessons learned, lives perfected, infinite repetitions until … now, no more.

Music with Roots in the Aether, the set of videos Bob conceived and directed on a select group of composers whose work he felt needed more explication, is a set of gems that have yet to be fully studied and appreciated.  Each places the composer’s interview in a setting designed to reveal a central aspect of that person’s being. (He let the music speak for itself.)

How does one discuss years of knowing even over great distances?  Years of exploring another composer’s process and ideas and way and means of notating or disseminating information will take years of reflection and more than a few words.

How do I process his loss?  I am still coming to grips with it, looking back over the years and reflecting on lessons learned, stories told, funny experiences, as well as more than a bit of sorrow that there was not more time to do the work and do it even better the next time.  There is a new generation of singers taking up the older works with their own interpretations, and taking up the new work, which we will experience soon at The Whitney and elsewhere.

Good-bye, Bob.  You will be missed more than you could have known.

Ashley in Lithuania

Mimi Johnson, Robert Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, and Joan La Barbara in Vilnius, Lithuania in November 2004 for performances of Celestial Excursions.

Thomas Buckner

It is difficult to write about his work, so soon after the death of my dear friend and colleague, Robert Ashley. He was not only a wonderful composer and writer, but also a deeply compassionate man and a dear friend. I will take refuge in some history, and see where that leads.

In 1982, the Arch Ensemble for Experimental Music, based in Berkeley, California, which I founded and co-directed with composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, received a consortium grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and got to choose a composer to commission. We chose Robert Ashley, whose work we had become familiar with partly due to the fact that he was director of Mills College’s Center for Contemporary Music (the world’s first public access electronic music studio, as far as we know). Robert Hughes said at the time, and I agreed, that Robert Ashley had “the most original mind in contemporary music.”

Little did I know at the time that that decision would lead to my spending the next thirty years working with Robert Ashley, during which time I had ample evidence of his originality as well as his unique understanding of the nature of speech as music. Bob had heard me perform in California, and so, instead of a piece of occasional music, he set the “Odalisque” arias, from his then current opera Atalanta (Acts of God), for baritone and chamber orchestra. He chose to write out the speech rhythms in musical notation since we would not be rehearsing the piece together. It was very complicated, a real challenge. I know from this experience how much more efficient and natural Bob’s alternative notation is for his work. I had just returned to my hometown of New York City after 20 years in California, so I didn’t yet have much work and had a lot of time. My roommate in New York was the great hand drummer Big Black, best known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie and Randy Weston. Black learned the rhythm of my part by ear, as he did not read music, and we performed it over and over until it was locked in. I went to Bob’s apartment, just across Canal Street from where I was living, and sang the part for Bob. Unbeknownst to me, this was the beginning of an audition. Bob came out to the performance in San Francisco, and afterwards asked me to sing in the next performance of Atalanta, which was to be in Rome in a couple of months. When he found out that I could sing in Italian, he had the Odalisque arias translated into Italian for the Rome performances, the first of which became the recording of the opera. It was a baptism by fire, singing with the great “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Bob’s tape part, made with the Golbranson Palice organ that he had also used in Perfect Lives.

Speaking Italian is much closer to singing than speaking English, so the “Odalisque” arias are fully sung in a recitative style, “spontaneous musical invention based on the natural declamation of the text,” as Bob called it. It was a perfect fit for me, as was the next piece Bob composed for me, My Brother Called, which combined composed melismatic singing on the syllable “oo” with spontaneously invented speech song based of the declamation of the text. We met several days a week to develop the style of that piece, which eventually became part of his opera eL/Aficionado. Whenever I perform a work of Bob’s, people always say he writes for my voice better than anyone else. He knew his singers’ strengths and weaknesses better than we do ourselves.

In all the many pieces he has composed over the years, Bob has never repeated himself, either musically or in his extraordinary texts. Yet his music always sounds like him. I know of no higher praise.


Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert (seated), Robert Ashley, and Sam Ashley in eL/Aficionado, Geneva 1994.

Jacqueline Humbert

It is difficult to express how significant an impact, how great an influence one life can have on another. I will make an attempt though it will be incomplete and inadequate.

