The Feeling of the Idea of Robert Ashley: Kyle Gann’s Appreciation of the Composer


Kyle Gann

Kyle Gann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first encountered the work of Robert Ashley in the early 1980s when I purchased the Lovely Music vinyl LP titled ‘Private Parts: (the record)’. It contained two tracks, one on each side, called, respectively, ‘The Park’ and, ‘The Back Yard’ (which happen to be the first and last acts of ‘Perfect Lives’). I took to the music rather quickly listening to its various layers of musical sounds and Mr. Ashley’s unique voice intoning the equally unique and unusual texts.

That record earned a special place in my mental favorites library (iTunes had yet to be invented) and spurred me on to the purchase of more of Ashley’s music. But other than the liner notes (which I read closely and repeatedly) there was surprisingly little information on this mysterious and wonderful composer whose music and words so captured my sensibilities.  The publication of this volume, ‘Robert Ashley’ (one of a great series of books on contemporary composers from the University of Illinois Press) fills this long standing void in the realms of music scholarship and biography.

I encountered the author’s work at about the same time as I did Ashley’s.  He was writing fascinating and accessible reviews in the local (Chicago) free newspaper, ‘The Reader’. He would later be selected as classical music reporter for New York’s ‘Village Voice’. Kyle Gann, composer, critic, musicologist and new music raconteur contributes a most essential work to help fill that void. His biographical sketch, analysis, bibliographic and discographic references serve also as a much needed exegesis of Robert Ashley’s work.

As it happens, the author was involved in the premiere of ‘Perfect Lives’ when he was a student at Northwestern University in Illinois in 1979. He developed and maintained a close connection with the composer and his music.

Photo by Joanne Savio, 2006

Photo by Joanne Savio, 2006

Robert Ashley (1930- ) is an American composer born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His experience growing up in the American Midwest informed his vision, speech and temperament affecting his compositional style. He spent the formative years of his youth in Ann Arbor.  He studied at the University of Michigan with Ross Lee Finney and at the Manhattan School of Music earning, respectively, undergraduate and graduate degrees in music.  Ashley declined an offer to pursue a doctorate in speech pathology (one of his many interests) to pursue music.  He organized and participated in the ONCE Festival of contemporary music in Ann Arbor from 1961 to 1969.  In 1972, he accepted an appointment at Mills College as director of the Center for Contemporary Music succeeding Pauline Oliveros, Lowell Cross and Anthony Gnazzo. In 1978 he left for New York which would become his new creative home base.

Ashley and his collaborators have performed internationally and a great deal of his music has been recorded.  His collaborators include Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma and David Behrman (who along with Ashley formed the performing group Sonic Arts Union), Roger Reynolds, “Blue Gene Tyrrany”(aka Robert Sheff), Pauline Oliveros, filmmaker George Manupelli and many more.  There were recent performances in New York and Miami of his early operas and a big new opera ‘Quicksand’is reportedly in progress and due to be premiered some time after this book was issued.

Gann acknowledges the limitations of his analyses saying quite correctly that Ashley’s work will require more time as well as access to the composer’s sound archive and consideration of his unrecorded works. He never pretends that this is more than a relatively brief treatment of a very large subject. Many works are not analyzed and little attention is given to either the ONCE Festival or the Sonic Arts Union.  His collaborations and influences get little space.  And George Manupelli’s films for which Ashley composed soundtracks deserve a book to themselves.  Nevertheless there is an awful lot accomplished in under 200 pages.

Gann discusses some of Ashley’s early works, his involvement in the too little known ‘ONCE festival‘ and his very important time teaching at Mills College where he became director of their Contemporary Music Center. But the real substance of this book comes in Gann’s analysis of Ashley’s operas which most certainly form the core of his creative output. It is the music that gets the closest attention here.   The author’s detailed analyses of the rhythmic schemes and harmonic structures that underlie the (mostly spoken or chanted) texts reveal the complexities of these deceptively simple sounding and seemingly impenetrable works and provide a means of appreciating and even understanding these unusual pieces that hardly fit any conventional definition of opera.

Gann also discusses some of the literary and intellectual ideas that permeate Ashley’s work.  The ideas come from a variety of sources including speech, speech pathology, geography, television, film, history, culture, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, writings of the Italian mystic and martyr Giordano Bruno and the writings of scholar Frances Yates in ‘The Art of Memory’ and ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition‘ among many others.

Beginning with the earliest ‘Music With Roots in the Aether’ and then continuing with the most familiar ‘Perfect Lives’ the reader is treated to loving and insightful descriptions of the series of works which comprise his trilogy: ‘Atalanta’, ‘Perfect Lives’ and ‘Now Eleanor’s Idea’.  He proceeds to subsequent opera projects and “spin off” works.  At one point Ashley told Gann that he had figured out the structure for his “next 72 operas”.  This writer is eager for more on the man, his works and his wide artistic circle.

The electronic version of this book (unlike that of Gann’s ‘No Such Thing as Silence’) contains all the images in the hard copies and is formatted, for the most part, very skillfully.

If you already know and love the work of Robert Ashley this volume will deepen your appreciation and if you don’t know this man’s work this is the book which will tell you why you should.

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