Robert Ashley
in conversation with Thomas Moore

Robert Ashley and I spoke on 25 October 1981 in Washington, D.C. the morning after a performance of parts 4 through 7 of his opera Perfect Lives (Private Parts), now simply called Perfect Lives. The performance was held at the old Pension Building (now known as the National Building Museum).

Some references are made in the interview to the previous night’s performance. During the performance I operated a video cue card system that provided the actors with their librettos via monitors on stage. Because the actors were all speaking simultaneously but not in sync, it was often difficult to determine where they were, so that sometimes I missed my cue to change to the next card that would contain the next section of text. In these instances, Bob, playing the role of The Narrator, would yell, “Change!” as if it were part of the libretto.

I would like to extend my thanks to “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Mimi Johnson for their assistance with this interview.

Thomas Moore: The opera last night, Perfect Lives (Private Parts), could you tell us … about how that germinated, the initial ideas of the work?

Robert Ashley: Yeah. Well, it started quite a few years ago. I went to California, “Blue” Gene1 went with me, and there were two other people that went to build the center at Mills College. And for a couple of years, we actually didn’t do anything except build the center. And I pretty much didn’t make any music, I didn’t invent any music for like two or three or four years. And then I wanted to do something in that period, trying to figure out what would be the most interesting thing to do. I just decided I wanted to see if I could make music and television come together. So I did one piece fairly quickly, Music with Roots in the Aether, and then started collecting these songs that go into Perfect Lives. And about four years ago, I guess, I had a chance to make a record — when Lovely Music started, they asked “Blue” Gene and me and various other people to make records. And so I didn’t have any instrumental repertory thing that I was working on at that time, so I pulled all the materials for the two best developed characters at that time were Raoul and Isolde, and I pulled that material out of this collection of songs that I had. And I still didn’t know exactly how we were going to approach this in terms of style, because I wasn’t very interested in making stylistic innovation in an instrumental sense. I was more interested in making something that would involve a lot of people, because I thought for it to be right for television or right on scale of opera it had to have a lot of people involved. It shouldn’t just originate in one imagination.

TM: Was that your first major multimedia type of work?

RA: No, I think that’s the problem, that I’ve always done opera. And I’ve always done multimedia. And I did it in Ann Arbor with the Once Group, the legendary Once Group, which dissolved when we went to California, and so there really wasn’t anything for me to do. I’ve only been able to work with large groups of people. So there was a kind of a break there. I wasn’t involved with the people I had been working with, so it was a matter of starting up a new kind of form for me that would allow me to use people who were not sort of living together as a community anymore, who were involved professionally in their own lives.

TM: What was your involvement with the Once Group?

RA: Well, there were, gosh, ten people, or twelve people, who were kind of the core of the thing. And they were maybe half musicians. There were musicians in the group, and other people who were not trained as musicians but who turned out to be extraordinary performers, you know. So most of the things that we did, and what “Blue” and Mary Ashley and various people did with the Once Group were ways of using people, employing their talents in a kind of theatrical sense or music theatre sense, rather than in an instrumental sense.

TM: Are you still working out at Mills right now?

RA: No, in fact I just resigned this past year.

TM: So what will you be doing in the near future?

RA: Well, I guess I’m pretty much committed to try to make some contact with television. I mean, through Perfect Lives and through the earlier piece, Roots in the Aether, which is basically a tape, I mean it’s a set of tapes, that were finished in a straightforward camera style.

TM: At present, three of the seven episodes have been released, right?

RA: Yes.

TM: And we have four more to go. When do you expect to have those out?

RA: We’re trying to … I’d like to have them come out more or less not at the same time. I think that the point of the piece, even in the way we did it last night, makes some sort of compromise with what you can do as a stage piece. In other words, when you make it as a stage opera, then you have to present two or three hours of the piece. But the strong point of it comes when you can concentrate all your energy in one half-hour. So I don’t think it would be right, I think it wouldn’t represent the idea so well to have them come out like in a boxed set. I don’t think that’s exactly the right idea. So I think what we’re going to try to do is over the period of a year release them as records, probably in pairs. I think because of the structure of the piece, in the same way that The Park and The Backyard are a pair, literally, structurally, they’re the two pillars of the thing, the other parts of the piece also have companions except for the middle piece, The Bar, which we began with, which doesn’t have a companion, but it’s the fulcrum of the piece and it’s about this confrontation. So probably we’ll release, say, The Bank and The Living Room as a set, because they are complements of each other, and then The Church and The Supermarket as a set. So that just in the way the records come out, it’ll sort of describe the piece.

