« Back to Frieze

Robert Ashley: 1930 – 2014

by Geeta Dayal

Robert Ashley, 2006 (Photo: Joanne Savio)

Friends and collaborators of influential US composer Robert Ashley remember his life and work

The composer Robert Ashley died last week at his home in New York, age 83. Though he is best known for radically reinventing opera in the 20th century — most famously in the television opera Perfect Lives in the early 1980s — his life and career had many stages. He was a key part of the legendary ONCE Group in Ann Arbor, beginning in 1961, and formed the Sonic Arts Union in 1966 with fellow composers Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman. In 1969, Ashley became the director of the nascent Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in California. At Mills during the 1970s, he mentored a generation of groundbreaking artists and composers. Ashley’s last opera, CRASH, which was completed three months before his death, will receive its world premiere at the Whitney Biennial next month, directed by musician and composer Alex Waterman, along with performances of the operas Vidas Perfectas (Perfect Lives revisited in Spanish) and The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity. Here, 23 of Ashley’s friends and collaborators look back on his life and work.
– Geeta Dayal

Robert Ashley, 1989. (Courtesy: Mimi Johnson; Photo: Jack Mitchell)

Alvin Lucier
Composer and emeritus professor, Wesleyan University; co-founder of the Sonic Arts Union with Ashley, Mumma, and Behrman

Throughout a long career Robert Ashley did an astonishing thing. He turned speech into music. The origins of speech and music are mysterious. One cannot be sure which came first. One can imagine that the first human utterances were intoned, chanted, if not melodic. Song may have been the precursor of speech. Or they both may have developed simultaneously. It is lovely to imagine early humans singing to each other. Ashley’s speech-song seems to me to be a combination of both. It is fascinating to hear the characters in Bob’s operas singing and talking at the same time. The listener’s attention moves to three places: the meaning of the words, the melody they create and a combination of both.

Basically, Ashley regarded speech as music. I remember standing with him at gatherings after concerts in the Midwest, simply listening to people talking. He once remarked that, to his ears, the dull roar of many people talking was symphonic. Once as an accompaniment to a Merce Cunningham event in New York, Bob simply assembled a group of friends to sit on stage and have a conversation. There was no text, no instructions, no enhancements, no musical accompaniment. It was amazing just how riveting this experience was. One left the event wondering how Bob could have made this happen.

Gordon Mumma
Composer; emeritus professor, University of California – Santa Cruz; veteran of ONCE Festivals, Sonic Arts Union, Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Robert Ashley lived off the land and in the landscapes. With the people therein he shared the surroundings. The following early history displays some roots of his lifelong creativity.

Beginning musically as a solo pianist, it was a path Ashley might have followed, but pianos are heavy. Words have a different kind of weight, combining naturally in ensembles of verbal communities. His involvements with spoken words and communications of language invited participations with others. Nourishment came from the visual artists in his life, beginning in the 1950s with Mary Tsaltas, filmmaker George Manupelli, architects Harold Borkin and Joseph Wehrer, and visual-projection sculptor Milton Cohen.

Ashley’s early use of recorded media — magnetic tape — in both fixed and live-performance was integrated by working with others. He and I collaborated and developed music for Milton Cohen’s SPACE THEATRE, constantly evolving and with ongoing public performances for several years. Ashley composed music then mostly for ensembles — small and large, and I still treasure the touring duo-performances of our music and that of others.

That’s old history — the developing of his early creative gardens. But as roots develop, so did Ashley’s social strands. He was wonderful in working with others, though not fully as a ‘director.’ He invited people to collaborate, appreciating their uniqueness, as though having a long party. Ashley’s ingredients for these activities came from his entire life. The surrounding and luminescent Americana libretti of his words are now an ongoing new history.

‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny
Composer and pianist; music, Perfect Lives, Celestial Excursions, Dust

We first met in 1962; I’d come up from Texas. I was 17 years old and I had just left home and had all my belongings in a paper bag and I decided to come to Ann Arbor because I was doing new music in Texas as a teenager, working with my friend Philip Krumm. [Ashley] said ‘You gotta come up here, these people are doing wonderful new stuff’… I decided that was where I wanted to go. I took my student composer’s award, which was about $500, and took the plane first to New York to do a Juilliard audition, but then caught the bus to go to Ann Arbor… I went to Ann Arbor and stayed in Gordon Mumma’s place for a couple days, and then Mary Ashley and Bob helped me get a job at the Institute for Social Research. And that gave me a place to live. It didn’t work out to go to the university — I wasn’t terribly interested anyway. But I worked with Bob for over 50 years.

We were close friends, of course. The whole ONCE thing wasn’t just a festival we put on once a year; it was a continuous lifestyle. It was the beginning of the ‘60s. Everything went into it; it was always there every day. For everybody involved it was happening all of the time. Bob was one of the main movers of the activity of the ONCE Group, and the ideas. ONCE started as a new music concert, in ’61, actually. They had the first one the year before I came up there. I believe John Cage was with that, and David Tudor…all the newest music of the time.