I had known of Robert Ashley’s innovative music for years before beginning to work with him in 1980, first as a designer and subsequently as a performer. I admired his great intelligence and astonishing imagination. He was astoundingly prolific as well. Over the years he became a north star for me; an inspiration, a creative genius, and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

It was both an honor and a pleasure to have worked with Robert for so many years. Through his many operas the ensemble toured internationally, were recorded and broadcast widely, and given the chance to perform the vivid characters Robert created, so varied from opera to opera. Robert was incredibly generous in providing the many opportunities to all who worked with him for so many years and we are all so very grateful and humbled by the experience.

Robert had it all; grace, charm, wit, and a voice like velvet or smoke, depending on the character. He is already sorely missed. The world has lost one of the truly great ones.

RobertAshley and JacquelineHumbert

Jacqueline Humbert and Robert Ashley at a recording studio in the mid 1990s.

Tom Hamilton

Originally, Bob knew me as a composer who was fairly new to New York. One evening in 1990 he saw me at a concert and said, “Tom—what do you know about this Macintosh MIDI stuff?” I told him that I made my living as a freelance recording engineer. He said “Really, I didn’t know that” and took my card. The next day he followed up and invited me to his studio. (I thought I was there to fix a piece of equipment.) What he wanted was someone to work with him every day and finish the CD version of his new opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) for Nonesuch Records. The studio was pretty bare bones at that point and so we built it up to be able to create the electronic orchestra and do a multi-track mix. I had come from a traditional studio background—large tape machines and bulky gear in general. I discovered that Bob had that same background, though dating from even earlier origins. And like Bob, I also came from an electronic music background, working with the earliest analog synthesizers, developing an oblique approach to composing, and running a studio at a university. This was all very familiar territory.

Later in 1990, Bob got some gigs in Honolulu and Portland for a small grouping of his ensemble. He asked me to be part of the tour, which enlarged my role from just working in the studio to doing the mixes and audio processing on the live performances as well. The style for me was much less pre-planned than in the studio recordings, and Bob encouraged me to develop the mixes as improvisational performances. It felt like I was creating a fictitious sound world for the singers to live in.

In an important way, that first year that I worked with Bob set the tone for what became a quarter-century music lesson. Bob was very generous in sharing his knowledge and insights, and in the studio, when he’d say “let’s take a break,” it could mean a 10 minute concept discussion on something we might have heard the night before. Or I would ask him about something bothering me on one of my own pieces, and he would come up with just the right aphorism. “If you have a system—stick to it!” was something that he practiced daily. His cautionary “don’t make the ship too big to fly” saved more than one session from ending up in a cul-de-sac.

Much has been written about the colorful and insightful texts in Bob’s operas. In 2001 Bob did a reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley in conjunction with a performance at Mills College. The person introducing him said that, “Ashley’s writing makes experts out of all of us.” There was always that quality in the air; he would write or say something and a beat later we would think, “Oh yeah.” Except that Bob thought of it first. It’s part of what made the experience of the tours so unique. That feeling that it was beyond just doing the work; it was stretching the brain into a new form.

The texts in Bob’s operas have kept his fans enthralled for decades. A prominent characteristic was a story being told in a style that created an ambiguity between pitch and narration. “Is it singing or is it speaking?” the critics would fret. Bob always called it singing. I never heard him describe it any other way. It forced a different idea of what music could be. Listening to any of the stories in Dust as performed by Bob, Sam Ashley, Tom Buckner, Jacquie Humbert, and Joan La Barbara, you can hear that dichotomy played out with much variety, depending on mood, style, and the individual character that was developed. Last year Bob recorded a long solo part to a forthcoming opera called Quicksand. There was always a reference pitch in his headphones. And how those vocal resonances and references would play out was still an unknown, as the orchestras hadn’t been developed beforehand.