TM: For those who haven’t seen this work, it’s not really what you would think of when you think of an opera, it’s very different, structurally. In fact, last night it was rather difficult to hear the text, for those who were simply sitting in the audience. Was that somewhat intentional?

RA: I don’t think you can … I think that we’re using the instruments of our time, I mean, we’re using public address, basically, as a medium. In the stage performance. Now, I think people don’t have any problems with the words when you do it in a studio situation. In other words, the records all have a very clear character. But when you do it on stage, you have to amplify the presence of those people, and so you can’t expect that simple clarity, any more than you’d expect it from … I mean, hate to say it, but any more than you’d expect it from a rock and roll band using that kind of instruments, or any more than you’d expect it if you go to the Met. I mean, you don’t understand the words if you go to the Met, you know. You listen to the music that is based on the words, but you’re not fundamentally kept there in your seats by words. That’s not the way the narrative works in the piece. And so that part of it, I think it’s natural to the piece. In the stage performances, I think we’re trying to develop more and more, really, a grand opera sound that’s right for showing the piece in public.

TM: When I talked to Philip Glass a couple weeks ago, we discussed that it seems that his music is in some respects more accessible than works of the previous generation like Boulez. He remarked at one point, “Well, I don’t want to be playing for audiences of two hundred people; I’m trying to hit a very large audience.” Do you feel like you’re shooting for this large audience?

RA: I don’t think so. I’m not sure in my own mind that it’s ever possible to … I think that for myself, the kinds of things we have to do for a very large audience can be done, and if people are interested in it they should definitely do it, but I’m more interested in … I think my music should be a religious experience. I know it’s a dumb thing to say, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a reassuring … [Interruption] … You definitely need some sort of an audience just to be able to keep going, but I think there’s always some pressure on the composer, I mean, everybody’s always expressed that, you know. And I sort of don’t care whether I have two hundred people or two people, or two thousand people, or whatever. Twenty. It doesn’t matter to me. ’Cause I don’t think … Well, this is just true of this piece, we’re just talking about this right now, I think. I don’t think that for me that comes out in the actual making of the piece. More often than not, we’ll do … This is hard to say on the radio … We’ll do better performances without an audience there, where we’ve done two or three performances with cameras in situations like last night, where we set the thing up and then did performances for the camera without anybody in the hall. And more often than not, it’s a better performance than … I mean, it’s fun with everybody there, it’s actually fun to mix for a lot of people, but that’s not necessary the best form for the music, or for at least my music it’s not necessarily the best form.

TM: In the last piece we did, The Backyard, I was wondering if there was any special structure. Each of the little cards I was turning was the four-seven business. But in that we had two people counting off numbers constantly, and they go six count, count six, and then they go back to some other thing.2 Is there some large scale structure to that?

RA: The idea of numbers as a word fact is all through the piece. I mean, the text is — that’s one of the subjects of the piece. And so what Jill and David3 do, what the Chorus does in that last piece in particular is just to make, to sort of bring that one theme right out in the open, finally. And it’s not a matter of making a joke out of it, but make it light, you know, make what’s been this sort of thick texture of numbers and names and identifies, so simplify it very much. So in a sense the last piece is a simple statement of everything we’ve been doing throughout the whole piece.

TM: How did you work out the rhythmic division of the text?

RA: You mean the six-five thing? Six beats and five beats?

TM: Well, not necessarily even within that piece, but the rhythmic division with text through most of the work.