I stayed in Ann Arbor from ‘62 to ‘70. Then Robert invited me to the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, to help put the studio together. When I got there, it was two small rooms. We expanded the whole thing down one half of a building and made it non-profit, public access. Which was the expansion of an idea that Robert had. Robert with Gordon Mumma, in Ann Arbor they were calling it the cooperative studio of electronic music, and [had] basically two electronic setups in their houses but they wanted to expand it, to make it public access so that anybody could use it. So that’s what the Center for Contemporary Music came from…anybody from the public could use it, and the students could show people how to do things. Part of the learning was to teach others how to use synthesizers, or the film editing equipment…to anybody from the community.

So, yes, Bob and I worked together for many years, and made Perfect Lives. He invited me to write the music that I was familiar to play with. It was a different kind of relationship, sort of like co-composition. I wrote the melodies and the harmonies and all that stuff, and that gave me something that I could develop the character of Buddy the piano player, who comes to town and teaches everyone boogie-woogie and that sort of thing. He’s the eternal optimist. Then there was Raoul, the eternal pessimist, the bartender, always questioning things. It sort of described us (laughs) We were interested in everything.

It’s not possible to summarize here the compositions of Bob Ashley, but what characterized all of these pieces from the earliest electronic works to the operas was an admirable intelligence, a gentle humor. For example, the early work She Was a Visitor, for chorus and audience participation, has people taking very small parts of the phrase and sustaining the sound rather than the word itself. This creates another layer of meaning additional to the words, up to Perfect Lives, which is about the very subtle realities of everyday life in a small town. Which is a fascination that both Robert and I had, in our different compositions.

David Behrman
Composer; member of the Sonic Arts Union; faculty, Bard College

I owe a lot to Bob. A fortunate meeting with him and Gordon Mumma at the lobby of Town Hall around 1964. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were touring as Sonic Arts, together with Alvin Lucier. Touring in the States and in Europe. La vie d’artiste. Cigarettes and Jim Beam in dimly-lit hotel rooms after the gig, dividing up wads of foreign cash. (An early lesson from Bob: always take the gig’s sponsor out for a fine expensive dinner on the final night before leaving. Helps chances of getting invited back next year and besides, it feels good to do that.) Our first reviews in Europe. This one in French, maybe around 1967: ‘Does one applaud the dentist’s drill?’

At Mills College, at the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), Bob did his best to invent new ways of handling things. There were wonderful concerts by students in the beautiful concert hall, but usually the house had many empty seats. At a meeting of the artist faculty, this came up: can we find more money for publicity, mail out more and bigger posters? Instead Bob suggested reverse ticket pricing. Get the word out that anyone who comes to one of our concerts will be paid one dollar at the door. (We were never able to try out that plan, unfortunately.)

Thanks to Bob for the job at CCM starting in 1975. Thanks to Bob for the policy of Public Access, which brought the Eva Sisters to the CCM studios, and led to my long-lasting marriage to Terri Hanlon. Thanks to him for the idea that Jacques Bekaert and I could buy a floor together in the former egg and cheese warehouse building in downtown New York, where he and Mimi Johnson were moving. And thanks to him for including me in Music with Roots in the Aether, his wonderfully inventive video-plus-music composer portrait series with fine sound design by Maggi Payne and great video by Phil Makanna.

Occasionally a spark gets ignited among a group of artists in a particular place at a particular time. That happened at Mills in the early ‘70s, when Bob assembled a group of stellar artists who together with him set the tone for the CCM at that time: ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, Maggi Payne, John Bischoff, Paul DeMarinis, Nick Bertoni, William Farley, Terry Riley. Quickly a wonderful extended family sprang up, and there wasn’t a dividing line between faculty, students and artists who were part of the lively Bay Area scene. Among the members of that extraordinary community were Peg Ahrens, Ron Kuivila, Frankie Mann, Pat Kelley, Fast Forward, Laetitia Sonami, Peter Gordon, Kathy Acker, Joel Ryan, Jill Kroesen, Terri Hanlon and Fern Friedman (The Eva Sisters), Ben Azarm, Phill Loarie, Bob Gonsalves, Rich Gold, Marina La Palma, Jim Horton, Kathy Morton, Marcia Mikulak, Phil Harmonic, and Phil Makanna. And the Belgian artist, musician, journalist, wine expert and diplomat Jacques Bekaert was a frequent visitor and guest composer.

When new incoming students assembled at Mills for the first time, Bob had an introductory warning message to them: if you’re not weird, get out! For me, those Mills years were among the happiest memories of my almost lifelong association with Bob.

Pauline Oliveros
Composer; professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

In the early ’60s, we were in snail mail contact with Robert Ashley. We (Ramon Sender Barayón & Morton Subotnick) were excited about connecting with Bob and the ONCE Group in Ann Arbor — the only group that seemed to be working with tape and electronics in ways parallel to what we were doing in San Francisco.

In 1964, we took our group on a national tour and met Bob and the ONCE Group in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. They attended our concert; then we all went to Ann Arbor for a wonderful party and exchange of information.

