Robert Ashley, RIP
by Seth Colter Walls | March 10, 2014
Experimental composer Robert Ashley died on March 3, at the age of 83. He revolutionized opera with his conceptual approach, which typically involved an "orchestra" of programmed electronic drone backing, as well as the half-spoken, half-sung recitations of his closest vocal collaborators (which included Downtown NYC legend Joan LaBarbara). Ashley's deliberate harmonic structures -- and the near total reliance on the same BPM count inside an act -- owed something to the early minimalist tradition. But his music is also oddly restive and unpredictable, cycling through unexpected changes, occasionally even bursting into pop-song melody. The stories told by his best-known operas, abstract but also funny, might take place in the present-day Midwest, or else the ancient world.
In our memorial mix, we've included selections from the operas Improvement, Your Money My Life Goodbye, Celestial Excursions, and el/Aficionado. Also included toward the back half of the playlist are some of his early explorations with tape noise, electronics and chamber music -- including the seminal "The Wolfman", which enjoys a reputation in many underground micro-scenes. Many of those who had the good fortune to see Ashley and his group perform in New York over the decades (and as recently as fall 2013) will never forget his humble way of pursuing an extraordinary and unique artistic aesthetic. RIP, Robert Ashley.