Robert Ashley, Opera's Misunderstood Innovator, Dies At 83

Mar 4, 2014
Originally published on March 6, 2014 7:50 pm

Robert Ashley, a restlessly innovative American composer, died at his home in New York March 3 from complications of cirrhosis of the liver. NPR confirmed the composer's death through his wife and manager Mimi Johnson. Ashley was 83.

Although not a household name, Ashley blazed an individual path in opera throughout his career, which spanned five decades. Far from resembling any traditional form of opera, Ashley's works are constructed of intricate speech-song recitations on a vast array of topics — from Renaissance consciousness to The Wall Street Journal. He composed his operas not for the stage, but for television — a foreshadowing, of sorts, of MTV.

"I put my pieces in television format because I believe that's really the only possibility for music," the composer told author Kyle Gann in his recent biography of Ashley. The American tradition, Ashley said, is not tied to the great opera houses of Europe: "La Scala's architecture doesn't mean anything to us. We don't go there. We stay at home and watch television."

Among Ashley's more notable operatic experiments were The Park and The Backyard, episodes from his first TV opera Perfect Lives (1977-80), itself a panel in a large trilogy tracing the consciousness movement in America and commissioned by the Kitchen in New York. His evocative and enigmatic lines, in deadpan recitation over electronic drones and Indian tabla drums, gave the music a timeless and improvisatory feel. The recording became something of a cult hit among Ashley insiders and at some more adventuresome college radio stations. A sample from almost any moment in the two 20-minute works includes seemingly odd but ultimately memorable lines such as, "Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more attractive than fourteen dollars because of the twenty-eight. No one likes or dislikes zeros." (In my days as a radio producer in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the early 1980s, Robert Ashley fans identified themselves by reciting one of his colorful lines like "The feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air" then waiting for an equally esoteric response.)

Ashley was born March 28, 1930 in Ann Arbor and graduated with a degree in music theory from the University of Michigan. He worked at the University's Speech Research Laboratories before organizing the ONCE festival of contemporary performing arts in the early 1960s and the resulting music theater ensemble called the ONCE Group. In 1969, Ashley was named as the director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College where he created the first public access music and media facility. For ten years, beginning in the mid-1960s, Ashley toured with the experimental Sonic Arts Union, which included composers Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma. In 1984, the BBC televised Ashley's complete Perfect Lives in seven half-hour episodes. It's since been seen in Austria, Germany, Spain and the U.S.

Along with some 17 operas, Ashley wrote film scores, chamber music of all stripes, works for tape, for solo piano and free-thinking pieces like Night Sport, for "improvising voice and various distractions." Although his music was performed around the world, Ashley always seemed to be a composer on the fringe, one rarely recognized for his brilliance and humor, and often either misunderstood or outright ignored.

"And let it be set down, Bob was one of the most amazing composers of the 20th century, and the greatest genius of 20th-century opera," Gann writes on his blog. "I don't know how long it's going to take the world to recognize that. And it hardly matters. He knew it. That the world was too stupid to keep up was not his problem."

The world premiere of Ashley's final opera, Crash, will be performed along with two of the composer's other works at the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York April 10-13.

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Does this sound like opera to you?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Segue to a firm voice that says: That was cuckoo. (Unintelligible) for thought. This little incident at the radio...

CORNISH: This is music from Robert Ashley, who died earlier this week. He came up with a new recipe for opera that mixed technology and theater in ways no one had tried before. Joining us now is NPR Music's Tom Huizenga. He's written about Ashley on our classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Hey, there, Tom.


CORNISH: So, first, help us understand: Who was Robert Ashley?

HUIZENGA: Well, until the late 1970s, when he kind of reinvented opera, he was a run-of-the-mill avant-gardist. I mean, he was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1930. He studied at the university there, and a little bit in Manhattan, did a stint in the Army.

His first little laboratory was a speech research institute at the university. He got interested in electronic music. He was a teacher at Mills College. And then, in 1977, kind of the operatic light bulb went off for him, and it was a huge turning point for him, and for opera.

CORNISH: Now, what did he do that was so new? And why was it such a big deal?

HUIZENGA: Well, none of his operas sound anything like Puccini or Mozart. I mean, the basic sound, there are no singers singing arias. Instead, the singers kind of half-sing, half-speak a kind of recitation. And there's no real conventional, linear narrative that's discernable, at least right away. But it's there.

And then the weird thing is that he geared these operas not for the stage, but for television. He said that as Americans, we don't have this European opera tradition where we go to La Scala, we go to Covent Garden. Our tradition is sitting on the couch, watching television. And he geared these operas to people on a couch, with a drink and some snacks. And that's really, in a way, kind of the opposite of the kind of elitist, hoity-toity attitude we have about opera.

CORNISH: OK. I have to hear some of this. We're going to do some TV on the radio, right? You brought an example.

HUIZENGA: This music is really what started it all, an album from 1977 with the first version of scenes from opera "Perfect Lives," which itself is one in a trilogy of operas based on American consciousness.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a record. I am sitting on a bench next to myself. Inside of me, the words form: Come down out the tree and fight like a man, two cheese and eggs. This is not a record. This is a story.

CORNISH: Tom, I have to imagine there was a backlash to this.


HUIZENGA: Oh, yeah. I think you either get Robert Ashley, or you don't. And I think that the haters out there are, frankly, just too lazy to actually unravel and unwind all of the multi-layers in his stories. And there is a lot of text being thrown at you. It's like Russian nesting dolls. You open one box, and there's another box to open, and another box to open. But the stories are there, and the ideas are intricately worked out.

CORNISH: So, what is his legacy?

HUIZENGA: It's an overused label, but I think of him as one of our American mavericks. I mean, he was a guy who did what he wanted to do, and he went out on a limb by himself. I think he was a little overshadowed by the rise of the minimalist movement and composers like Philip Glass. But I think any free-thinking artist today who is interested in marrying technology and theater - I'm thinking of, like, MIT's experimental composer Tod Machover, who casts robots in his operas these days. I mean, Robert Ashley left a fascinating and dense catalogue of work - still unappreciated, but there's plenty there to keep his fans busy for decades. And hopefully, there will be a few new listeners along the way.

CORNISH: That's NPR Music's Tom Huizenga, talking to us about composer Robert Ashley. Ashley died this week at the age of 83. Tom, thanks so much.

HUIZENGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.