Following on are some of my continuing encounters with Bob:

Early ’60s snail mail exchange with Bob & Ramon. Hearing Bob’s tape music at our San Francisco Tape Music Center.
1964 meeting Bob in person in Michigan on our tour and hanging out with him and the ONCE Group in Ann Arbor.
The Wolfman in LA [1968] – jaws dripping with feedback!
Experiencing The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer… with Anne riding on Bob’s shoulders in a theatrical trance at UCSD circa 1970.
Kittyhawk [c.1965] with the ONCE Group at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
On location in Joshua Tree National Monument for Dr. Chicago — a George Manupelli film with Ashley sound and Alvin Lucier as Dr. Chicago.
Music with Roots in the Aether — my theatrical interview with Bob at Mills College, Oakland.

All these encounters touching deeply the curious flow of our music and friendship.

Robert Ashley, Automatic Writing, (cover of 1996 CD release)

John Bischoff
Composer and associate professor, Mills College, Oakland

I first saw Robert Ashley in person when I was a 19-year-old composition student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1969. Ivan Tcherepnin, who taught the Composition Seminar course I was taking, had lined up guest composers to lecture to the class. Bob was one of them. He was the only guest who didn’t play recordings of his pieces—he just sat in front of the class and talked extemporaneously for an hour straight. I remember being transfixed.

It wasn’t clear to me at the time that he even composed music, at least from what he said that day—but it didn’t matter. That experience was what led me to apply to Mills for graduate school a few years later, and to end up studying with Bob. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Maggi Payne
Composer, video artist, professor and co-director, Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College; sound engineer, Music with Roots in the Aether

I first encountered Bob Ashley when he performed Wolfman at the University of Illinois at Urbana [in 1969], when I was about to enter graduate school there. Although I know that his vocalizations were extremely soft, the amplitude through the sound system was so intense that I managed to stay inside the concert hall for only a few seconds before making a hasty retreat to the lobby with my fingers in my ears. Luckily there was a window in the door to the concert hall and there was certainly no difficulty hearing that amazing performance through the door, which was vibrating against my hand as I peered through the glass.

Gordon Mumma was in residency the year I was there. When I was trying to decide whether to stay for a further degree at Illinois, Gordon Mumma said ‘go to Mills College to study with Bob Ashley,’ advice which I took, and a decision I never regretted for a moment. It was such a pleasure working closely with Bob while at Mills, and especially as sound engineer for several interviews and performances for Music with Roots in the Aether.

Between the production crew skinny dipping to cool off in the intense heat at Terry Riley’s Sri Moonshine Ranch, to the quarry shots of Gordon Mumma and Tandy Beal at dawn, to being whisked to the top of Angel Island for David Behrman’s interview with that wonderful helicopter opening, to Phil Makanna’s intricate mirror setup for David’s Music with Melody-Driven Electronics, and Bob’s brilliant idea of having signers interpret involuntary utterances in his Title Withdrawn — it was all magical.

Prior to the Terry Riley shoot, I remember him recounting that he ordered a cheeseburger without the meat at a hamburger chain, but the kid refused to make it for him. Bob asked him to ‘hold the meat’ just like one would say ‘hold the mayo,’ but the kid would have none of it. Bob couldn’t make any headway with that kid, and he remained perplexed as to why it was such a problem for the kid for weeks after that incident.

I can’t really imagine this world without Bob. He was one of the most charismatic people I’ve known. He is a major influence in 20th and 21st century music. It’s as if his influence becomes part of one’s DNA without one really being aware of it.

Terry Riley

I can’t remember the first time I met the incomparable Bob Ashley, but it must have been around the time I heard him perform the terrifying Wolfman. It was shocking and exhilarating!

What I do remember was that I was touring with Pandit Pran Nath in Scandinavia in 1971 and having breakfast in an Oslo hotel, when the waitress told me there was a telephone call from the States. On the other end of the line was Bob who was inviting me to come and teach at Mills College in Oakland.

Whatever gave him the idea that I would entertain the notion of teaching in an institution, and how he found out where I was in Norway I don’t know, but when I came back to the table and told Pran Nath-ji that I had been invited to teach at Mills, he said ‘take it.’

That became a beautiful 10-year period where I would frequently run into Bob, Robert Sheff and composer David Behrman (my producer during my CBS years in New York and good friend) and often would end up in Berkeley having long conversations into the night with Bob, David, my wife Ann, Bob’s then wife Mary and others. Bob’s amazing and precocious son Sam would move like a shadow though the house, often contributing brilliant insights to the talking back and forth.

When I saw a production of Perfect Lives at Mills, I was impressed by the exciting direction that Bob was taking ‘opera.’ Along with Cage, I felt Bob Ashley had found a vital living form and given his performers the freedom to be ‘in the moment.’ It all felt like an extension of and continuation of the ongoing party that always seemed to be attached to his relaxed persona.

He did not let academia become too serious. He changed it instead of it changing him, and the east end of the Mills College music building became a 24-hour free access clubhouse.

We both left Mills around 1980, and Bob moved to New York. I only saw him a couple of times since, and then only casually at New York concerts. Bob relieved the opera world of the Bel Canto arias and other 19th century trappings that cloud direct emotional impact and found a stasis of beauty in ‘the ordinary.’ I am grateful to have been his friend, and value his work as a fresh start for music theater.