Less has been said about the electronic musical structures in Bob’s work that I helped make in all of the operas since 1990. For each piece, we would work at least a year just on the electronic orchestras (and he always called them “orchestras” and organized them that way). He was very eager to learn more about MIDI and the operation of sequencing software. Even at a time when the popularity of the MIDI protocol started to fade he would always say that for him “it was a dream come true.” He typically would spend a morning transferring his notations, calculations, and separations from paper to workstation. I would arrive in the afternoon and one or both of us could start out by trying out instruments, adding layers, and coaxing the synthesizers into fulfilling one or another possibility of a particular sonic element. The resulting orchestras would provide the sonic framework or context for the singers.

Very often the resulting accompaniments would start accumulating complexity. Bob loved to hear multiple rhythmic delays swinging the notes around in the background, and some of these same processes would eventually be used with the singers as well. But we would usually create a separate track just for the singers consisting of basic chords, click track, and other helpful cues, as a way for them to navigate through the sonic traffic. By doing this, we could get as fancy as we needed with the accompaniment while making sure that we weren’t creating unnecessary performance confusion. In the rehearsals, the singers would be free to develop their characters unencumbered by the distracting accompaniment elements that we loved hearing in the final mix.

After working for one or two years on these pieces, we would start doing performances, often somewhere in Europe, where I would perform the sound mixing and processing, having then been part of the process from the first session to the final performance. And there was compensation in having an extended family that reached beyond the work itself; a group that could make something that sounded good, then fight about restaurant choices, take a day off together, and just stay in touch. And Bob always treated me at face value: I was a composer and a sound designer. Both things at once.

Every now and then, Bob would tell me that he had nominated me for some award, which I would then shrug off as a hopeless and quixotic mission. He would just lecture me, “You probably won’t get it, but you’ve got to go for it.” Only once did it work and it was enough for me to go to a festival and present a piece for a week.

I’m working right now with a group of 6 wonderful young singers, developing Bob’s last opera CRASH for the Whitney Biennial. They are the newest group of talented people to love Bob’s music and to work on it so diligently. CRASH is Bob’s most autobiographical piece. There are references to many of the pieces I’ve worked on in the past, and to stories from an earlier time that I’ve only heard in the retelling. As usual, Bob figured out a way to make music out of the words themselves. It’s a wonderful way for me to stay in the present.

Ashley Dinner in Europe 1999

A break during the 1999 European tour of Dust; (left to right) Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Tom Hamilton, Jacqueline Humbert, and Robert Ashley.

“Blue” Gene Tyranny

I first met Robert Ashley in 1962 when I was 17 and he was 32. I had just left home in Texas with all my belongings in a paper bag and headed for Ann Arbor where a friend said a wonderful new music scene was happening like the one Phillip Krumm and I started in San Antonio. I had heard a few early electronic works by Robert (e.g. The Fourth of July) before I came.

When I got to Michigan on the bus I was given a place to stay with Gordon and Jackie Mumma and Mary Ashley helped me find work at the Institute for Social Research.  And Robert said, “Bob Sheff has arrived in town, so let’s do a concert.” That’s the way I began working with him for the next more than 50 years, starting with the ONCE Festival and the whole lifestyle. (ONCE was more than just a concert once a year.)

Robert was an accomplished pianist having been misled by his friends into being recruited into the Army band in Texas. He taught me the secret of bebop. Robert was my friend and also acted as a mentor—he being 15 years older than me—in a big brother style, which I greatly appreciated. He always encouraged the people he knew as well as his students to develop whatever fascinated them, but like the best teachers never imposed a style or a “correct solution” and this has been appreciated by the many people he encouraged. In a similar way, inspired by Bob, contributors put together the ONCE festival, the ONCE group, and the Sonic and Arts Union. In Ann Arbor, he and Gordon Mumma created the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music which later led to the establishment of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, California, a non-profit public-access facility where synthesizers, a recording studio, a film editing studio, and a new music library plus one or more free concerts every week could be accessed by anyone.

All of Robert’s compositions show his admirable intelligence, gentle humor, and love of humanity. One of the earliest graphic and electronic pieces, She Was a Visitor for chorus with audience participation, is about how the actual sound the phonemes making up a word add an extra layer of meaning; this is how rumor is spread. (“It sounds like she’s arriving by trains, boats, and planes.”) His opera Perfect Lives is about the subtle realities of a small American town, a fascination which he and I shared in our different pieces. Robert Ashley made the first change in the structure and content of opera in the last 300 years.

