Music is a History of Our Struggle with the Law

This unparaphraseable self-dialogue from Atalanta illustrates something of what I love so much about Robert Ashley’s music:

I said, “Is the struggle with the law manifested in every
aspect of the making of music, or are there law-abiding aspects and others that
are confrontational only because of indiscretion on the musician’s part –
because of a transgression?”

He said to me, “Music is the enactment of the manifestation
of the struggle with the law on a scale of continuous attempts; that is, where
the attempts are related to each other symbolically through a pattern imposed
on our memory. Music is a history of our struggle with the law.”

I said, “Can music, then, substitute itself for the
enactment of the struggle in other parts of our lives?”

He said to me, “That is its most common use.”

I said, “The musician, then, becomes socially symbolic,
enacting restlessness.”

He said to me, “Yes. In order to be law-abiding, there has
to be a place where one can rest. One can be law-abiding only in safety from
the law.”

I said, “Is the listener different from the musician?”

He said to me, “Yes, that is the paradox of music. In
listening to music we are observing other persons like ourselves, but the
consequences of their actions do not accrue to us actually. Their actions are
understood only in retrospect. The consequences may accrue to us as wisdom. May
even endanger our relationship to the law, may change our minds, but for the
listener the act has already come into existence before the law is recognized.
The listener is in safety from the law.”

UPDATE: Notice how subtly and beautifully it nuances the tone that he uses “He said to me” rather than simply, “He said.” The man’s a frickin’ poet.


  1. scott mc laughlin says

    Very nice, does Ashley talk about this anywhere else? would be interesting to see it fleshed out some: apologies, I don’t know Ashley’s music well.
    KG replies: I’m sure if I ask him about it, he’ll talk for an hour. He’s got hundreds of passages like this, and doesn’t write much explanation about them, but here and there you find hints.

  2. Brandon McDaniel says

    I have been a huge fan of Ashley’s music for a while. It’s so nice to hear him talked about and researched. As a composition student, most of my professors either have no idea who he is, or have listened to very little of his music, so thanks a bunch for giving his music a voice.
    By the way, I listen to his operas, but I always feel like I’m missing something not actually being able to SEE them. I’ve gotten to see one of his earlier ones in his Music with Roots in the Ether series off UBU, but all the major ones seem to be hard to find (with the exception of Perfect Lives which I know you can buy on DVD from Lovely Music). Any idea how I could get my hands on a video of Foreign Experiences or Celestial Excursions?
    KG replies: Aside from Perfect Lives, almost none of Ashley’s operatic work has been produced for video, as intended. It’s too expensive.

  3. says

    (All the while hearing Bob’s voice in my ear…)
    He said, “In lieu of the million dollars, the most important thing is to keep all documentation. Without the facts of the case we can have no form and so no reality: or, shall we say, no reality of form of the ‘what was’, or better yet what moves from the ‘was’ to the ‘was no longer’.”