Paul DeMarinis
Electronic media artist and composer; professor, Stanford University

From a 1976 B&W reel-to-reel videotape – Cathy Morton and Bob Ashley:

(Bob is wearing a beautiful suit that looks as if it is tailored from a striped cotton tablecloth.)

Cathy Morton: This is hereditary. I‘m not sure if Bob can do it, but I can do it. (turns to Bob) Can you do it? (whispers)

Bob Ashley: (mumbles something, smiles)

Cathy Morton: We’re going to sing an A, a perfect A 440. Ready Bob?

On Cue {

Cathy Morton: Aaaaahhhhh (sings A 440)

Bob Ashley: eeeeeehhhh… (sings C)


At one point in my graduate career at Mills, the time when any responsible teacher would have had to lay it out that I just didn’t have it, Bob said to me, out of the blue,

‘You should become a visual artist.’

I said, ‘but I like to make music.’

Bob said, ‘That’s ok. You can just keep on doing what you’re doing. You’ll just make different friends.’


Laetitia Sonami
Sound artist, composer, and performer

If you peered at the group of students in Bob Ashley’s seminar at Mills College in the late seventies, you would think you stumbled on one of his operas, exhibiting the oddest brochette of characters. I was young, still fresh from Paris and I could not believe where I had landed — there were so many incredible thinkers, budding artists, engineers, inventors, misfits, and everyone looked odd and thought in ways that seemed so foreign to me, and we were all completely set on fire by Bob’s charisma and generosity.

I could not say what Bob taught us — we still joke that we are not even sure he was there that often — going back and forth as he was between Beach St. and the Lake Merritt Hotel (‘Being in Oakland is like being in heaven’ – this, when San Francisco had not colonized the area yet.)

David Behrman, John Bischoff, Maggi Payne, Phil Harmonic, Nick Bertoni, Frankie Mann, Rich Gold, Bill Farley, Paul DeMarinis, Blue Gene Tyranny and so many more before and then — we still see each other, bounded by a love for the edges.

Bob wanted to be enchanted, delighted — and he created a huge place for you to unfold — Did not care about good or bad, just that you had to relish what you were doing, occupying all possible pockets of dead space, and f*** the conventions whenever possible.

Oh boy… was he there when he was here — now that he is not here, I think he is as much there…

Robert Ashley Perfect Lives, 1978–83

William Farley
Director and filmmaker

During the early ’70s, I was privileged to have dinner with the Ashleys a couple of nights a week, and they always played unusual music from around the world. It was background when Bob and Mary were cooking and did not interrupt the flow of conversation. They had played one particular album of African music for a couple of weeks until Bob complained one evening that his pants were getting tight around the waist. Mary agreed that they were both gaining weight? At the time I had the metabolism of a hummingbird and had not noticed any fluctuation of my weight. Bob picked up the album and read the English translation below the French, and in the small print discovered that we had been listening to Pygmy food gathering music. And realized that listening to hungry people looking for food in the rainforest of Central Africa was making us all overeat. Needless to say that album went back on the shelf and I never heard them play it again.

David Rosenboom
Composer; professor and dean of the School of Music, CalArts

I’ve never forgotten coming away from one of many inspiring conversations with Bob — probably sometime in the ‘70s — in which an important principle about composing emerged in our dialogue. I still pass the idea on to my students today. It went something like, ‘Whenever you believe you have a new idea, always imagine what bigger idea this one is just a part of.’ Few individuals can lay claim to having created a new language for music, so thoroughgoing, original and complete as to recast a constellation of notions about music, performance art, language, narrative form, opera, new media, history, time, collaborative strategies, form and structure, sociocultural themes in art and the evolution of musicianship, to name a few, in an integrated synthesis that challenges and deeply informs our searching as participants in the evolution of music. On another occasion — maybe in the ‘80s — we were talking again, and he said something like, ‘I’m becoming more interested in producing than composing, it’s certainly more important than orchestration.’

I treasure many memories. But here’s a wild one. In the late ‘60s I was managing productions for a multimedia concert series at the Electric Circus in New York called ‘Electric Ear.’ On May 26th, 1969 our project was to produce a performance by the ONCE Group from Ann Arbor of Bob’s The Trial Of Anne Opie Wehrer And Unknown Accomplices For Crimes Against Humanity. Well, a great swirl of confusion and curious tension bubbled up when the unanticipated political stumping of Norman Mailer bumped up against Bob’s presentation. I believe our producer, Thais Lathem, had a history in political campaigning. If I’m not mistaken, I think she worked on the Hubert Humphrey campaign.

Well, she had somehow gotten involved, maybe only peripherally, maybe more, with Norman Mailer’s campaign to become mayor of New York City. Somehow, it came to pass that Norman’s entourage arrived in the Circus environment to make a public showing just prior to the start of Bob’s concert. But the idea to combine the two didn’t work out so well, and as I recall, Bob wasn’t too pleased about the distraction. There was mayhem. Finally things settled a little, Bob’s performance began, and I helped him with the unique, Electric Circus control technology that had been designed by Don Buchla. His piece was a talking piece, with Anne Wehrer, George Manupelli, the great experimental filmmaker, and others. Anne had been in Andy Warhol films and was married to Joe Wehrer at the time, a famous architect at the University of Michigan. I recall five people on stage. I believe they were Mary Ashley, Cynthia Liddell, George Manupelli and Joe Wehrer, with Anne in the middle being cross-examined by two others on each side. Anne was a virtuoso talker – talk, talk, talk – an amazing person, and Bob knew how to orchestrate extraordinary people. It’s a legendary piece. I don’t know how it could have been done without Anne. In the end, Norman’s earlier appearance was no match for her with Bob and his team, not even close.