All the personalities mentioned in Robert’s operas are appreciations of real people. His earlier graph pieces have personages like Kit Carson and Sitting Bull. There are references in his later operas to Giordano Bruno and Peanut, who now sits in the traffic island with the other disenfranchised people of Dust, remembering their lives. Some works are partially or wholly autobiographical and all persons are presented in a very touching and moving way. In his compositions, Robert often showed his compassion for abused and marginalized persons. For example, in Van Cao’s Meditation, he showed the Vietnamese composer still working on his pieces in isolation even though Van Cao was ostracized politically in his country. Bruno, who figures in Perfect Lives and Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), was burned at the stake for his discoveries and religious beliefs.

Like the most original composers (for example John Cage), each piece of Robert’s will teach you something you didn’t know before, and while the structure will be exact, each performance will come out completely different every time you perform it. “Confusion just means you are learning something,” he said. There was a mass excitement at the end of a performance of Combination Wedding and Funeral at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City in the ‘60s.

Many of Bob’s instructions to me about various pieces required me to realize a concept, for example in Dust he said to me, “No patterns. No melody. No harmonies. Just make sounds that are somehow your impression of playing the piano and trying to interest a girl dancer (Joan Jonas) who shares the stage with you.” In order to do that I had to go back in my mind to before I studied the piano and forget everything.

Robert prepared his friends for his passing, again with humor. He remarked toward the end, “Well, no more solitude.” There are many subtle conceptual works that are probably just being understood now, for instance the Illusion Models and the String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies, which like The Wolfman deals with the transformation of people in a world with random or Brownian Motion where that randomness is seen as a natural part of life rather than an abstraction. Conceptual art is not the same as abstract art.

Dinner in Paris

Dinner in Paris following a performance of Dust in July 2001. Left to right: Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Cas Boumans, David Moodey, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, and Robert Ashley.

Sam Ashley

I feel honored that I was able to work with Bob for so many years. It would be hard to say just how much I learned from him. It’s more like everything I know about music has been influenced by Bob and his work. He was a wonderful composer and to be sure a very dear friend.

Here’s something interesting: Bob based even his choices about his death on an idea of 14 year cycles. Why this simple fact is so wonderfully amazing is that it shows what music should really be about: living your ideas; practicing what you preach. Where the idea of 14 year cycles might have come from is not important here; in fact even the specific idea itself is not the point. What’s so wonderfully impressive is just that he would not hesitate to make the most fundamental choices according to his musical ideas. Outstanding.

About sadness…

Yes, Bob died.

I have gotten really many personal messages from people expressing their sadness. They say “I feel so horrible…” then they add “…and I know you are feeling horrible too.”

But allow me to introduce something radical: don’t do the sadness part. Yes I know what’s intended: the sadness when somebody we love dies says he/she meant a lot. That’s wonderful. But the radical thing is to separate that appreciation, admiration, love from the sadness, keeping the loving admiration and respect, but dispensing with the heavy sadness.

Now, I know that sounds real strange to a lot of people. I have tried to express this several times over the years when friends I loved have died, and it has never really been easy to convey. So I understand. But I have to keep saying it. I mean, to care, to know that it matters, yes! That’s all good stuff.

There’s some background to this. Please don’t read this the wrong way, and I don’t know how to say it without running the risk of seeming pretentious, but: I have been a mystic for more than 45 years. An actual “shaman.” That’s not a word I toss around because it’s cool. I’m sure I’ve spent at least one third of my actual lifetime in trance. Being a mystic for real just means one thing ultimately: trance, lots of trance (“meditation”, whatever). Like hours/day every day. Everything that could be considered real “shamanism” flows from that. Because of this I have come to be (sorry if this sounds pretentious, hopefully it doesn’t) more comfortable with my own mortality. More than I would have been without the mysticism let’s say. So honestly, when someone I love dies, and I know that they were aware of what they were doing, it’s not something to be screwed up about. If you want to meet somebody in the spirit world… then be careful with the heavy emotions. They overwhelm the subtle stuff.