RA: Oh, I see. Well, the piece started a huge collection of songs, little songs, I mean one minute songs, or half minute songs, or two minute songs. I was trying to teach myself all the different vocal inflections of those songs. So the very first thing I did was to start building the characters on those things. So the first character that was built was that of Buddy, the world’s greatest piano player. So when I made the first selection of songs for The Park and The Backyard, the first Lovely record, then at that time I started discussing with “Blue” Gene the character of Buddy, the piano player. So we put those songs in a very simple vocal track against a click track so that we could measure it according to the different dimensions of those songs. And then I showed that to “Blue,” and he made up an instrumental pattern, I mean that is to say a pattern that represents the participation of the instruments: chords, and his own melodies that express that character. So in that very first recording, in the work that “Blue” and I did in the studio before we even started working on the opera itself, “Blue” invented four or five characters of Buddy. We actually do a recording of certain characters, and then decide together or [unintelligible] that it wasn’t big enough. It was too specific. And we finally developed, or “Blue” developed, this kind of mythical piano playing style that wasn’t attached so much to local techniques or just common … or … what do I mean? … more current techniques. And from that base of that style — the amplified piano style- — we applied that to all the songs as they came out. So with that first character developed, and with the character of Raoul the narrator developed, and with a notion of the chorus — I mean the two people answering — that every time I would finish a song we’d go through the same process: I give it to “Blue” Gene, and he invents what Buddy the piano player is going to be doing during that song, which includes two or three or four prerecorded keyboard things that Peter4 can mix back into “Blue”’s live playing. And the idea of that instrumental accumulation is this enormous keyboard, I mean like a keyboard that’s superhuman. It’s an enormous machine. And the other thing that’s on the prerecorded tapes are basically the same thing applied to the chorus. So that the prerecorded tapes are kind of like what the staging is like. The narrator is pretty much unspoken for in the prerecorded materials. So we’ve got prerecorded materials that are an amplification of the notion of a keyboard, all of which “Blue” Gene invents, and this amplification of the notion of a chorus. So for each of the songs, there’s a very rigid … Well, I mean there’s a strict … There’s a program of changes that can be applied to any one of those different things.

TM: Let’s jump back for a minute to your really early works like the Crazy Horse (Symphony) and things like that. Have you had specific periods that you feel you’ve gone through stylistically? That seems like very different material.

RA: Well, not so much stylistically. I don’t know. Definitely the first thing that I had to deal with — and I’m not sure this is stylistic with my periodicity or whatever — but I had to work out my relationship to jazz. I had to get that thing settled in my mind. So I think that a lot of the early works were different ways of expressing what … I was trying to use the freedoms of jazz, or use the structure of jazz to make longer, more complicated language pieces. And that led I think very naturally because of just having people help, it led into working with the Once Group, which pretty much took over my whole existence for about five or six years.

TM: Did you have much background in jazz?

RA: (laughs) I mean, I wasn’t a good jazz musician. I mean, I was just obsessed. That’s the way I learn music, you know. I think it’s a very common experience for American boys. And you go to college and you have a whole musical imagination that’s developed from listening to the radio and playing records. And then you’re introduced to another tradition, which is specifically historical. And you try to make those two come together in any way that, you know, lets you out alive. And … so that’s always there. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to make jazz opera or, you know, a fusion of jazz and classical. It’s just that all my instinctive approach to music–to everything–phrasing, and understanding about acts, all came from that other thing I learned before I started playing Beethoven.

TM: What about Automatic Writing?

RA: Let’s hope that was my last jazz concert. (laughs)

TM: It’s a rather interesting recording. I was just wondering how that came about.

RA: Well, it started while I was at the center, and I actually purposefully didn’t have any instruments around me. I mean, I didn’t have an instrument at home, you know. I was absolutely tired of that idea. And I started to think that there was a lot of power in … or there was a lot of power in … or a lot of meaning for me in involuntary speech. And …

[Interrupted by a telephone call.]

TM: You were talking about involuntary speech, with regard to Automatic Writing.

RA: What I was trying to do. It comes exactly at the same period as the beginnings of Perfect Lives. The songs in Perfect Lives and the text of Automatic Writing were part of the same work. It’s just that Perfect Lives — well, it was more coherent speech. I mean, I really got interested in involuntary speech totally out of conscious control.

TM: What is meant by involuntary speech?

RA: Well, the kinds of things I would catch myself saying. For instance, I noticed that there were these kinds of things that were in my vocal consciousness. Really short phrases that I said all the time. They weren’t like speech habits — it’s not my tendency to put in, “you know,” or that kind of thing, but rather actually phrases that I couldn’t get out of my mind, and that I kept rechewing to try to get more, more, more, more vocal stuff out of them. And at one point I just set up a recording situation so I could see if I could do that, and it came out OK. So I had some involuntary speech, which was actually quite frightening to me. It was me doing involuntary speech. And I played it for people, and it frightened them, too! So in probably the same way that Perfect Lives came out, I just started working on that material. It took me about three or four years to get the four characters of Automatic Writing down on tape. I didn’t start out with playing. I really started out not knowing exactly what I was doing.

TM: What was the French translation part for?

