Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Robert Ashley is gone

The story goes (and this is now the stuff of legend) that Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma applied for a loan to fund the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor in exactly the same week Berry Gordy sought a loan to start the Motown studio, just down the road.  I have no idea about the accuracy of that story (though, if true, I'd love to know which studio paid back its loan first, if either ever did), but those two studios certainly shaped music in profound ways that continue to resonate and resonate way beyond their initial niches.  People who know Ashley through the work of the last forty years, dominated by his work with speech, and in particular his operas  (okay, let's say it: for all intents and purposes, Ashley was a father of rap), which often fall into gentle and sentimental moods, may have missed that it had built upon a body of radical music that represented the hardest edge of the avant-garde.  Ashley's Wolfman was the one piece of the 1960s repertoire that most reliably left audiences shocked, shaken, running (or some combination of the above) while other works like the In Memoriam series and Public Opinion Descends upon the Demonstrators,  took everything we knew about musical form and shook it to its roots.  I studied composition with one half of the Sonic Arts Union, Mumma and Alvin Lucier. I didn't study with either David Behrman or Robert Ashley, but their work was always a background presence, music made by some wise but distant musical uncles.  I heard many performances by Ashley over the years, but I had exactly three conversations with him. The first conversation was at Mills College; I was thinking of applying to grad school there and he was, formally, interviewing me but he was clearly already on his way out of Mills at that point of time and the interview was, well, absent any of the features one might expect of an interview.  Questions, for example.  Then, a few years later, as a pesky non-Mills grad student, I had come to his apartment in that odd wedged-shaped building in lower Manhattan to ask him some pesky questions about one of his pieces and, though he was busy with recording something at the moment, he had kindly allotted me a few minutes which generously turned into a hour.  He talked about his piece, to be sure, but he took the conversation (well, not much of a conversation; I don't think I got more than three sentences in and one of those began with "Hello" and another with "Thank you") in other directions, mostly up and down.  I've come to think of it as a composition lesson, maybe an essential one.  It took place in his elevator, going up and down 'til we were done, I don't know, maybe a dozen times, only actually entering his apartment once to grab some piece of paper meant to illustrate something, and then, when he had decided it was over, depositing me on the ground floor. (I have the impression that he always knew how to come to the point: there's that famous interview with John Cage by Roger Reynolds, but somehow Robert Ashley, who must have been right there all along, 'til then silently kibbitzing the conversation, sweeps in at precisely right moment with  exactly the right question (Yes, it's all theatre.))  The third conversation was very short, two years ago after he had performed a brief but brilliant rap for Alvin Lucier's 80th bash.  I reminded him of the conversation in the elevator. Ashley said "It's a wonderful elevator."

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