Now, some of you may know that I was in New York just recently visiting Bob and Mimi. I can tell you that it was my opinion that Bob could put his will behind healing and hang around for a few more years. Just for fun. And by the way Bob had such a strong intuition that he could have been a mystic if he had wanted to be. He was one in some ways. I mean he wasn’t in the full time sense, but he had a natural talent for it that was absolutely top notch. But the point here, of this letter, is: he decided that he didn’t want to try to heal. And I do mean this. He decided. He felt intuitively that he couldn’t recover. (He specifically told me that.) So although I disagreed, I can see it like, say he had decided to move to another city. I might think it’s a dumb move and tell him so, but to imagine that I’m entitled to say “No you can’t do that. I won’t allow it.” That would be sort of absurd. Ultimately it’s his choice. No big deal. Bob died like that. And incidentally he says so in his last piece CRASH (a beautiful piece, too).

So, look, I love you all for caring and I really do mean that. Thanks. But honestly, don’t worry. Keep it light. Trust in what I say here, and maybe even look into finding those things for yourself, too. Sadness is not doing anybody any good. And I know for a fact that Bob had pretty much the same attitude; he didn’t want anybody to be all consumed with sadness. That’s why he didn’t receive visitors for the most part in the last month or so.


Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, Robert Ashley, and Jacqueline Humbert during the Japanese tour of Dust in 1998.

Melody Sumner Carnahan

Nothing I had ever read or heard affected me like hearing Robert Ashley’s recording of “The Backyard” through a clock radio in a studio apartment in Palo Alto in 1978. After listening over and over to “the yellow record” I realized that free will was possible. I knew what I wanted to do. I followed that voice to Mills College where Bob agreed to be part of my 3-headed MFA committee (creative writing, book arts, and media arts). During the following decades, he lent his voice to many of my stories, which has resulted in audioworks and CDs.

As founder and editor of Burning Books, I worked closely with Bob to publish four complete librettos as books, beginning with his opera Improvement, and including Perfect Lives, Atalanta, and Quicksand. Working on books with Bob was such an education because of his precision with language and his completely original perspective on just about everything. The photo below was taken in 1984 when I was interviewing him for The Guests Go In To Supper.

Melody Carnhan with Robert Ashley

Melody Sumner Carnahan with Robert Ashley, courtesy Melody Sumner Carnahan.

Bob was always a big supporter of my writing. He read and commented on everything I sent him. I read everything of his I could get my hands on. He wrote real letters. I conducted many interviews with him, in bars, in his studio, at my various residences in Oakland and New Mexico. During some of the lean years in New Mexico, Bob and Mimi kept Burning Books busy working on projects like Bob’s low rider opera, Now Eleanor’s Idea. He always surpassed himself. Never repeated anything. His thriller-ish novel, Quicksand (2011), was written to be produced verbatim as an opera libretto. Concrete is a monumental work in an entirely new form.

Bob began a memoir in recent years, which he later expanded for CRASH, which Burning Books will publish along with Concrete. Bob left us many masterpieces and much to do.


Robert Ashley with the next generation of performers who have embraced his music: Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, and Gelsey Bell from the 2011 Varispeed production of Perfect Lives. Photo by Leonor Torres, courtesy Dave Ruder.

Dave Ruder

Recently a good friend, a singer by training and by vocation, commented that in my bio these days “vocalist” is the first of multiple descriptors I give myself. She was surprised. I thought it over. I’ve never been supremely confident in myself as a clarinetist, don’t seem that special compared to the million other guitarists around, haven’t been composing much per se in the last few years, have barely touched electronics of late. And yet, I find myself very busy musically. What is it that I do then, and when did it all start revolving around my voice? It all goes back to Robert Ashley.

