Robert Ashley, 1930-2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

This was my facebook post the day after I heard of Bob passing, plus I’ve added some other remembrances:

Okay. The shock is wearing off. I first saw Bob Ashley when I was 17. At The Kitchen. It was the most bewildering thing I’d ever seen. He sat at a table with two friends, talking and drinking. In the new music scene back then there was a lot of gradual “process” music going on. The process here was watching, listening to three friends as they gradually got more drunk and their conversation got more intense. Much of the audience gradually left. I stayed. I guess I wanted to see if something would actually “happen.” I don’t know if I enjoyed it, but, like every Ashley piece I have seen since, I was fascinated by the whole thing.

I just re-read Tom Johnson’s Village Voice review of this event in Tom’s The Voice of New Music (PDF) book. The date of this review was April 11, 1974. The name of Bob’s piece was “Your Move I Think.” Tom writes about the people leaving, “They did not look bored as they walked out, as people do when something is inept or just bad. They seemed irritated, and really angry.” He finishes the review by saying, “I have the feeling that sooner or later the music world will have to come to terms with Ashley. And the dust may not settle for quite a while.” You hit the nail on the head, Tom.

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Here are just a few other memories I have of Bob.

The next time I came across Bob’s music was the release of the Private Parts lp on Lovely Music, in 1978. It was part of the first round of Lovely Music releases with included Jon Hassell’s Vernal Equinox on which I played, so I got the entire series pre-release. As with all of Bob’s music, I was blown away and bewildered. I could not stop listening to it. His phrasing and vocal inflection, his syntax and imagery, was joyously burned in to by brain, where it still resides. Over the next few years I took every opportunity I had to see him perform these solo pieces in performance, as he evolved his opera “Private Lives.” I saw him at The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

A short time later, Bob produced the video/music series Music with Roots in the Aether (here and here), which was a sort of holy grail of all the music that meant the most to me at that time. Videotape machines were not household items at that time. The only way to see these videos were at special showings. While at school in Toronto, I got some friends together to drive down to Buffalo to see some of them at the Albright-Knox Museum. Each of these 10 videos were 2 hours long, so it was not really possible to see them all in one sitting. We had to choose which ones to see (I think we chose Terry Riley and Philip Glass). Sometime in ’78 or ’79 The Kitchen had a week of complete showings and I was able to see every one. Here’s one of my favorite Bob stories. I was sitting at The Kitchen one afternoon, watching the Pauline Oliveros episode. I think it was the second one I’d seen that day. As you might know, each video consist of a one hour conversation between Bob and the composer at hand, and one hour of the composer playing thier own music (solo or with and ensemble). In each conversation part of each video, something unusual and unique happens. During the Philip Glass conversation the room gradually becomes filled with children. David Behrman’s conversation takes place in a helicopter flying over the SF Bay area. Pauline Oliveros has someone gradually dressing her as a “normal” looking woman while paying no attention to it. While I was watching Pauline’s conversation on this day at The Kitchen, there were some quite piano notes playing in the backround. I didn’t really notice it at first since it fit so well into the conversation. As Pauline gradually got into her “woman” constume, the piano gradually got more active. I remember thinking to myself, “there was no backround music in the other videos, why is it here?” I then realized that the sound of the piano was not coming from the speakers. I looked around and there behind me (and the other 3 or 4 people in the audience at the time) was Bob sitting at the grand piano providing live cocktail-piano-like accompanying to the video. It was perfect and very Robert Ashley.

I never actually had a conversation with Bob. He had been to a few of my concerts and we knew each other well enough to say hello, but I wanted to know the man through is amazing and highly influential art. I didn’t want to break that “fourth wall” and get to know him as simply a man. His work was improbable and confounding, and it was important to me to keep it that way.

There have been some wonderful tributes and articles. Here are just a few. David Toop, Kyle Gann, Alex Waterman.

One more thing. Thank you, Bob.

 

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