There are many stories to tell, like when we produced the CD of Bob’s opera, Improvement, in ‘80s summer recording sessions at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College. Each singer delivered individual phrases from an isolation booth, over and over, seemingly endlessly, while waiting for feedback and receiving almost none. After some exasperation they would ask Bob, ‘What are you looking for?’ And his reply would simply be, ‘I’ll know it when I hear it.’ After one session, we all went out to gawk at lowrider cars.

Honorific appellations, in America at least, usually go to those whose work takes less time to understand and recognize within extant, a priori conceptual frameworks than Bob’s does. Bob’s work is simply too challenging to be understood fully until those attempting to do so can strip away their assumptions about what art and music can be. I’m reminded of a moment in the early ’70s when I was editing a journal and had asked Bob to contribute an article. It arrived, and I read its unforgettable title referring to the problematic of music notation, ‘When The Virus Kills the Body And Is Buried With It, The Virus Can Be Said To Have Cut Its Own Throat,’ a good place to stop for a bit of contemplation.

Rhys Chatham
Composer; music director of The Kitchen, 1972–1973 and 1977–1980

I booked Bob at The Kitchen during the mid-‘70s. That was how I met him, through my friends Peter Gordon and Jill Kroesen and others, who studied with him at Mills College. I was in my mid-20s; Bob was in his early 50s. His take on me as a concert producer was as follows: ‘Rhys wants to be a composer, but we don’t need more composers, we need FANS! Rhys is a FAN!’ Bob was right — I was a fan. I still am, in fact!

I somehow managed to muddle my way through things, and also became a composer. My role model was Bob. Heck, I loved his music, but what I wanted to be, when I attained his age, was not to write music exactly like his, but to BE like him. Why, I’d go to his house and see instruments all over the place and Susan Sontag’s book On Photography on the table, and I thought to myself, ‘Holy guacamole, this is what being a composer is all about.’ Never mind his cool shades and sleek look, and his winning way with words; this was a beautiful man, someone to look up to, as virtually all of my close personal friends of my generation did.

Bob inspired us to become what we could become. Hell! His music was so weird, and he didn’t do so badly, maybe we could do the same thing. That was my thought, at least. People who studied directly with him like Jill and Peter could tell you.

So I wrote this piece in his memory. It’s for an orchestra of a lot of alto and C flutes. I’m playing all the parts for now. You wanna download it? Be my guest! Music should be free, just like love, would be my thought. If you do so, just make sure to tell your friends: this one is for Bob!

Download link here


Thomas Buckner
Baritone vocalist and performer; singer on Atalanta (Acts of God), Improvement, eL/Aficionado, Your Money My Life Goodbye, Dust, Celestial Excursions, Concrete

The first time I heard an opera performance by Robert Ashley was on record, when I arrived home one evening around 1980. A friend who was babysitting at my home was listening to the new recording of a solo performance of two scenes from Perfect Lives — ‘The Bar’ and ‘The Park’ — with Bob, ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny on keyboard, and ‘Chris’ on tabla. Ironically, I didn’t get it at first, but my friend, (whom I married years later), insisted I listen some more. Soon thereafter, I was singing at the Autumn Festival at the American Center in Paris, and Bob was performing a solo version of the same music, with the players on a recording. I was blown away, and he became one of my favorite composers. We had a very interesting conversation, in which Bob spoke of the necessity to get one’s music out there at every opportunity, no matter what venue. It was just what I needed to hear. His spirit was infectious.

Why did I reject this music at first, and then become so enamored of it later? I think it is because Robert Ashley’s music represents a radical, in the sense of root, departure from not only the music of the past, but from western music’s assumptions about the relationship of speech and music. For him, speech is music, and it took the experience of a live performance for me to hear this. Also, in live performance, Bob’s charismatic presence was not to be denied, and the effect was both mesmerizing and awakening.

So when the Arch Ensemble for Experimental Music — which I co-founded and co-directed with composer/conductor Robert Hughes in Berkeley, California — was given a consortium grant to commission a composer, I readily agreed to his suggestion of Robert Ashley, whom he called ‘the most original mind in new music.’ I stipulated that the work be for voice and ensemble, as I wanted to experience this music from the inside. Because he had heard me sing, Robert Ashley chose to set text from his then-current opera, Atalanta (Acts of God), rather than a new text. Little did I know that this would be an audition.

