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Robert Ashley

Kyle Gann

Publication Year: 2012

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_

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: American Composers


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Title Page

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p. v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

I may have first seen the name Robert Ashley in David Cope’s book New Directions in Music, which I read in high school and which describes his notorious piece The Wolfman in the “Anti-Music” chapter: “The recording of this work . . . constitutes ear...

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1. “Oh, How We Misunderstand” (Introduction)

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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...

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2. “The Vessel of the Eternal Present” (The Early Years)

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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...

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3. “When Slow Starts to Mean Something, We Crave Fast” (The ONCE Years)

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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...

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4. “Incredibly Slowly Our View Begins to Slide” (The Mills College Years)

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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...

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5. “I’m Not the Same Person That I Used to Be” (Perfect Lives)

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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...

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6. “Who Could Speak If Every Word Had Meaning?” (Atalanta (Acts of God))

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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...

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7. “If You Have to Ask You Can’t Afford One” (Now Eleanor’s Idea)

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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...

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8. “One Thing Follows the Next and I Just Do It” (Dust, Celestial Excursions, Concrete, and Smaller

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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...

Chronological List of Works by Robert Ashley

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pp. 131-134


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pp. 135-142

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 143-144

Robert Ashley Discography

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pp. 154-146


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pp. 147-150

E-ISBN-13: 9780252094569
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252035494

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: American Composers
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OCLC Number: 822018764
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Robert Ashley

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Subject Headings

  • Ashley, Robert, 1930-.
  • Composers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ashley, Robert, 1930- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Television operas -- History and criticism
  • Music -- 20th century -- History and criticism
  • Avant-garde (Music) -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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