A Giant Come Too Early

In the flurry of information going around on Robert Ashley, I just learned that Dalkey Archives, publisher of Ashley’s libretto for Perfect Lives, has my introduction to the new edition available online. I’ve always been proud of it, and Bob told me at one point that he had read it over and over, because, he said, “it makes me feel good.” Plus, via Carson Cooman, here’s Ashley’s Lullaby for violin and piano written in 2011, from an Australian recording I hadn’t heard before. A fitting memorial and quite a surprise.

There’s been some discussion, a little of it uncharitable, about whether Ashley was as misunderstood and insufficiently recognized as some of his admirers claim. The obvious rejoinder to that is that he wrote his operas for television, and only one of them got produced and broadcast in that medium. The expense was too overwhelming. He was a visionary dreamer at a time when our culture was quickly losing its capacity to dream, and its desire to make dreams come true. Those of us who love his operas are sadly aware that we can’t completely experience them the way he envisioned them,

as a television series, with each episode having some meaning and humor in itself, but ultimately part of a larger something that only makes sense when you come to know it. Television devotees who have watched The Honeymooners for most of their lives finally come to know something that they wouldn’t know if they had only seen one episode. Same for Star Trek. These were my models. I have had to compromise the form of the presentation of my operas, because I was not able to get into television. But they are pure television. They are meant to be heard and seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work. They are meant to be seen many times. The details pile up, and finally there is a glimmer of the larger idea. This is my idea of opera.

I imagine some more advanced civilization, hundreds of years from now, coming back to Ashley’s operas and finally realizing them in their intended form, the way we revive Baroque opera in detailed technological splendor now.

And then there’s the perennial classical-music snob’s reaction to Ashley, so anticipatable that I reflexively brace for it: “But is that really opera?” A primeval fish watches a lizard learning to scramble around on the dry land, and asks, “But is that really swimming?” “Don’t you love opera enough,” I want to reply, “to get excited about the next step in its evolution?” Bob was a giant, come too late in the sense that the civilization he lived in had quit believing in progress, and too early in the sense that few people could see the future he imagined with such detailed foresight. Even so, I’ve been gratified by all the reports yesterday of how many people are deeply, deeply attached to his music.



  1. says

    That’s lovely, Kyle. Music as life; life as lived — Perfect Lives. I’m so tired of the Masterpiece Culture that commands that operas must be vehicles for Great Thoughts on Serious Topics, along with the symphony and late string quartet. Most Italian opera was just soap opera with pop songs; Ashley’s comfort-and-Star Trek analogy keeps the pop repeatability and cult appeal. Can one say this of the Ring?

  2. Arthur says

    Kyle, this is your call on whether to print this. As there is really little written about Ashley, some might be interested in my essays on “Music With Roots in the Aether,” “Ashley: Defining American Opera” and what I call “The Sonic Landscapes of Robert Ashley.” They can be downloaded from my site: http://www.public.asu.edu/~ieajs/AJS%20Publications.html.

    KG replies: Absolutely, Arthur. These are the seminal essays.

  3. Arthur says

    Thanks. Bob and I had many talks and exchanges. Here’s an except from an email that seems timely. I had mentioned that I thought there were strains of Samuel Beckett in “Celestial Excursions.” He wrote back, “…Beckett is there, I just can’t keep him out. A few months ago I had the idea of making one based on the rhythms of a Beckett short story…I was thinking about him when the heavy door shut. I’m going back and read “Watt again.” See you, Bob.” Good idea. I think I am going to listen to “Celestial Excursions” today, but not shut the door.

    KG replies: I love his contention that Beckett had to eat baguettes for breakfast in order to write in French. Someone could publish a book of Bob’s theories.

    • Arthur says

      For sure, like: “Is there another us-ness that doesn’t need the icon of coincidence? Is there an Immaculate Conception? You heard me.” from “Atalanta: Acts of God”

  4. says

    Well, if any of the people who doubt that Ashley was misunderstood had been on any granting panels, at which his music was dismissed out of hand, they wouldn’t be doubters any more.

    KG replies: Good god, if the judgments made and expressed during grant panels over the last fifty years could be made public and documented, I’d never have to make an argument again. Only because it all happened in secret did the bastards get away with it.

  5. says

    On Facebook, too, I have been happily surprised by the amount of people who expressed their love for Ashley’s work.

    Was he misunderstood? Perhaps it’s a moot question by now. Also, we’re by now means yet done ‘understanding’ it, it’s so rich in implications. That’s the good part.

    Indeed, utopian. Reading through his writings some years ago, I was struck by how consistently he was willing to reason from absolutes, from the impossible. To my mind, the ‘Illusion Models’ are perhaps his most essential, most central works, because they exemplify this most clearly, while the idea behind them was also so clearly a guiding force in what came after.

    I’ve only started to know his work better in the last five to ten years. Upon discovering it I have felt stupid for not investigating his work before that. In that way I’ve been part of the misunderstanding, too. But I’m really happy at least to have seen him perform a few times; Celestial Excursions at the Holland Festival in 2007 stands as one of the most memorable concert experiences I’ve had, ever.

  6. Barry Grant says


    Your Perfect Lives intro wonderfully captures what is so beguiling about the opera. No matter how many times I listen to it or Private Lives, the sense of mystery, of deep truths beyond reach, is never diminished. Its spell never weakens.

    You say so well what it is that makes Ashley great.



    KG replies: Thank *you*!

  7. says

    Loved your book on Ashley about whom there is comparatively little written. The lullaby is beautiful and seems to be a sort of elegy in context. I was pleased to hear the NPR piece on Ashley which Amy X Neuberg posted on Facebook.
    The original Perfect Lives record has been part of my inner soundtrack for about 20 years now and I’m grateful for that.