Bob had written out the speech rhythms in conventional notation, since we were not going to be working together on the piece. This was very complicated, in order to capture the subtle nuances, the music, of vernacular speech. I understand why Bob never used conventional notation for the singers in his operas; it is very inefficient. I practiced it with the great hand drummer Big Black, who was my roommate at the time, and we really got it locked in. So when I sang it for Bob he was very happy. He came out to San Francisco for the performance and then invited me to sing in the next performance of Atalanta (Acts of God), which was in Rome. I have sung in every opera since, as well as in many concert performances of shorter works he has written for me. I learned more about music and performance from working with Bob than from any other experience in my life. Each piece is unique, though recognizable as Bob’s work. He reinvented opera every time he wrote one.

Jill Kroesen
Composer and performer; ‘Isolde/Gwyn’ in Perfect Lives

Bob Ashley was brilliant, open and generous. I was privileged to study with him at Mills College. To be his student was to be in the best hands. He exposed us to as much contemporary art and music and he could and then left us on our own with his unconditional support. The only requirement was that our work be innovative. He treated us with the respect of an equal and listened to our work with awe. He was there if we needed help or feedback and listened with an open heart. I worked with him later on Perfect Lives and with that and all his other compositions there was never any ego artifice, just pure art.

Peter Gordon
Composer and associate professor, Bloomfield College; music producer for Perfect Lives and Vida Perfectas

I was a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego, where music was all about expanding parameters and ever-increasing control. The music campus was a former marine base: the classrooms and studios were barracks and quonset huts. This gave a nice edge to the place. The one “nice” building was commandeered by a well-funded musical think tank, where experimentalist pedagogues picked through the entrails of linguistics and cybernetics.

Robert Ashley came down for a weekend to rehearse and perform his opera Kit Carson. He used music and art student volunteers. Bob was the lead voice, reading a series of newspaper articles that were covering a big scandal at the time, involving ITT Corporation, the CIA and the Republican Party fundraising (Nixon had just been re-elected.) In his introductory remarks, Bob explained how the opera was entitled Kit Carson because the structure of the work was based on the political, economic and social dynamic of the Wild West.

I loved it – weird music, sharp politics, and the rehearsals were a good hang. I knew that I had to work more with Bob, and immediately applied to transfer to Mills College, where Bob was on the faculty. Some of the things that struck me about Bob: a.) He made everything seem so effortless. There were things to be done and one just did them – no drama. b.) He was extremely kind to everyone working for him. c.) Bob was interested in people – he’d talk to folks, regardless of stature, position, nature of connection. d.) Bob was able to see music within a social context – with political awareness, as well as an appreciation for popular culture. e.) Bob was rigorous in thought and action. His works were meticulously planned, with layers of connection and specific formulae in which things should work. f.) Notwithstanding b. above, Bob did have high standards regarding technology, and was very clear in his tech specifications. He expected these to be met and woe unto the presenter who tried to cut corners.

I moved up to the Bay Area, enrolled at Mills. The program that Bob had created (along with ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, Maggi Payne, Terry Riley, et al) was a polar opposite to what I had experienced at UCSD. There was the dedication to experimentalism, but there was also a sense of what Bob had described as ‘music as news.’ And pop music was considered part of the dialogue. The Center for Contemporary Music, which housed the MFA music program, featured a room with a Moog, a room with a Buchla synthesizer, and an 8-track professional recording studio. ‘Blue’ Gene was the head engineer, and major musicians from the San Francisco Bay Area would come to record. The mid-‘70s seemed to be the time of the great migration. We had heard tales out in California about the exciting stuff happening in downtown New York. I moved to the East Village in ’75; Jill Kroesen was already here and Bob was commuting between Oakland and New York. Everyone was out of school, one way or another, and Bob (with Mimi, now) was the center of our community of artists. Before I met Bob, I recall a UCSD professor making some derisive comment about ‘Those folks at Mills – they are like insurance salesmen: businessmen.’ It is true, however, that Bob had a good sense of the connection of music to commerce. This is not to say that he was in any way creating ‘commercial music’ – but his experience in industrial film and applied music and sound production definitely informed his technological awareness.

And Bob knew how to put on the charm, in particular when doing business. The big piece of Bob’s that I worked on was Perfect Lives. I was music producer and, working with Bob and ‘Blue’ Gene, we spent hundreds of hours recording in 24-track studios. This was primarily at Right Track Studios – first at their W. 24th Street facility in New York, later on W. 48th Street. We treated the studio as one great big modular synthesizer: we made it a point to utilize all of the available outboard gear, and there was a great selection available, indeed. We pushed the studio engineers to use the gear in unusual ways. Today, I am revisiting the process, but this time using Ableton Live (musical software) on a laptop.

At one of the first Robert Ashley concerts I attended, there was this strange mechanical rhythm sound on a track (I think this was for a live performance of the score to George Manupelli’s film Portraits). It seemed slightly incongruous at first, but I became fascinated with the repetition. It turns out that this was a keyboard instrument called the ‘Chamberlain.’ It is similar to the Mellotron, in that it is comprised of tape loops that are triggered by the keyboard. But the Chamberlain had a whole set of rhythmic presets, designed in particular for Hollywood television shows. The mechanical rhythm of the Chamberlain (there was one in the Mills studio) was the precursor to the Gulbransen organ rhythms of Perfect Lives; both might be seen as precursors to musical software such as Ableton.