RA: That was the third thing. First was this automatic speech, or involuntary speech. And then the second part, the second voice was a synthesizer circuit that I’d found that … It’s too technical to explain … It actually was a form of invol— … I mean, it answered the involuntary speech in a non-rational way for a synthesizer. I mean, you can get into those situations. And then I had those two tracks that I was using an illustration, as the text, for one of the videotapes in Music with Roots in the Aether. And I was going to show that tape to the public for the first time in Paris, and I just decided that I would without any intention at all, I decided I would put a French translation on it. And the way the technical facility … the only way I had to do that was a way that removed Mimi5, who did the speaking, from the actual piece in exactly the same way that I think that the other thing that … and it removed her inflection from being responsible to the structure of the piece. So that when I heard that I realized that this could be a third character. I left that character in, and then I really spent a couple of years searching for the fourth character. I knew there had to be a fourth character in there, and I couldn’t figure out how to get that character to come through. So that the piece kind of sat around for two or three years until I could figure out what to do. But as soon as I got the fourth character, then I knew the piece was done.

TM: What the fourth character?

RA: The fourth character is that organ, that sort of organ thing that goes in back of the French translation.

TM: What about the thumping bass line in there?

RA: The thumping is … That’s the first time I really tried to deal with the actual ghost, or the experience of … the first time I tried to deal with the possibility that the music would carry with it certain characters, and put the characters in the listener’s world, and I had done the whole thing in an apartment with people downstairs playing disco all day, all night. So when it came time to mix it, those people were so much involved — I mean, they literally were involved, and I didn’t know who they were! — I just wanted to put them in there as a kind of tribute. I mean that’s where I did all the automatic talking, so I might as well put them in. It was like that was part of my talk.

TM: Are you doing much touring now?

RA: Well, we’ve been touring Perfect Lives for about a year. When we finished the piece, when we finished that is all the materials of the piece were assembled in one place, and we got it on tape, and we had the video illustrations finished, the last fall we started … well, before then “Blue” Gene and I been playing it without the chorus with just Peter doing live mixing. We were doing sort of small versions, usually just two or three songs. And we did quite a few concerts of that. But we’ve only been touring the whole opera for a year.

TM: Was there any reason for leaving out the first three parts last night?

RA: Just time.

TM: Length!

Mimi Johnson: Energy.

RA: It can go on a long time if you do all seven.

TM: They’re rather similar visually, too.

RA: They’re somber. They’re all very somber. That’s what I saying about the half-hour and the television format. It’s not made so that there’s some sort of drama between the pieces. It’s not in that nineteenth century form, in a hall.

MJ: When people hear “opera,” they think there can be acting. I mean, they’re singing like opera, and there’s an orchestra like an opera, but nobody acts! (laughs)

TM: And what about the film that was made for television, The Lessons?

RA: That’s material from all of the seven episodes, and it’s in the actual narrative. It’s one of the subjects of the piece. There is, in the narrative, part of the mystery, or part of the solving the crime, is the explanation of this legendary set of videotapes that Buddy the piano player uses to teach his mystery. I mean, it’s actually like a secret, it’s like a Masonic secret or something like that. So these things are referred to throughout the piece. And so when we got a chance to do a half and hour with WNET in New York, I didn’t want to do one of the episodes, because I didn’t want to pull one out of context of the whole thing. So we decided to do The Lessons. They were built as twenty-eight one minute pieces. Each of those pieces is a portrait of one of the main characters: Isolde, Raoul, Buddy, or Donnie, the captain of the football team, in the situation of one of the seven episodes. And so there are four groups of seven one minute pieces, and each of those things sort of recapitulates the whole opera through the eyes of that one character.

TM: Is that the only material that you’ve done for television?

RA: Yeah, so far.

TM: Are you going to do anything in the near future?

RA: I assume we’re going to produce this piece, in the next year or so. It seems to be in the right scale for that. It takes a long time in that scale, with all the different ingredient involved. We’ve been working on it now, I mean officially working on it in terms of raising money and deciding on the way to produce it and deciding who the potential sponsors are going to be. We actually started that less than three years ago. So we spent about a year designing the production. And then we spent another year, basically, in the studio, making all the background tapes and doing the video illustrations. And then this last year we’ve been mainly touring it on order to develop those characters in performance.

1. “Blue” Gene Tyranny, pianist and composer, close collaborator with Robert Ashley on several major works.
2. It was evident from the cards I was turning that there was a rhythmic structure to the libretto.
3. Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem played the part of the Chorus.
4. Peter Gordon.
5. Mimi Johnson.