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Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley

Kyle Gann
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Robert Ashley
    Book Description:

    _x000B_This book explores the life and works of the pioneering opera composer Robert Ashley, one of the leading American composers of the post-Cage generation. Ashley's innovations began in the 1960s when he, along with Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman, formed the Sonic Arts Union, a group that turned conceptualism toward electronics. He was also instrumental in the influential ONCE Group, a theatrical ensemble that toured extensively in the 1960s. During his tenure as its director, the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor presented most of the decade's pioneers of the performing arts. Particularly known for his development of television operas beginning with Perfect Lives, Ashley spun a long series of similar text/music works, sometimes termed "performance novels." These massive pieces have been compared with Wagner's Ring Cycle for the vastness of their vision, though the materials are completely different, often incorporating noise backgrounds, vernacular music, and highly structured, even serialized, musical structures. _x000B__x000B_Drawing on extensive research into Ashley's early years in Ann Arbor and interviews with Ashley and his collaborators, Kyle Gann chronicles the life and work of this musical innovator and provides an overview of the avant-garde milieu of the 1960s and 1970s to which he was so central. Gann examines all nine of Ashley's major operas to date in detail, along with many minor works, revealing the fanatical structures that underlie Ashley's music as well as private references hidden in his opera librettos._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09456-9
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  5. 1 Oh, How We Misunderstand: Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    That’s opera? The voices chant ecstatically on one pitch, echoing and overlapping in almost unintelligible profusion. The piano beats out a sporadic, dissonant pointillism, though the background electronics reinforce an immobile tonality, a frozen ritual, an undistinguishable fragment of eternity. Each of four scenes is a few seconds over eighteen minutes in length, and all are at the same tempo, a peculiar formal symmetry given the seemingly frantic outpouring of words from someone’s babbling subconscious. Where do these ideas come from? How can these voices jabber the same non sequiturs in unison?

    Robert Ashley’s works do not fit the profile...

  6. 2 The Vessel of the Eternal Present: The Early Years
    (pp. 7-22)

    To a remarkable extent, robert ashley is the unofficial token composer of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s a college town; the University of Michigan has a distinguished music department, and many famous composers have taught there. Ashley never has, but he was born in Ann Arbor, and to some extent he thinks of his operas as drawn from the melody of the distinctive southeastern Michigan accent. Ashley earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and later worked on a doctorate there, which he never completed. Afterward, though, he spent the early part of his creative life in Ann Arbor...

  7. 3 When Slow Starts to Mean Something, We Crave Fast: The ONCE Years
    (pp. 23-45)

    What ashley refers to as “the glorious chaos of the 1960’s”¹ started for him years before it hit the culture at large. Before the Beatles became famous, before the Vietnam protests, before “flower power” and love-ins and men with long hair, the young composers of Ann Arbor launched boldly into a provocative new era. From the outset, the music of the ONCE festivals seemed new and crazy; as one critic wrote at the time, “ONCE isn’t music as the term is usually used, and it isn’t entertainment as the term is usually used. Last night’s concert was a great auditory...

  8. 4 Incredibly Slowly Our View Begins to Slide: The Mills College Years
    (pp. 46-56)

    In the 1960s mills college was a women’s college, and on the undergraduate level it remains so today. The head of the composition program was the distinguished French composer Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), best known for having made some of the first use of jazz style in European music in his La creation du monde (1923). In 1940 Milhaud, a Jew, was hastily exiting France prior to the arrival of the Nazis when he received a telegram offering him a teaching job,¹ at the insistence of Mills alumna and wealthy new-music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. He accepted. Though confined to...

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 I’m Not the Same Person That I Used to Be: Perfect Lives
    (pp. 57-76)

    At this pivotal point we will do well to generalize about Ashley’s mature conception of opera from Perfect Lives on. It is a completely individual conception: no other composer has ever shared it, though some younger ones (including “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Mikel Rouse) have been influenced by it. Ashley himself has been extremely articulate in describing it. Starting with Perfect Lives he began to conceive a great trilogy of operas—Atalanta, Perfect Lives, Now Eleanor’s Idea—that would form a kind of history of American consciousness. In time, Now Eleanor’s Idea would break up into four different operas. The...

  11. 6 Who Could Speak If Every Word Had Meaning?: Atalanta (Acts of God)
    (pp. 77-86)

    While ashley was at mills college, he would frequent a series of concerts in Berkeley by a group called the Arch Ensemble, run by Thomas Buckner. Buckner (b. 1941) was a New Yorker from a well-to-do family who had gone to Yale and, at nineteen, “run away from home” to San Francisco, where he worked at a factory and supported himself on the minimum wage. There he enrolled at the Jesuit University of Santa Clara, majoring in English, though from an early age he had always wanted to sing. Majoring in linguistics in graduate school at Stanford, he met David...

  12. 7 If You Have to Ask You Can’t Afford One: Now Eleanor’s Idea
    (pp. 87-109)

    The five-and-a-half-hour tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea (1985–94) represents the conclusion of the American adventure, of Ashley’s “history of our consciousness as Americans.” If Atalanta represented the life of European immigrants in the eastern United States, remembering stories about the old country, and Perfect Lives the life in the Midwest, preserved in sayings whose origins are murky, Now Eleanor’s Idea, with its four symmetrical parts, represents the great coming together in the Los Angeles of the future, with fragmented identities that need to be reconstituted. The tetralogy could be called Ashley’s magnum opus, a mammoth continuum. Its operas—Improvement: Don...

  13. 8 One Thing Follows the Next and I Just Do It: Dust, Celestial Excursions, Concrete, and Smaller Pieces
    (pp. 110-130)

    When i interviewed ashley in 1991 prior to the New York premieres of Improvement and eL/Aficionado, he astounded me by telling me he had already created the narrative framework for his next fifty operas. What that meant, it turned out, was that he had come up with forty-nine titles for what he was calling “The Immortality Songs,” spin-off operas that would constitute radio shows done by Junior Jr. Ashley has a serious obsession with the number seven, and the requirement for each title was that it be seven syllables. Since 1991 Ashley has written works for about one-half of these...

    (pp. 131-134)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 135-142)
    (pp. 143-144)
    (pp. 145-146)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 147-150)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 151-153)