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Darker than clair de lune – some thoughts on Robert Ashley (1930-2014)

March 5, 2014

I got to know Robert Ashley, generally known as Bob, for two and a half years.  That’s pretty damn amazing to me when I stop to think about it.  He is my favorite composer and a figure of unique significance in my understanding of the history of art, and yet somehow, improbably, he was a person I knew.  And now he’s gone.  I feel so lucky, so sad.

I first heard of Bob from his good friend Alvin Lucier, in his Music 109 “Intro to Experimental Music” class.  People Alvin talked about did things like work with famous bands like the Who or the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth, so my young rock n roller mind figured this Ashley guy must be some big deal because of the company he kept in the text book[1].  Alvin talked a lot about how he hoped they’d play Bob’s String Quartet Describing the Motion of Large Real Bodies at Alvin’s funeral.  I don’t remember being impressed by any of Bob’s music (it was a Steve Reich & Terry Riley kind of time for me).

Six months after the class ended, I went to a concert of Alvin’s in a museum in Manhattan.  He performed Music for a Solo Performer, and as happens some times with that piece, it didn’t really work that night.  In the bathroom, I somehow recognized that I was peeing in the urinal next to Robert Ashley.  I was totally star struck.

But I hadn’t really discovered his work yet.  I just knew he had important ideas (couldn’tve cited them for you at the time) and was a famous composer.  I wanted to be a famous composer.

In the fall of 2002, Bob came to Wesleyan to perform two sections from Atalanta: Acts of God – Au Pair and Empire.  Au Pair drew me in (I can perfectly picture Bob saying “jawohl” and moving his hand sideways), but Empire knocked me out.  My dad worked for Heinz when I was growing up so the subject hit home.  The story seems implausible but the telling was just on another level that I’d never imagined (didn’t hurt that Au Pair was long & Empire packed a quick punch).  Funny when something hits you hard – sometimes you push back at it rather than dive in.  That concert stood as an isolated incident for a while, an anomaly.  It was unlike the other things and I didn’t know what to do with it.  I didn’t explore Bob’s music for another few years after that.  It was my friend Ben’s suggestion to look into Perfect Lives (he was taking Alvin’s class now).  But that did it.  The second time was the charm.  I was totally hooked.  I had to get to the bottom of this.  I never will.

Then everything blew up.  Alchemically.  Something that came from a remote library shelf on VHS became the greatest, the thing with the most magnitude of all the other things.  And the person who made it was elevated from famous person to a seer.  The scale & dimension changed so that by the fall of 2005 I was doing everything I could to plan out a piece like Ashley and write text like Ashley and make my voice sound like Ashley’s.  The imitation was the first step of trying to get inside.

There were more bathroom moments.  I took a dear friend to see more Atalanta excerpts at the Merce Cunningham Westbeth Studios after college.  Whereas my first Atalanta had been in a hall packed to the gills, this one was sparsely attended.  In a whisper, I pointed out to my friend the musical muckety mucks I recognized.  I went to use the loo, and from my seated position, I saw Mr Ashley walk in to once again use the urinal.  I couldn’t breach that particular barrier and say howdy do even though I now had the perspective & confidence to do so.  I let it go.  After the show, I thought about introducing myself, but still nothing.  By the way, The Etchings blew me away that night, and the casual way it was ended with reference to Elmore Leonard I shall not soon forget.

Before grad school was really on my horizon, I’d worked up the nerve to send Bob a letter, in the post.  I had some older musicians I knew telling me grad school for composition was a waste of time, a good teacher was all that mattered anyway.  So I swung for the fence and asked the composer I most admired if he’d teach me.  In the letter, I said how much I admired him and inquired if he took on students. 

To my delight he emailed me back (53 years my senior and technologically ahead of me, sure!).  He was very kind.  Flattered.  Said that he was old and mostly wanted time to work on his own projects, that he hadn’t taught in years.  But that he would be happy to have lunch some time.  I probably smiled three days after I got that.  I played it a little cool, didn’t want to seem too obsessed and over-eager, and inquired about this lunch idea.  The back and forth petered out and it never happened.  I can’t imagine being on his end of that exchange, I bet that sort of thing happened with some regularity but I’ve no idea.  To my mind then, he was the best, he was a famous guy, so this kind of thing must happen all the time.  People must be beating down the door to get five minutes with Robert Ashley.  Later I’d realize how much notes like this probably cheered Bob up when he felt he’s been working in obscurity.

I did finally work up the nerve to say hello in public at a gallery show in Chinatown of Bob’s music that Alex Waterman put together.  After the show I asked him about the performance history of Trios (White on White), and he thought about it for a second, blinked, and called out for Mimi to remind him of someone’s name who’d done it before.  My first, brief, conversation with the great Mimi Johnson.  Heart beating, I said my thank you and scrammed.

I went to see Concrete, then Dust, then Celestial Excursions.  A reading of Quicksand at Roulette.  I bought all the new Lovely Music records that Bob & Mimi released.  I met Aliza Simons at Dust and we conspired to perform Perfect Lives ourselves – really just to read it.  It was fun and very personal.  Later, I met Paul Pinto & Gelsey Bell & Brian McCorkle and we all talked about being interested in Bob’s work, me presenting myself as some kind of expert who could put things together.  I had the moment of realization like Horselover Fat in VALIS – sometimes you are the expert, much to your own surprise.

