Profile: Robert Ashley

The union of words and music is a subject of much discussion in music philosophy, and as a “problem,” it has provided millennia of creative exploration and reinvention.  There are hundreds, thousands of works that comment some way or another on the variety of ways speech is employed in music.  Our Western musical tradition – let’s not get concerned with cavemen and bone flutes yet – began with the Greeks, whose use of music was primarily as an amendment to, an enhancement of speech in ways that reflects and imbues in the listener a moral character (according to Aristotle, anyway).  The most popular trend since then, as exemplified by, well, songsin any of their forms, is to depart from the natural inclinations of spoken speech into drastically, unnaturally contorting it into pitches, pacing, inflections, melisma, intervals and all that that don’t crop up in normal conversation.  Nobody normally talks with a robust vibrato, or spans two octaves recounting a bad meal they had at a restaurant.  Song is an invention.  Otherwise, speech in musical work is typically reserved it for simple narration in programmatic or dramatic works.
Ahem.  Moving on.  It’s a subject that annoys me persistently, so we’ll leave the larger discussion about that for another time, and here get to my real subject, a gentleman named Robert Ashley.  As concerns the spoken word in music, he is a remarkable person for purposefully un-musicalizing musical speech, or parodying it, really, kind of making musical speech a deliberately unnerving experience.  Whereas other contemporary composers, enamored of speech sampling and spoken text though they are, still tend to exaggerate the cadences, rhythm, and melody of spoken speech for positive emotive reflection or representation of the text, or just to be nutty and modern, Robert Ashley’s libretti are almost entirely spoken with some odd quality of inappropriate dispassion, often through a spacey synthesizer. It comes close to baroque-classical recitative, as an analogy, but sometimes he goes to extremes to restrict the cadences, rhythm, and melody of spoken speech towards producing a strained, psychedelic, emotionless declamation.  Ashley’s voices are bizarre, and when set to alternately banal and hallucinatory and violent and philosophical prose, almost as run-on sentences, undermine any certain idea of what you’re supposed to feel about either the speaker or the text. All I can say is that when it’s not sounding anhedonic, or goofy (chalk this up partially to his often-used Blade Runner synths), it’s really, really creepy.  For something that by all musical means is not very formally intricate or profound or emotional it certainly gets a profound emotive response from me, of perplexity and languor and sometimes something like curious horror, like looking at a photograph of a murder.  It is disturbing to hear people speak like this ever in normal life.  It is the speech type of a sociopath.   We can normally forgive narrative or poetical songs of their musical conceits.  We know that it’s artistry, not actual talking.  It’s music.  It sounds pretty or dramatic.  But with Ashley’s music, that bridge over to song, or recitative even, is very often hardly crossed, and to eerie effect.  His characters can describe how a homeless friend got his legs blown off and was given morphine by a pizza delivery boy, and in the next minute talk about French fries, fast cars, and flirting with guys, and then not far after that riff for nine minutes on a story of kids witnessing gay sex in the park (Dust, 1998), all in a fatalistic “so it goes” manner.  I mean...what?
Enough talking about it.  Here’s a video of perhaps his most notable work, the television opera Perfect Lives (1978), to just show you what I mean.  (Actually, he is kind of credited with creating the genre of a television opera, though I think he wasn’t the first to do it.  I’ll look this up later.)  This evidently made John Cage and Spalding Gray pee their pants with delight.

As an experimental musician and avant-garde dramatist, now eighty-plus years old and still composing, Robert Ashley continues to command attention.  He’s a somebody. But of incidental concern to us is to know that he is a product of Ann Arbor.  Or, perhaps, Ann Arbor today is in some small degree a product of his.
Robert Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, and stuck around long enough to get a bachelor’s degree in music theory in 1952 from the University of Michigan.  After getting a graduate degree from the Manhattan School of Music, he came back to Ann Arbor to work in U-M’s Speech Research Laboratory, a now evidently defunct branch of the college.  Combined with a self-awareness of his mild form of Tourettes (note: I can’t find much corroborative primary evidence for this), I can’t help but speculate that his intimacy with the minutia of speech and its interaction with the mind of the speakers and the spoken-tos influenced Ashley’s artistic style.  His music is almost entirely vocal, and he is smitten with its delivery in modern artistic forms. He has even tried to incorporate Tourettes events in performances of his works (again, I think this evidence may be anecdotal and I’ll still look this part up, but it’s fun to think about for the time being).  To perform with a neurological disorder as an instrument.  Yeah, weird. And he may have left a bit of that weirdness behind, too.
I’m a youngin, but I might understand the progressive Ann Arbor of today is the residue of the late 1950s and 1960s. Its character today is pretty benign and Bobo compared to the radicalism of the anti-Vietnam, liberal, anti-segregation, youthful activism back then, which also spilled into fervent experimentation in the arts.  Partially, the culture events that began back then were purposeful counter-culture political statements, especially in the featuring of progressive jazz and blues artists in the spirit of cultural outreach in opposition of segregation.  The avant-garde art scene, vestiges of which might be inferred in Ann Arbor’s arts culture today – and so I do because I can – had its origins in the ONCE Festival, a gathering of new performance art, film, and music, orchestrated by Robert Ashley and several others native Ann Arborites under the name of the ONCE Group, as they called themselves from 1954-1959.  (Let me emphasize that Ashley was not alone in this, but had the most artistically popular career afterwards.)  Ashley cites his time in the ONCE Group as formative on his career.  During their time together they toured the US, performing improvised theatrical and musical works, and works on homemade electronic instruments in an age where the Moog synthesizer had only just come into being, and Ashley remained continually an early adopter of electronic manipulation and unconventional use of media, such as the aforementioned television opera.  The ONCE Festival ran annually for six years beginning in 1961, and was the progenitor of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which began in 1963. 
Neat history, hm?