Bob was my teacher, my colleague, my collaborator. He was my guru, my mentor, my inspiration, my friend.

Robert Ashley Perfect Lives, 1978–83

David van Tieghem
Composer and performer; ‘“D”, the Captain of the Football Team’ in Perfect Lives; vocals on Atalanta (Acts of God)

I was privileged to work with Bob on Perfect Lives and Atalanta (Acts of God) from 1978 to 1983. I’ll never forget his gentle, humorous nature, and his generous trust in me to find my own way into and through his work as a performer. His voice hypnotized me, and forever influenced the way I perceive the rhythm of words and imagery.

John Sanborn
Video artist; director of the television opera Perfect Lives

Bob had the ability to teach you just by being Bob. His first major manifestation was the video interview collection called Music with Roots in the Aether, which I found objectionable when I first heard that a musician thought he could make video. I was wrong, because 1. Bob was the conductor of bands that could do anything (I was going to join one) and 2. Bob taught me how to control the content AND the context. When you do that you leave NO ROOM for the competition.

Then came Perfect Lives, a sweet rumour for a while, and then a set of smoky temperaments that I was invited to connect with by Carlotta Schoolman. I was the hot young video artist whose prowess was abbreviated by pronounced context, but slender content. But Bob changed that. When we worked together I understood how to construct yourself — sometimes in real time — with language, perspective and commentary. Bob would not so much tell you what he wanted, as ‘guide’ you to a target (sometimes of your own making) that would make him laugh. ‘Good one, John’ he would say, and cover his famously bad teeth when he smiled.

I saw how deep and intense his commitment to the text and the concept of Perfect Lives was — this was no trivial love affair. And when we were invited to make a pilot of the piece with Belgian TV (weeks and weeks in Liege drenched in old school technology, beer and twins) and we could not agree to a contract with their administration — we found ourselves breaking into the studio, stealing the master tapes, and driving all night to Amsterdam. Just like a Bob Ashley opera. Oh, boy.

Yes, Bob absorbed your talent in his name, yes; he pulled your strings and seduced you with his force of personality (so subtle is his will that you have given up the ghost before breakfast.) And yes, there is the time when you have to leave the band to go do your own thing — no hard feelings. BUT — how glorious is was to be playing with Peter, Blue, Jill, David and Bob to create something that — STILL and MAYBE NEVER — will never be beat.

So through my head run the lines that I know by heart. Whose meaning maybe (maybe) only I know (since I spent weeks talking through each word of seven episodes to divine how to show that which cannot be seen.) And when I am in a sort of doubt, or panic, or miasma I hear– ‘short ideas, repeated, massage the brain.’ And Bob lives on, forever.

Jacqueline Humbert
Artist and performer; costume designer and makeup, Perfect Lives, Atalanta (Acts of God); performer in several operas including Your Money My Life Goodbye, Dust, Celestial Excursions

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 honour 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.

Tom Hamilton
Composer; mixing, sound processing, and/or electronics on Improvement, eL/Aficionado, Your Money My Life Goodbye, Dust, Celestial Excursions

In 1990, Bob knew that I was a composer and audio engineer who was fairly new to New York. He asked me to start working on his electronic orchestras for the operas and perform sound mixing and processing in his ensemble, all which I continue to do to this day. I gained more insight about music in our very first meeting than I had acquired in many years. For me, working on his operas required using everything I had learned from my own checkered experience in music and audio production. Bob’s music provided the context for all of us in the ensemble to stretch our capabilities, each in our own natural direction. And I became connected to a large family of veteran artists, all connected to some aspect of Bob’s career. I think he gave us an original answer to the eternal question: ‘What else is Music?’

Robert Ashley, Now Eleanor’s Idea (2007)

Amy X Neuburg
Composer and performer; vocals on Improvement, Foreign Experiences, Now Eleanor’s Idea

A few simple examples of some of the many things I learned from working with him (and you can learn them just from listening): 1) it is perfectly okay to use lots of words; 2) the sounds and rhythms of vernacular speech are beautiful music; 3) if it’s clear to you what you are talking about, it doesn’t necessarily have to be clear to everyone else; they will make their own stories out of what you have said. My favorite of his operas is Foreign Experiences — I still go around quoting it 20 years later. Feeling both tearfully sad and incredibly honoured and grateful to have known him.

Kenneth Goldsmith
Poet and professor, University of Pennsylvania; founder, UbuWeb

I always said, when he was alive, that Robert Ashley was America’s greatest living composer. Like Charles Ives, he was doing things that were so original and unique that few knew in his time knew what to make of them. And like Charles Ives, history will bear out his genius. True to his vision, he never compromised; unlike many artists, he didn’t repeat himself — with each new work, there was a resolute sense of exploration and evolution. He was an artists’ artist. But he paid a price for it. While Steve Reich and Philip Glass made millions at opera houses around the world, Bob premiered works at places like La Mama and The Kitchen right up until the end. It broke my heart.

In my early 20s as a student, a professor of mine gave me a cassette of Perfect Lives. I was dumbstruck by its profundity and beauty. It hit me so hard that I became devoted to the avant-garde because of it. It’s no stretch to say that if not for Robert Ashley, there wouldn’t have been an UbuWeb today.