Ashley’s biography gives hope to searching eclectics. It took him years to take his piano playing seriously, but he let it go a few years after finally feeling up to snuff. In his 30s, he made a name for himself with his style of open composition, dealing primarily with group dynamics, but gave up composing before the decade was out. In academia, he earned a doctorate but never claimed it and helped build a renowned music program at Mills, but it wasn’t where his heart was. And then, in his 40s, starting from the ground up, he used what materials he had at hand, most of all his own voice, redolent of Michigan with hints of the South and mixed in California and New York, and he made an astonishing body of work.

That was his journey. Mine is a very different one, but thus far it’s also brought me to my voice. There were years of warming up to this idea, in which I told and retold myself the melodious jokes of Perfect Lives like a middle schooler fawning over a PG-13 comedy. There were early attempts at performing the piece in public by reading it, which grew into the interpretations by Varispeed, through which we came to know Bob. Getting to hear his voice in conversation gave me new insight into the ways he heightened his speech into something more musical. The way he explained it to the cast of That Morning Thing, struggling to find the right way to pose short, simple questions in rehearsal, was that you had to “make it a little song”. At first, it was difficult to highlight what he was doing that differed from his everyday cadence, but gradually, with little other instruction, the switch flipped and we were all going crazy with our newfound powers of musical speech.

One of the greatest things that can be said for Bob’s band-leading is that he recognized that his iconic voice was best left to himself and he always allowed performers to find and develop their own voice. A piece like Concrete is a beautiful example of singers telling stories that at once convey Bob and the singer with complete clarity. In putting together Bob’s final piece, CRASH, the six vocalists have been asked to articulate three primary voices of narration, each vocalist inhabiting one of these voices at some point in the opera. While we’ve worked to fully explore the implications of each voice and have incorporated styles and techniques from one another with Bob’s blessing, we are ultimately playing the parts in our own ways.

The influence of the music of Robert Ashley is so thoroughly assimilated into my core that it’s never far away. In the too short time I got to know, he helped me find what was unique about myself. His vote of confidence in my work inspires me to work harder, be more open and more honest. His work remains a familiar mystery, to be puzzled over for decades to come, and through my investigations I’m amazed to come back home to my own voice. Thanks Bob.

Ashley European Tour 1999

Robert Ashley (far right) and his entourage during their 1999 European tour.

Alvin Lucier

I remember one night in L’Aquila, a beautiful city in the Abruzzi Mountains of Italy, the Sonic Arts Union—Bob, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and myself—were sleeping in a dormitory room arranged for us by our sponsor. Throughout the night we could hear Bob reciting something in his sleep. He may have been rehearsing one of his vocal pieces or practicing ranting, a form of utterance he picked up and admired from those deranged people roaming the streets of New York. Anyway, it was entertaining and didn’t bother us at all. It was simply a part of touring with Bob.

For a few years in the early ’70s Bob Ashley wore a leather jacket.  Every time he moved there was a crackling sound. He was a walking sound piece.  If you closed your eyes and he walked into the room, you would know it was him.  We were talking once about the future of music and he said he thought it was going to consist of pops and clicks.

Sometime around 1970 or so, the Sonic Arts Union was performing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  After the concert Bob and I went out for a drink. Since Yellow Springs was dry, we had to drive to Xenia (coincidentally the name of John Cage’s first wife), Ohio. We drove through cornfields.  You know how straight those roads are. Pretty soon we came upon a roadhouse. We went in and the first thing we saw was a huge electric organ. It was just sitting there idle. I think it was a Wurlitzer. There was a row of men and women sitting up at the bar talking to each other very seriously.  It seemed to me that none of the couples was married because they were having such interesting conversations. They were having fun, smoking and drinking.  We sat down and Bob started talking about Jimmy Smith, the jazz organist, and the legendary pianist Bud Powell. After a while we went into Xenia to get something to eat. When we stopped at the same roadhouse on the way back, the scene was exactly the same. Here were these Perfect Lives going on and on. It felt timeless.

Robert Ashley in Japan

Robert Ashley in Japan for the seven city tour of Improvement in 1994.

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5 thoughts on “Remembering Robert Ashley (1930-2014)

  1. Pingback: further rememberances | you coo coo you coo coo too

  2. Frank J. Oteri

    I received this wonderful memorial over the weekend from Fast Forward so I am adding it here….

