Speaking of Robert Ashley, I had a wonderful moment interviewing him a couple of weeks ago. We covered his entire life up to 1979, and then hit Perfect Lives. Of course I think Perfect Lives (then titled Private Parts) was the onset of the spectacular part of Ashley’s career, the moment at which he transcended the post-Cage conceptualist movement he was a player in. The piece will get an entire chapter in my upcoming book. And as we discussed it I learned that I had been involved in the world premiere. On October 24, 1979 – I have the poster for the performance in my living room – Ashley and “Blue” Gene Tyranny came to Northwestern University, at the invitation of my composition teacher Peter Gena, to perform Private Parts in its entirety for the first time. I had forgotten, if I knew then, that this was the first complete performance. Bob, as was his wont, needed a bottle of vodka to drink during the performance. As the grad student go-fer in charge, it was my job to drive in a rush to Desplains, Ill. (since Evanston, home of the Women’s Temperance Union, was a dry town) and buy the vodka. Vodka was a little heady for my taste at the time – a 1994 trip to Warsaw would change that – so, imitating my hero, I picked up a bottle of wine for myself. Bob was then performing the piece by reading the text from a video monitor. Technology being what it then was, the monitor was connected to a backstage camera, and someone had to hold index cards containing the text in front of the camera. That someone was me. So Bob was onstage drinking vodka, “Blue” was playing the piano in his inimitably gorgeous way, and I was backstage sipping wine while moving cards in front of a video camera. At one point late in the piece I was a little slow, and I heard Bob patiently say, in the middle of the text, “Kyle….”
Bob had given a talk to the grad composition/theory students that afternoon. Afterward, the chair of the department asked me if I had understood anything Ashley was saying. He clearly hadn’t. I said, “Of course!”
Somewhere in the Northwestern library is a tape of the premiere performance of Perfect Lives, personalized, with my name in the middle of it. I looked for it once and couldn’t find it, but then I also looked there for one of the famous Julius Eastman tapes that later came out on New World, and couldn’t find that because it wasn’t labeled, and it eventually turned up. But I didn’t realize that Bob had never performed the whole thing before. It was my favorite version of Perfect Lives ever, just Bob and “Blue” with a drone on a background tape, before Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem and a dozen other elements were added in for a kind of information overload. It was still like his “Yellow Album” that came out that year. And, discussing it with Bob last week, I suddenly went from being a historian taking notes to reminiscing about something Ashley and I had done together. What a weird double feeling, like I was part of the history I was writing about.
I’m feeling old lately. I’m only 53, but I seem to be so focused on the past, my own and everyone else’s.