Robert Ashley, 1930-2014

Ashley-GannIt’s already speeding around Facebook, but Tom Hamilton wrote an hour ago to inform me that Robert Ashley died at 1:30 this afternoon. Around last June Bob got a confirmed diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver, and he lost 30 pounds over the summer. I went down to see him one time after my book on him was published; I had hoped to see him around last Christmas, but my books always get delayed, and by the time it came out I was lost in the semester’s maelstrom, and didn’t see him until after the diagnosis. His butt had become so bony he had to sit on a cushion. He wrote a gratifying inscription in my copy of the book, and we had a wonderful talk, which I think we both knew would be our last, although he urged me to come back again. He would have been 84 by the end of this month. He drank considerably all his life, and I suppose it finally caught up with him – though I told him, a man ought to have a right to decide what he’s going to die from, and if I thought I could drink vodka and tequila like a fish and live to 84 firing on all pistons like he was, I’d throw moderation to the winds. Good for him. I don’t begrudge him one drink. It was part of his persona and part of his music.

Having published a book on him fairly recently, I don’t know how much else I can say. But the reason for writing the book wasn’t because I thought I’d get much from it academically or monetarily, just for the opportunity to spend 28 hours interviewing the most scintillating personality I’ve ever known. He was so incredibly brilliant and original and alert and non-repetitive. His enthusiasm was unremitting and contagious. My every visit with him left me in a joyous, hyped-up mood, buoyed by his devil-may-care Aries courage. I’d ask a question about his music (I say this in the book), and he’d close his eyes and start telling a seemingly unrelated story, and I’d think maybe he was getting senile, but half an hour later he’d get around to answering my question, which needed a nested set of stories to be intelligible. I’d ask about a piece he wrote thirty years ago, and he’d sit down and play the chord progression it was based on on the piano. Once, out of the blue, I needed the chord structure for eL/Aficionado, and he reached over, picked up a piece of paper, and said, “Here it is.” For a wild creative type, he was the most organized person, inside and out, I’ve ever seen. He seemed to have total recall of his entire life and his entire output. He was bitter that he hadn’t gotten more attention for his astonishing creative achievements, but the bitterness only burst out in moments, and his sunny enthusiasm for everything in life would quickly crowd it out again. He was a fabulous role model.

And let it be set down, Bob was one of the most amazing composers of the 20th century, and the greatest genius of 20th-century opera. I don’t know how long it’s going to take the world to recognize that. And it hardly matters. He knew it. That the world was too stupid to keep up was not his problem.

UPDATE: I just learned that Bob apparently completed, before he died, a piece called Mixed Blessings, Indiana. It was one of a list of seven-syllable titles he had come up with many years ago for all future pieces, and he was particularly proud of it.


  1. says

    It’s a sad day when Robert Ashley dies. You think everything is one way and then it’s another. That’s the shock of recognition that is so rare. After all, the rare are like that – the rest are stuck with everyone else.

  2. says

    This is very sad news indeed. Robert Ashley was not only a great composer, but also one of our very best poets. Our only consolation is that he has left us with so much work. My sincerest condolences to friends and family.

  3. renevanpeer says

    Thanks for posting this, Kyle. I read your book with great interest. Would have loved it even more if it would have been ten times the current size. And I bet you could have written ten times as much, if they had only let you.

    KG replies: Thanks, Rene, good to hear from you after all these years. Three times as long would have been a blast, but it wouldn’t have been finished in time for him to see it, and I felt there was symbolic value in getting him included in an academic series on American composers – to prove that he *was* a composer, which some people had the lack of imagination to doubt, and that he was worth the establishment’s attention.

  4. Richard Kessler says

    Rest in Peace Robert Ashley. He was a one of a kind, who had wrote and performed music like no one else. I always thought that he explored sounds and places that were in the shadows of music, most often overlooked or simply not seen by others.

  5. says

    He was not only one of the most brilliant people I ever met but also one of the nicest, without a trace of arrogance. The word unique is thrown around too freely, but Bob was truly that – and irreplaceable. Your book couldn’t have been more timely, Kyle.

  6. Joseph Celli says

    Thank you Robert for all you so freely gave us in your lifetime of devotion to music.

  7. Mark Larson says

    When I was 17 years old, I walked into the Walker Art Center to see a concert by a contemporary composer. As I approached the narrow passage leading to the “Information Room” where the event was to take place, a tall man standing in front of me looked down, extended his hand and said “Hello, I’m Robert Ashley.” I was thrilled, he was the first composer I had ever met.

    The concert was a performance of “Private Parts”. It must have been 1978. That night changed my life. I went back again the next night and my life got changed some more.

    And through the years, I keep running into people who were there at those same shows, and every one said how they met Robert Ashley, shook his hand, and then had their life changed by his amazing and beautiful music.

    Thanks Robert Ashley and Rest In Peace.

  8. says

    Thanks for the fitting eulogy, Kyle; and thanks to Robert Ashley for his challenging, invigorating, and deeply moving body of work. I’m going to play The Wolfman extra loud for my students when we talk about Ashley in a couple of weeks.

  9. says

    Ashley’s operas are the closest thing to the way I’ve always wanted opera to exist (if we have to keep the name). Since the time I was a young boy hearing “The Wolfman” and “She Was a Visitor,” I’ve always looked forward to the next creative code and creed from this amazing man.
    Many of us who loved him really did “get it.”