    Fast Forward

    Such incredible memories, related by incredible artists for an incredible man.

    Bob was my teacher, collaborator and friend of 38 years. We met in 1976 at the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College in Oakland California. In fact, I came to the USA from the UK specifically to study with Bob and David Behrman who were sharing the directorship at CCM at that time. It would be silly to say that Bob taught me everything I know, but as a teacher, he did open my mind and somehow, that guided me along the path to where I am now. Although we had many discussions about music at that time, Bob almost always related everything to ‘life’, in as much to say that everything is inseparable. I have governed my life by this approach ever since. As an artist, it becomes more and more apparent that separating your artistic discipline from other daily activities is close to impossible. Everything is interwoven like a carefully constructed carpet. Each time you glance at it, you see something different, yet it is still part of the same rug. In Bob’s case, it was a flying carpet. Often what he said would fly right over my head, other times it would be so deceptively fundamental that I would stop and ponder it until it opened up new pathways. He once told me, “Keep on doing what you are doing and someday someone will pay you to do it.” He was right and they did. It was the type of advice that gave a young artist hope.

    A couple of years ago, Bob asked me to direct and perform in his iconic opera That Morning Thing at The Kitchen in New York. Those performances would be the first performances of the work in 44 years since the initial performances in Oakland, Ann Arbor and Tokyo in 1967. Act II of this opera, “A Cool Well Lighted Room” includes the controversial work “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” and is by no means ‘easy listening’. During rehearsals for the Act at Bob’s home, he, myself and Kimberley Bartosik (who played the part of the dancer) were discussing the libretto, which I had always understood as beginning with the phrase: ‘I remember he tried to put his gun in my mouth.’ Bob said “It’s gum, not gun – I remember he tried to put his GUM in my mouth”. We were both floored.

    Cast for revival of That Morning Thing
    The entire cast and crew from That Morning Thing at the Kitchen NYC 2011. Left to right: Rear: David Moodey, Sime Viduka, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Megan Schubert, Gelsey Bell, Dave Ruder, John Hagan, Brian McCorkle, Aaron Siegel, Imani Uzuri, Kimberly Bartosik, Kimberly Young, Tom Hamilton, Betsy Ayer and Fast Forward. Front: Samantha McHale, Amirtha Kidambi, Mimi Johnson, Robert Ashley, Samita Sinha, Aliza Simons, Madeline Wilcox and Paul Pinto. Photo by Nikolai Antonie.

    In my mind, Bob was a ‘take no prisoner’ kind of an artist. He said what he felt and believed, regardless of whether the receiver was insulted, pleased, or indifferent about it. This meant you could trust what he said at any moment. He has never been one to beat around the bush. He is more likely to take a chainsaw to the base of the trunk, or stand by and expound about its beauty. It can’t be underestimated how valuable a human trait this. I’m not expecting to meet another Bob in my life, which just makes our friendship all the more special.

  3. Allan J. Cronin

    I fell in love with Ashley’s Private Parts record some time in the early 1980s. I didn’t understand his work at the time but, like all great art it compelled me to pay attention. I sought and listened to his other works over the years and found that his art became a part of me. I was saddened to hear of his passing but I am forever enriched by his art.

  4. Aliza Simons

    These reflections are illuminating and poignant. Never heard that story about the leather jacket before. What a good one. Thank you all for sharing, thanks NewMusicBox for publishing.

  5. Paul A. Epstein

    In 1965, The New Orleans Group (Richard Schechner, Franklin Adams, and I) put on a mini-festival of electronic music and intermedia at Tulane University. We presented some of our own work and invited several other groups, including Bob Ashley and Gordon Mumma, who flew in from Ann Arbor. They did a concert of small electronic pieces, including Four Ways and one that involved a manually operated turntable (decades before the dj thing.) Bob did Wolfman and a theatrical work, Orange Dessert, that was mesmerizing. It was my first encounter with Ashley the composer, magician, and raconteur. He was one of a kind and will be sorely missed.

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