In 1981, promotional ads for something called “Music Television” started hitting in the US with the tagline: “You’ll never look at music the same way again.” Around the same time appeared a pilot video for something called Perfect Lives: A Television Opera by American composer Robert Ashley. Ashley was light-years from the video hit parade of MTV, but he too wanted to make music television. “I put my pieces in television format,” he told his biographer Kyle Gann, “because I believe that’s really the only possibility for music.”
Ashley, who died last month at age 83, was born in Ann Arbor in 1930. He got into music by teaching himself to play jazz on the piano, and studied music theory at the University of Michigan, going on to get a masters at the Manhattan School of Music. What Ashley called “the glorious chaos of the ’60s” didn’t refer to student revolt or LSD or Stonewall or Woodstock but the electronic music festival he founded upon his return to Ann Arbor, ONCE (not an acronym). It was at ONCE that Ashley began to hone the techniques and ideas that would lead to his radical reconception of opera. One of his own ONCE pieces—an anarchic assault of feedback and amplified vocals called The Wolfman (1964)—came ten years ahead of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and makes the latter sound almost sweet by comparison. Ashley’s links to art rock are many: among the most famous was a Detroit teenager named James Osterberg, later known as Iggy Pop, who was an enthusiastic and regular attendee at the ONCE festivals. Toward the end of the ’60s Ashley taught music at Mills college in Oakland and put together the Sonic Arts Union, a collective of composers with whom he toured the US and Europe throughout the ’70s (though his primary source of income at the time came from writing film scores). In 1976 he directed and produced Music With Roots in the Aether, a fourteen-hour documentary/video portrait of composers Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Ashley himself.
In 1980 a nonprofit performance space in New York City, the Kitchen, commissioned Ashley’s “television-opera” Perfect Lives, which aired for the first time in 1984 on Channel 4 in Great Britain. It is exemplary of the mixture of spoken word, narrative, song, and electronics that was a constant in Ashley’s work. The opera is arranged into six twenty-four-minute and fifty-second episodes (structured to fit the legal time slot of an American television show; it was later modified to fit the British format), and its plot revolves a botched bank heist. Much of the work’s tone comes from the sound of Ashley’s voice: a gentle half-sung Midwestern patter that is both soothing and sinister. There is something of Robert Frost’s “sound of sense” in Ashley’s cadences, as of speech overheard through motel room walls (the delivery sometimes became slurred, since Ashley liked to sip vodka over the course of a performance, which only heightened the effect). Behind the voice is an ongoing piano performance by his main collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny. The piano-playing is often virtuosic, jumping from ornate romantic extravagance to minimalist pulse; to atonal clusters, boogie-woogie and blues, whirling “Flight of the Bumble Bee” riffs; to Elton John-style hamming it up at the end of “Bennie and the Jets”—all in the course of a slow pan across a motel room or a corn field, often across the keyboard itself. Ashley layers the sound of the acoustic piano (beautifully recorded, it ought to be said) with his own spoken narration, splashes of electronics, and the occasional found artifact: old radio ads, clattering percussion, stray location noise.
Linda=The Jews; Don=Spanishness; The airline Ticket Counter=the InquisitionTweet
The musical designs fuse somehow with the opera’s imagery: Ashley as “R,” the narrator, with glitter sprinkled in his gray hair, pancake make-up, big specs, continually making what appear to be Masonic hand gestures, and generally looking like a cross between Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet and a college professor (he also plays a scary character called the “supermarket manager” later in the opera); Tyranny (listed in the liner notes as “Buddy, The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), fluttering his fleshy hands across the piano keyboard; John Deere tractors rolling over a corn field; white text popping up to double something in the libretto; and visual effects that recall the split-screen psychedelia of the last twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with the vector-graphics sheen of early video art. The effect is of stumbling onto an afternoon network TV show, perhaps a soap opera, where all the visual and sonic semaphores seem familiarly packaged, which then slowly turns before your eye into a pirate cable station broadcasting something “defiantly weird” (Gann’s phrase). Ashley’s own vocal performances—what he called “purposeful rhetorical structures based on musical templates”—are themselves disorienting. He regularly accents syllables other than those heard in everyday speech; an off-scan style of recitation (“move along the EDge conTAINed caged nostalgic we are remembering”) arising in part from the elaborate metrical constraints that lie behind all of Ashley’s libretti. There are no chance procedures here; Ashley was such a rigorous planner that he liked to joke that he was some kind of serialist.
Ashley also has a striking way of appropriating audio engineering devices—reverb, stereo panning, EQ, delay, pitch shifting—not as postproduction polish or tricks for simulating acoustics but as an integral part of compositional decision making. In some of his work, like the songs on Now Eleanor’s Idea (1992)—a libretto based on the low-rider car culture of Chimayo in New Mexico, which Ashley believed to be a subcategory of Catholic iconography—the vocal parts run the gamut from expository prose to cryptic fragments to audio transcripts of interviews to Ashley reciting what sounds like oracular wisdom writing. His voice, often out front and unadorned, can abruptly lock into sync with a vocoded chorus, appear hard right or left, now dry or wet, hot or buried in the mix. Much of the prerecorded background music that accompanies the voice in the operas is made up of sounds one might hear on the pop charts of the time (such as the patches and pads of a ubiquitous early ’80s synth, the Yamaha DX-7), and the libretti can be surprisingly quotable: “My heart is so full in the back seat with Dwayne” (Perfect Lives, 1983); “Gimme another peanut, man!” (Dust, 2000); “A group of so-called fictitious characters is just as bad as a group of so-called real ones” (Celestial Excursions, 2005). In the opening pages of the libretto for Improvement:Don Leaves Linda (1985), Ashley included a thematic key: Linda=The Jews; Don=Spanishness; The airline Ticket Counter=the Inquisition; prosperity=America 1952, and on to twenty-five further fanciful (and no doubt tongue-in-cheek) allegoric equivalences.
Even within a multimedia avant-garde scene that included La Monte Young, Cage, happenings, the Velvet Underground, and minimalism, Ashley stood out as a rebel. His genuine aesthetic radicalism invites the inevitable questions about outsider art and institutions. Though the university was, for a time, a place for Ashley to perform, record, and form the touring collectives by which he disseminated his music, he left Mills college for good in 1981 and ended up embracing television as his primary means of distribution, along with the independent record label Lovely Music Ltd. founded by his widow Mimi Johnson. Ashley thus remained outside most musical directions of the second half of the 20th century (with the exception, perhaps, of MTV). While the operas for television might seem yet another way in which the calculatedly outrageous became a commonplace of 20th-century art, Ashley’s work looks more like an ingenious trick of defamiliarization whereby that quaint banality “television” is transformed into a medium for opera. In the end, I think, Ashley was mostly interested in the sound of Americans talking to each other, or talking to themselves: insistent, often indistinct, never meaningless, demotic. In these voices can be heard something revelatory and strange, as if someone took the lid off life and let us see the works.
Ashley’s final opera Crash will premiere at the Whitney Biennial.