We conspired to do a second, bigger Perfect Lives, laying the groundwork for what would become Varispeed.  We spread the word to a few friends.  Andrea La Rose, a friend of Paul & Gelsey’s who’d worked for Mimi, suggested we drop Bob a line and let him know.  I was terrified. 
A.) this was a famous person after all
B.) what we proposed to do was unauthorized
C.) plus it was long & overly ambitious & who knows
But I bit my lip, found his email address from the previous letter episode, found Mimi’s email, and stated our intentions.

My girlfriend has many times described the sound I made when I got their response that they’d be coming.  It was probably 15 hours before we were going to start the damn thing, but they were gonna rent a car and come to Brooklyn to watch us.  A barrier had been crossed, and really, my life changed.

This was the man for whom I’d delved into Renaissance Hermeticism (and gotten a whole other thing out of that) and the Tibetan Book of the Dead and post-Jungian takes on the acausal principle, all because of a set of damn VHSes he put out the year I was born.  A man whose work I’d been chasing then for a quarter of life (it’s up to a third at this point).  And he was coming to see me.  This was too much.

But Bob & Mimi came.  He introduced himself as Bob (that was amazing).  They loved it.  Bob was touched to see young people taking up his music with energy & care.  We were thrilled to be taken seriously, we were humbled by their presence.  The Supermarket‘s subtitle was true, here were Famous People present, and gracefully, nobody else knew.

One of the first things I learned as a young creative guy who moved to New York was that famous people aren’t really that famous.  That is, someone who passed for famous to a precocious high schooler or an obscurist undergrad was a person who lived at some specific intersection of streets, shopping at some particular bodega for orange juice, going to see shows like anyone else.  Seeing David Byrne at shows didn’t phase me, and I played it cool being a sound guy for Marc Ribot and Steve Buscemi.  But to me, meeting Robert Ashley was the next level.  It was meeting Shakespeare or Mozart except I never really cared that much about either of those guys.  Here was the real deal and here he was.  I could swap stories with him.  I went into his living room one time when he was watching a baseball game.  He said he just thought all the players were so good, and it was a pleasure to watch the game be played.[2]  I reported to him once about a recent trip to Sailors’ Snug Harbor in Staten Island.  He just listened raptly in an almost virtuosic way, he was a great listener of stories.

So since June 2011, I’ve been this lucky son of a gun who had three Robert Ashley’s.  There remained Robert Ashley, the best composer in the world, the thinker I admired the most.  There was Robert Ashley the collaborator, who not only blessed my idea of how a few of his pieces work, he entrusted me with the responsibility of bringing life to new and long-dormant worlds he created[3].  And finally there’s Bob, a friendly older gentleman with whom I got to share a few meals and a few stories.

I’d be really sad if the first guy passed away, in fact, after the letter which implied he was old & tired, I had the morbid habit of checking, thinking, “it’s gonna be sad when Robert Ashley dies”.  But now it’s happened and I feel like I lost more.  That’s compounded by the fact that I gained so much more, and I thank my lucky stars all the time that Andrea encouraged me to email Bob & Mimi.  I can’t think about the sadness of Bob’s passing without thinking about the joy he has brought me.

Leaving behind art, particularly art in your own voice, is a great way to sustain people’s personal connections with you.  I still have so much[4].  But I wish there’d been more.  I last saw Bob at Roulette in December at the premiere of a new piece of his that involved a lot of ISBN numbers.  Fresh stuff.  Crash, which I feel so humbled and amazed to be a part of, was written in the last few months and is musically totally fresh as well.  For an Ashley aficionado, it’s great because you get all the characters from all the pieces there together – the Dr Chicago crew hanging out in the desert while old friends from Concrete drop in, with a view of Lucille in the park, thinking about Willard and how Dwayne listened to Sibelius. 

We’re never going to get to the bottom of this music.  I knew that ten years ago when I first took it seriously.  We’re really damned lucky to have received it in the first place.  Like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, maybe we can shout what we find, getting louder and louder all the time, so Bob can keep track of what we’re finding, smile in seeing how’s loved he is, and then send us back looking in some other, totally unexpected direction.

– Dave Ruder


1. You should know I’m a guy who read textbooks cover to cover until mid grad-school, I never knew there was an alternative

2. I figured he’d have Tigers loyalties from the 30s or As from the 70s.  He did have good As 70s anecdotes for sure.

3. I should add that through this version of the man, I’ve been given a string of professional opportunities beyond just working with Bob I’d never have had otherwise.

4. Right now I’m thinking about Buddy’s sermons in the Bar, the crazed voice Bob puts on in Atalanta in the Willard Anecdote, around 13:00, the straightforwardness of Concrete, the systematic thinking of the In Memoriam… pieces.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven A. Kvaal permalink
    March 9, 2014 6:31 pm

    I interviewed Robert Ashley over the phone in the mid 80s, when I was a reviewer for a Twin Cities entertainment weekly, when he was coming to town to present Atalanta. I, very shyly, introduced myself later at a talk he gave at the University. When I mentioned that I was the one who had interviewed him, he said he hadn’t considered it to be an interview; rather, that it had been more a conversation. It is one of the best compliments I have ever received, one I draw on from time time to bring a warmth to my life. When he used a piece from my preview on the Lovely Music website, I was dumbfounded by his generosity. Although it’s usually described as avant-garde, and it is in its way, it’s also, to me, warm, wide music.

  2. F. John Herbert permalink
    March 9, 2014 11:20 pm

    There are lots of artists and composers that I like, and many I admire, but very few that I love. Bob was first in that category, and your lovely piece, Dave, helps explain why. Thanks for sharing it.

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