Robert Ashley, Pioneering Opera Composer, Dies at 83

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Robert Ashley, the American composer, has died at the age of 83. Ashley, whose piece Improvement: An Opera for Television was released on Nonesuch Records in 1992, died at his home in New York from complications of cirrhosis of the liver on March 3, 2014. "Before there was Spalding Gray or Laurie Anderson or the 1980s," wrote the critic Josef Woodard, "there was Robert Ashley, the composer who dissected speech, envisioned television opera, and concocted a new kind of musical-theatrical experience." Ashley finished his last opera, Crash, in December 2013; it will premiere at the 2014 Whitney Museum Biennial, April 10–13, 2014.

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Robert Ashley, the American composer, has died at the age of 83. Ashley, whose piece Improvement, an opera for television, was released on Nonesuch Records in 1992, died at his home in New York from complications of cirrhosis of the liver on March 3, 2014.

Robert Ashley was known as a pioneer in the development of large-scale, collaborative performance works and new forms of opera like That Morning Thing and In Memoriam ... Kit Carson. Such landmark recordings as She Was a Visitor and In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women have pointed the way to new uses of language in a musical setting. His operas for television entitled Perfect Lives, Atalanta (Acts of God), and Now Eleanor's Idea were continuations of his long-time interest in and use of visual media designed as musical ideas.

Robert Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1930 and educated at the University of Michigan and the Manhattan School of Music. He studied and worked at the Speech Research Laboratories at the University of Michigan (psychoacoustics and cultural speech patterns) and was employed as a research assistant in acoustics at the Architectural Research Laboratory. His studies in composition were with Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and Roberto Gerhard at the University of Michigan and Wallingford Reigger at the Manhattan School of Music.

During the 1960s, Ashley was a co-organizer of the ONCE Festival, the annual festival of contemporary performing arts in Ann Arbor which, from 1961 to 1969, presented most of the decade’s major artists. He organized and directed the legendary ONCE Group, a music-theater collaborative that toured the United States from 1965 to 1969.

Relocating to California in 1969, Ashley became director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College (Oakland), where he organized a world-renowned public-access music and media facility. From 1966 to 1976, he toured throughout the US and Europe with the Sonic Arts Union, the composers’ collective that included David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. During 1975 and 1976, he produced and directed his first television opera, Music with Roots in the Aether (video portraits of composers and their music), which documented the work and ideas of seven major American composers and which has since been shown worldwide in closed-circuit installations.

In 1978, New York's The Kitchen commissioned Perfect Lives, an opera for television in seven half-hour episodes. The series was produced in collaboration with Channel Four (UK) and was completed for television in August of 1983. It received its broadcast premiere in England in April 1984 and has since been seen on television in Austria, Spain, and the US.

Ashley’s 90-minute oratorio-like piece Improvement premiered in New York in 1991 and was featured in festivals in Berlin and Paris. With a narrative that equates contemporary characters with settings and events from Spain in 1492, Ashley layers levels of reality through the use of vocalists who alternately speak, sing, and declaim his original text. Ashley’s music, largely electronic and ambient, sets up atmospheres that are by turns arresting and hypnotic. The performers featured on the 1992 Nonesuch recording established themselves as champions of Ashley’s oeuvre and toured with the composer throughout the US and Europe.

"Before there was Spalding Gray or Laurie Anderson or the 1980s," wrote the critic Josef Woodard, "there was Robert Ashley, the composer who dissected speech, envisioned television opera, and concocted a new kind of musical-theatrical experience."

Robert Ashley finished his last opera, Crash, in December 2013. It is presently in rehearsals for premiere at the 2014 Whitney Museum Biennial, which will take place April 10–13.

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Robert Ashley w
  • Tuesday, March 4, 2014
    Robert Ashley, Pioneering Opera Composer, Dies at 83
    Joanne Savio

    Robert Ashley, the American composer, has died at the age of 83. Ashley, whose piece Improvement, an opera for television, was released on Nonesuch Records in 1992, died at his home in New York from complications of cirrhosis of the liver on March 3, 2014.

    Robert Ashley was known as a pioneer in the development of large-scale, collaborative performance works and new forms of opera like That Morning Thing and In Memoriam ... Kit Carson. Such landmark recordings as She Was a Visitor and In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women have pointed the way to new uses of language in a musical setting. His operas for television entitled Perfect Lives, Atalanta (Acts of God), and Now Eleanor's Idea were continuations of his long-time interest in and use of visual media designed as musical ideas.

    Robert Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1930 and educated at the University of Michigan and the Manhattan School of Music. He studied and worked at the Speech Research Laboratories at the University of Michigan (psychoacoustics and cultural speech patterns) and was employed as a research assistant in acoustics at the Architectural Research Laboratory. His studies in composition were with Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and Roberto Gerhard at the University of Michigan and Wallingford Reigger at the Manhattan School of Music.

    During the 1960s, Ashley was a co-organizer of the ONCE Festival, the annual festival of contemporary performing arts in Ann Arbor which, from 1961 to 1969, presented most of the decade’s major artists. He organized and directed the legendary ONCE Group, a music-theater collaborative that toured the United States from 1965 to 1969.

    Relocating to California in 1969, Ashley became director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College (Oakland), where he organized a world-renowned public-access music and media facility. From 1966 to 1976, he toured throughout the US and Europe with the Sonic Arts Union, the composers’ collective that included David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. During 1975 and 1976, he produced and directed his first television opera, Music with Roots in the Aether (video portraits of composers and their music), which documented the work and ideas of seven major American composers and which has since been shown worldwide in closed-circuit installations.

    In 1978, New York's The Kitchen commissioned Perfect Lives, an opera for television in seven half-hour episodes. The series was produced in collaboration with Channel Four (UK) and was completed for television in August of 1983. It received its broadcast premiere in England in April 1984 and has since been seen on television in Austria, Spain, and the US.

    Ashley’s 90-minute oratorio-like piece Improvement premiered in New York in 1991 and was featured in festivals in Berlin and Paris. With a narrative that equates contemporary characters with settings and events from Spain in 1492, Ashley layers levels of reality through the use of vocalists who alternately speak, sing, and declaim his original text. Ashley’s music, largely electronic and ambient, sets up atmospheres that are by turns arresting and hypnotic. The performers featured on the 1992 Nonesuch recording established themselves as champions of Ashley’s oeuvre and toured with the composer throughout the US and Europe.

    "Before there was Spalding Gray or Laurie Anderson or the 1980s," wrote the critic Josef Woodard, "there was Robert Ashley, the composer who dissected speech, envisioned television opera, and concocted a new kind of musical-theatrical experience."

    Robert Ashley finished his last opera, Crash, in December 2013. It is presently in rehearsals for premiere at the 2014 Whitney Museum Biennial, which will take place April 10–13.

    Journal Articles:Artist News

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