Joan La Barbara
Vocalist and composer; performer on Your Money My Life Goodbye, Dust, Celestial Excursions, Now Eleanor’s Idea

I worked with Robert Ashley for four decades, learned many lessons and pondered many ideas: thoughts within thoughts, hypotheses, deliberations, considerations: When is music more than music? Is there a clear boundary between philosophy and storytelling? Does self-revelation necessarily involve pain? Can we be that raw and survive? As Diogenes, naked and searching, holding the lamp to illuminate the truth is how I might think of Bob as a writer, raw, revelatory, insightful, direct, confrontational, throwing a few obscenities in for emphasis. I will miss working with him and knowing him, but at least there are wonderful recordings to remember his voice and his visions.

Robert Ashley Vidas Perfectas, 2011. Directed by Alex Waterman, Irondale Theater, Brooklyn, 2011

Alex Waterman
Artist and musician; director of three operas by Robert Ashley for the 2014 Whitney Biennial

My first recollections of Robert Ashley are on a yellow pad of paper. I had been sitting interviewing him at his studio on Beach Street for several hours, recording with a cobbled-together contraption of binaural microphones fed into a pre-amp and an iPod. My preamp ran on a 9-volt battery, and after the first five minutes it lost its charge. I captured five minutes of conversational warm-up and then dead air for the next two hours. I discovered my fuck-up as I was walking to the subway.

Distraught, I pulled out a yellow pad and tried to recollect everything I could from our conversation: Uncle Willard, school days, early years in Tennessee, the Post Office, the army band in Texas, George Payne, Frances Yates, involuntary speech… It was all still present but the order wasn’t. The stories and their structures were intact but the overall sequence wasn’t. It was outside of time.

One of Bob’s gifts has been to remind us that thought is always memory. We remember something new when we encounter his music. The stories that Bob told musically — his form of opera — is always on and off the page simultaneously. The illusion that the audience perceives, is that he and his band are just sitting reading together off of the same page.

In Robert Ashley’s music reading is also a memory exercise, produced through listening to the self and (an)other simultaneously. Musicians do this all the time when they are reading music on the page, but the same rules don’t always get applied to reading words (musically). Words contain magic, though, and Bob understood this in ways that the rest of us are trying to catch up with.

In Bob’s last opera, CRASH (premiering in April at the 2014 Whitney Biennial) knowing that he would be recollecting for the last time, Bob’s story of his life is given an order that perhaps only the finality of an end (‘eresanen’*) could provide.

Bob is at the center, and we are circling around him. His stories progress year by year, and cycle by cycle, measured by minutes and seconds — six cycles of 14 years in 90 minutes. A Perfect Life.

He writes his ‘last big event’ into CRASH, but allows for a coda: in the final ‘shot’ of the opera, Bob is walking home, helped along, on the arm of his wife.

  • ‘eresanen’ (‘there is an end’) is the word that the character No Legs—from Ashley’s 1998 opera, Dust — keeps hearing in his head, and wants to understand.

Joan Jonas
Video and performance artist; professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; choreography on Celestial Excursions

Robert Ashley was a poet in the American tradition. He was charming, charismatic, brilliant. His songs are poems.

One of my favorite tasks was to do the choreography for Celestial Excursions in 2003. There were two versions. The first one I performed behind the readers/singers for the full two hours of the piece. This was challenging and led to new work. For the second version, performed a few years later, I performed only in the musical intervals between the sections with text, because, understandably, my continuous actions were a distraction from the text. I liked the challenge of condensing my actions from two hours to twenty minutes; I experienced different ways of working with time. Robert Ashley’s time. The more I performed the piece the more I realized what a beautiful composer he was.

I knew and admired Bob’s work, but the experience of working with him, the fantastic singers, and ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny was one of the most profoundly enjoyable moments in my life. This remains my longest continuous solo. The music was my inspiration, of course. I was a backdrop. Hearing the work over and over, especially while inside the sound, was deeply moving. If one loves a work of music it is necessary to listen again and again.

Sam Ashley
Mystic, composer, and artist; performer in Atalanta, Gentlemen of the Future, Improvement, eL/Aficionado, Now Eleanor’s Idea, Foreign
Experiences, Your Money My Life Goodbye, Empire, Love is a Good Example, Dust, Celestial Excursions, Concrete; performed the dance Seeing Things within early versions of Atalanta; created the two-voice version of Foreign Experiences

I learned a lot from Bob, and I feel honored that I was able to work with him for so many years.

Here’s something interesting: Bob based even his choices about death on an idea of 14 year cycles. This is musically brilliant because it shows what music should really be about: living your ideas; practicing what you preach, as they say. Some people might perhaps be annoyed that he decided to focus specifically on those cycles because of a curious book, and that’s understandable but it’s not really important in this context. And actually I disagreed with his specific focus on just those 14 year cycles. But still, however he might have gotten into the idea the fact that he would make the most fundamental sorts of choices accordingly is impressive as can be.

Just one example.


About the author

  • Geeta Dayal's photo

    Geeta Dayal is a journalist and critic based in San Francisco. She is a regular contributor to frieze.