Robert Ashley, 1930–2014

He works with forwardness, and backwardness. He works with what things are ahead of us, and with what things are behind us. I guess the other kind would be… to work with things that are along side us.

Yesterday (March 4), I learned from WFMU’s tweet that Robert Ashley died.

(The link in the tweet is to Peter Greenaway’s documentary on Ubuweb,

“4 American Composers”, that includes a segment on Ashley.)

I first came to know Robert Ashley (’s music) through my then-girlfriend, back in the mid-1980s. She had a Master’s degree from UW-Madison in Piano Technology. I mention the degree only because, for her recital, she was permitted to play a prepared piano, “like John Cage and Robert Ashley”. She had a cassette tape of her favorite pieces from Ashley’s “Private Lives” that I listened to often.

Eventually, I no longer had access to that tape. Time passed, and one day in the early 90s I decided to buy the opera on CD. Quite by coincidence, it was in 1991 that it was first made available on CD! (I must have sensed it.) I went to J&R Music, and when I couldn’t find it, I asked the sales guy if they had it.

“Oh, that’s Lovely Music,” he said.

“Yeah,” I thought to myself, “lovely.” I didn’t know that Lovely Music was the publisher!

They didn’t have it, but he was able to give me the address of Lovely Music’s office, which was not too far away, on West Broadway. I walked over there and bought a copy from them.

I never get tired of listening to this. Every now and then it goes back into rotation. This is one of those CDs I still quote from. I even use it on my Flickr profile page:



Robert Ashley was probably the first of the contemporary classical composers that I became familiar with. And as much as I liked “Einstein on the Beach” or “Music for 18 Musicians” or “Dolmen Music”, “Perfect Lives” resonated with me in a way the others didn’t, quite possibly because: 1) it has lyrics; and 2) it tells a story; and 3) sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

In the preface to the libretto, Melody Sumner writes:


There is an absoluteness to surprise, he thinks. He applies this simple thought to the problem of how to move the shot. Incredibly slowly our view begins to slide, but “begins” is a problem. … How can it begin to change? How can the beginning go unnoticed? How can we pass from one state to another? Is it possible, if one already has a certain experience of life, to start directly on the path, or is there danger involved in trying to do advanced practices without having the proper foundation? And they came to believe that, unless one has actually gone through the preliminary experiences, conclusions may be drawn on the basis of insufficient information, and that these conclusions may produce just the opposite effect of the one which is intended.

In other words: one never knows.

I do this. It’s probably a Midwestern thing.


You had to know I would include a video clip at the end of this! I thought about putting the last movement, which is my favorite, but I decided against it. It’s the conclusion of the journey by one of the characters, and her transformation should not be your introduction. The introduction should be your introduction! So here is the introduction to Robert Ashley’s “Private Lives”:


You might think that a moment like this would be a good time to contact my then-girlfriend. I had the idea, but I’m not going to. It’s not that we don’t speak, we just don’t keep in touch.

Six of one… two times three of one… five plus one of one… nine minus three of one… half a dozen of another.

She’s Midwestern too.