  10. says

    Just heard the sad news Kyle. Great Eulogy. I Can’t forget the time that we brought Bob, “Blue” and the others to NU in 1979 for the complete version of the then “chamber version” aka “Private Parts” – then for NMA’82 for the complete “Perfect Lives.” Subsequently, “Atalanta” at the Goodman, and part of “Now Eleanor’s Idea” in the Rubloff. I believe that you were gone before the several times he came to my classes, did the VDB interview, etc. BTW, never thought about the 7 syllabus titles – thanks. Best to you and Nancy!

    KG replies: Hey, because of you I knew him for 34 years. Thanks!

    • says

      Thanks for the ’79 P. P., Perfect Lives ‘NMA ’82, and Atalanta in Chicago that you mentioned. I still have cassettes of walking around on the boat capturing bits and pieces of the ’82 “boatcast.”

  11. Arthur says

    Thanks for the kind words. Bob was engaging and (with MimI) one of the most generous and persons I have ever known. One summer, researching his work, I got to spend days with him talking long into the afternoon. What stories, what a life, what a joy to have known him and see him and his bands perform. There is much, much more to be said about him…and works for everyone to listen to again and see performed

  12. says

    Sarah called me with the news and I could not see or think or hear for about a minute. How could this happen? Why isn’t his voice still urging me to consider the dreams of all time, and his spirit available in physical form? I spent the next hours listening to what I knew (The Bar, with it’s asides about television and industry) and remembering what I could. Like sitting at the invitation of Carlotta Schoolman and hearing the early versions of Perfect Lives, and seeing in my mind’s eye what a comic opera about reincarnation would look like on TV. And then working through years of versions, and trials and attempts (including stealing the master tapes from Belgian television and fleeing to Amsterdam) before uniting in type on screen and a guy who looks like Doris Day. He will not rest, albeit in peace, as long as we can say “short ideas, repeated, massage the brain”. Amen

  13. says

    Robert Ashley was the genuine model for how art can provide us with transcendent moments. For me seeing the BAM presentation of Now Eleanor… but there were so many of those moments with Ashley’s work it is impossible to pick one. Thanks also for your wonderful book.

  14. says

    Feb. 11, 1983 a date I have never forgotten. A snowstorm dumped 21+ inches on Philly but Bob, Blue Gene et al drove down the Turnpike to give a concert at the Painted Bride. As we trekked through deep snow under the Ben Franklin Bridge to get to the Bride, we heard voices nearby but the visibility was too bad to see figures. We shouted to each other: Are you headed to the Ashley concert? Yeah, they answered. When we arrived we were so glad to be among the 80 or so people who walked all the way up through it, stopping at Sassafrass and other open bars for a shot of warmth. What a night. What a concert!

  15. says

    Thank you for this beautiful post and remembrance, Kyle. I can’t wait to read the book!

    KG replies: Hey, Rhys, nice to hear from you.

  16. says

    What a beautiful tribute. I’ve only gotten to know Ashley’s work in the last few years, but it feels like it has been in my life for much longer. I was lucky enough to be at the premiere of Mixed Blessings, Indiana in December. A wonderful performance–I’ll remember it always.

  17. says

    A wonderful post on a composer I have adored since my college music theory professor, James Sellars, turned me on to Ashley’s work. To say it changed my life is an understatement. In my opinion he merged poetry, narrative and music as no other has ever donw. It should be mentioned as well for those who are interested that Arthur J. Sabatini has written a great deal on Ashley. here is the link to several of his essays:

    KG replies: James Sellars is a neat guy to have studied with. I’m glad to hear he was into Ashley too.

  18. Richard Nance says

    Robert Ashley was a remarkable human being, and his work equally so. I had the good fortune to perform some of his music under his direction (a ensemble piece called “The Waiting Room” that integrated “Are Babies Afraid of Short Sounds?”) during my time at the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU back in the late 1980s. He managed to be unfailingly attentive to even the smallest details while remaining open to surprise — and he was often surprised. Such an inspiration to watch him listen to music — he was an absolute joy to spend time around and to learn from.

    Thank you, Kyle, for this remembrance, and for your wonderful book. I don’t know whether you recorded those conversations, but if you did, I hope that one day the recordings might see the light of day. Of course, confidences shouldn’t be broken — but what a pleasure it must have been to listen to Ashley reminisce. He had a voice like no one else — the Private Parts and Automatic Writing records are nothing short of astonishing in this regard — and it’s very sad to think that this voice has been silenced. (When I first heard “Pillars for David Moodey” I hoped that it might be the tip of an iceberg of unreleased recordings of Ashley dreaming up new pieces in real time. I’m still holding out hope…)

    KG replies: Oh yeah, I’ve got the recordings, and am happy to make them available to any researcher they can help. Bob made me turn off the recorder when he said something he didn’t want made public.

  19. Rachel Maurer says

    I discovered Perfect Lives/Private Parts in KUNM-FM’s extensive music library in the late 1970s and played it numerous times on my freeform radio show. I always received delighted calls from intrigued New Mexico listeners asking, “what IS that, it’s wonderful.” And yes, it was, and is, along with other Ashley works. My condolences to his family and friends on his passing.


  1. […] yesterday, March 3, at his home in New York. Articles popping up about it emphasize that Ashley was underappreciated and misunderstood. I had not heard of Ashley until I began graduate school. After listening to five […]