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b. 1930 -

Photo of Robert Ashley (15k)
Photo by Bruno Bruni

    As a pioneer in American experimental music,composer Robert Ashley is a direct descendant of the Charles Ives/Henry Cowell/John Cage tradition.Sometimes controversial, his large-scale collaborative performance works have pointed the way to new uses of language in a musical setting, and his current works, operas for television entitled PERFECT LIVES and ATLANTA (ACTS OF GOD), are continuations of his long-time interest in and use of visual media to express musical ideas. Writing in All American Music, John Rockwell has said, "Although his interests have shifted and the sound of his music has changed, a core of concerns has defined his work: 'conceptual art', electronic music, minimalism and a new kind of musical theater involving are consideration of the collaborative process that has heretofore defined 'opera'."
    Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1930 and educated at the University of Michigan and the Manhattan School of Music. His musical development was influenced by the ideas and compositions of John Cage, and his early works reflect attempts to invoke this spontaneity. "I learned music from listening to jazz," he recalls. But I realized that music was not as abstract as I had imagined. The stories that were told by jazz music were stories that I didn't grow up with. At a certain point I realized that neither was I European--and especially not European from the nineteenth century." The late '50s and early'60s were a busy time for Ashley as he explored the experimental world of multimedia, intermedia, and"happenings". From 1957 to 1964, he collaborated with visual artist Milton Cohen on Space Theater productions involving light projections, dance, sculpture and electronic sound improvisation. He co-founded the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor and during the '60s organized and directed the ONCE Group, a music-theater collaborative that toured the United States.In 1969, Ashley settled in California and served as the Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland.
    Ashley believes strongly in the collaborative process. Rejecting the conventional concept of aesthetic hierarchies, he maintains that "the idea is old fashioned and suggests accompaniment....Technique of profound collaboration is essential." In his collaborations, Ashley seeks to "use the full imagination of the artists in an arrangement that has a single goal--a single authorship--producing a work that is a composite of imaginations" he says.
    Ashley has found television to be the artistic medium best suited to large-scale collaboration. "the possibility of a profound level of collaboration among a large group of individual artists without the umbrella of an institutional organization is crucial to what is happening in the performing arts in the United States today," says Ashley. "and it is especially encouraging in the present development of television is an art medium," he says, predicting that television"...might be the best place in which Contemporary opera could find a new form." Ashley's first opera for television was MUSIC WITH ROOTS IN THE AETHER(1974), which has since been shown worldwide in closed-circuit installations.
    In 1978, the Kitchen in New York City commissioned PERFECT LIVES, an opera for television in seven half-hour episodes. "In the scope of its ambition and the sheer scale of its production, PERFECT LIVES is a milestone both in video and in music, a brilliant collaboration among a host of important artists,"wrote Charles Hagen in Art-forum. "Ashley's text, alternately lyrical and farcical, trite and obscure, mystical and vernacular, combines with his deadpan singsong delivery,Blue Gene Tyranny's elegant bar-piano improvisations, Peter Gordon's syntho-rhythms, and Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem's performances to produce a hypnotic, deeply affecting experience."
    Rockwell calls PRIVATE LIVES the "summation of every-thing Ashley has been working on for years," saying that "the overall impact is far more complex than what might be suggested by the outwardly bland simplicity of the text and of the sometimes deliberate triviality of the music. Everything contributes to the whole, just as Wagner first conceived his 'total works of art' as organisms that superseded each Component and imbued all of them with life." The piece was broadcast in Great Britain over seven consecutive nights, and an excerpt was presented at the 1983 OPERA America Annual Conference.
    Ashley is presently completing a half-hour television program entitled ATLANTA STRATEGY which is based on his opera, ATLANTA (ACTS OF GOD), and writing a quartet of operas for stage and television entitled NOW ELEANOR'S IDEA. The first of the quartet, lMPROVEMENT (DON LEAVES LINDA), will be part of the National Institute for Music Theater's workshop program in the spring of 1985 and will tour Europe and be presented in New York later in the year.

Archived Compositions

In memoriam...Esteban Gomez (quartet) (1963)
for any four instruments

In memoriam...John Smith (concerto) (1963)
for three performers with assistants

In memoriam...Crazy Horse (symphony) 1963)
for 20 or more wind or string or other sustaining instruments

In memoriam...Kit Carson (opera) (1963)
for 8 or more performers (actors, dancers, musicians, etc .)

Basic 10 (1989)
for solo snare drum
(see The Noble Snare, Vol. 4)

She Was A Visitor (1967)
for chorus

Trios (White on White) (1963)
Trio I, for any 3 sustaining melody instruments
Trio II, for percussion and any wind or string instruments.
Trio III, for any 3 instruments

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