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Thursday, March 6, 2014

"An American Original" (on the death of Robert Ashley)





an american original

 

The 2014 My Year volume, subtitled “conversations with nature,” was originally perceived as a forum to focus on the issues of global warming and to more closely observe the natural world around me (including the nature of the human mind and heart). But it is gradually turning into a kind necrology—a momento mori, if nothing else, perhaps appropriate given what mankind is doing to the earth. Today I heard of the death of yet another acquaintance, the noted American composer Robert Ashley who passed away on March 3rd. The cause of death, at age 83, was cirrhosis of the liver


     I did not know the man or his music well. I had listened to his “Automatic Writing” of 1979, in which he used a backdrop of electronic sounds upon which he projected his involuntary speech—somincomprehensible—caused by a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, from he suffered. And I listened to parts of his TV opera Perfect Lives (1977-80), where again he used a background of electronic drones, this time along with Indian tabia drums over which a voice recited a kind of Raymond Chandleresque story-like chatter.
     I wish I’d been able to witness some of his several notable operas, which included In Memorium…Kit Carson (1963), The Morning Thing (1967), Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982-1991), the Now Eleanor’s Idea tetralogy of 1985-1994, Balseros (1997), Your Money My Life Goodbye (1998), Dust (1998), Celestial excursions (2003), and Concrete (2006). He had also just completed a piece titled Mixed Blessing, Indiana before his death. I do plan to visit several sites this week to hear more of his fascinating music.

     With Gordon Mumma, Ashley also co-founded the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in 1958.

     I met the man once, and we had a short conversation, when he won the John Cage Award for Music from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in 2002, the same year I won the Foundation’s award for poetry.

 

Los Angeles, March 5, 2014

 

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