A founding father of new music (with a sense of humor, too)

Robert Ashley and new music

5 minute read
He challenged the corporate symphonic establishment.
He challenged the corporate symphonic establishment.

Robert Ashley, one of the most underappreciated and misunderstood musical artists of our time, died on March 3 in New York at the age of 83. In his wake he left a handful of musical artists who helped to transform American music in the mid-20th century.

Bob Ashley’s reputation fell within the narrow confines of what has been called “New Music,” a term as misunderstood as his work. Ashley was part of a generation of musical artists, greatly influenced by John Cage, who challenged the supremacy of the corporate symphonic establishment by creating singular works performed with other selected musical artists. Bob also created works for variable ensembles — those with the vision, and guts, to engage him. But for those music lovers with truly open ears, the musical form known as opera will define his legacy.

Of course, Ashley’s unique operas baffle most operagoers. “Where’s the melody?” they usually ask, bewildered by the loss of traditional characters who prance around stages filled with archaic ornaments. In fact the melody is always there, wrapped around the natural flow of the narrative voice. All you have to do is listen carefully, and the magic of melodic invention reveals itself.

From TV to stage

The complex compositional methods Ashley developed for his operas yield a rich narrative flow that was elegantly “sung” by Bob and his collaborators, using a form of Americanized Sprechstimme— the “sing-speech” created by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples in early 20th-century Vienna. Ashley’s operas were initially created for TV, a medium that he felt was best suited to present and view these beautifully wrought stories of American lives lived, as he once said, “on the land, not in it.” But due to the expense and difficulty of placing them on TV, Bob reconfigured them for the stage, where they became performance pieces set within highly mediated staged contexts.

Thus Ashley became a model for many performance artists in the mid and late 20th centuries. “If it weren’t for Bob Ashley,” Laurie Anderson once said, “none of us would be here.” And if it weren’t for Bob Ashley, I would not have the feeling of accomplishment that has sustained me since I left Philadelphia.

When I first organized Relâche and the Relâche Ensemble in 1977, I vowed to bring Ashley and other composers he is identified with — Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, to name just a few — into the Relâche fold to perform their music as soloists or with other collaborators.

A dark stairway

In the early 1990s Relâche had an office on Market Street between Second and Front Streets. From the second floor of a building with a large picture window to gaze upon the street action, the Relâche staff worked to realize our mission: to perform and present innovative music with a clearly stated point of view. Central to that mission was a commissioning program to create works specifically for the Relâche Ensemble. Ashley was one of the composers we commissioned. I invited him down to meet the group so he could better envision how we interacted with one another and with other composers.

You entered the office via a wooden stairway illuminated by a single lightbulb hanging from a cord overhead. When Bob and his wife, Mimi Johnson, arrived, they knocked on the door. When I answered, Bob whispered out of the side of his mouth, “We’re here to fix a problem that seems a bit out of our control. Can you help us?” Startled, I answered, “I thought you were coming for lunch and a session with the ensemble.”

“No,” he replied, “we’re here because we’re in trouble.” He and Mimi then broke up laughing. “Coming in here is like entering a set for a noir film,” he explained. “Man, that staircase is a classic. And the lightbulb hanging down? A perfect touch!”

For the remaining time that Relâche occupied that office, it was impossible not to think of Ashley whenever I climbed those darkened stairs with the lightbulb hanging overhead.

Dancing cars

In 1993 Ashley finally got an opportunity to present the complete version of Now Eleanor’s Idea, which actually consisted of four separate operas. I had been visiting New Mexico (where I now live) for many years, so I planned a visit there to coincide with Ashley’s residence at the College of Santa Fe and the two complete performances of Now Eleanor’s Idea. Since Now Eleanor’s Idea explores the history of Hispanics in the southwestern United States, Ashley had envisioned placing two Low Rider autos onstage in the final act of the opera. Low Rider culture is popular among Hispanic men and women in the southwest, often characterized by custom cars adorned with finely detailed painting that depict aspects of Hispanic-American culture. These cars are equipped with hydraulic systems and struts that allow them to be controlled by the driver to move up and down as they’re being driven.

The unofficial “headquarters” for Low Riders is in Española, New Mexico, about 20 miles north of Santa Fe, so Ashley hired two leading Low Rider artists to sit in their cars and operate the hydraulic system— on cue, of course— in the finale to Now Eleanor’s Idea. Each time they activated the system it went off without a hitch, to the satisfaction of everyone in the audience. At a post-concert reception after the final performance, Ashley came over to me with a huge smile said, “Joe, did you see those cars dance? Man that was very cool.”

Bob will be missed by those of us who listened carefully to his cool, softly inflected voice intoning stories of the American character. I doubt if anyone like him will come along any time soon. I guess that’s just as well. His legacy stands alone within the context of contemporary American music history.

Robert Ashley’s Outcome Inevitable was commissioned by the Relâche Ensemble and is recorded by Relâche on O.O. Discs 17.

Arthur Sabatini, who writes often for BSR, has written extensively on Robert Ashley’s music. Visit here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation