film, music

Robert Ashley Part 1 “Perfect Lives”

Robert Ashley is a giant of 20th century electronic music and performance art, and an embodiment of the DIY / anarchy / freedom / open spirit that made the 60’s such a fertile decade.

Together with Gordon Mumma (also a renowned composer himself and designer of electronics for David Tudor and John Cage, more on him later), he started the first public access electronic music studio.   Well, some say it was the San Francisco Tape Music Center… they were right around the same time.

Keep in mind, in these days electronic music studios were insanely expensive and out of reach for most people. Only the most well-funded institutions could afford to dabble in this sort of thing.  He later took this public access model to the Mills College Tape Music Center, where anybody off the street could pay $10 / hour and use the priceless Moog 3P (purchased with a massive Guggenheim grant) and the studio’s array of tape machines or the original Buchla synthesizer.    Or they could trade labor… a barter system.

Ashley founded the ONCE group, then the ONCE festival, and did some of the craziest shit going down in the 60s.  The ONCE Festivals live on in legend. In one piece, he had a plane flying over a flutist (Maggi Payne),   The plane had speakers attached with a pre-recorded backing track and as it swooped by Maggi Payne, they would do a little duet.   It’s like a surreal avant-garde circus but not playing silly circus music — they were exploring timbre and texture and abstract ideas… not just carnival tunes. It’s the complete deconstruction of the proscenium paradigm (where the performer is on the stage, the crowd is seated down below, and they exist in separate realms).

I think that’s so much of what Robert Ashley special — he brought a sense of anarchy and humor to the proceedings.  He created whole new worlds.

I plan on writing several short articles expressing my admiration for the late Mr. Ashley.
For this first one, I will focus on my favorite piece of Ashley’s, “Perfect Lives.”   It’s a very far-out “opera for television,” commissioned by NYC’s The Kitchen. It ended up being broadcast in the UK.   “Perfect Lives” takes all most mundane elements of our culture and mixes them around into something quite disorienting. This perhaps is the most truly bizarre part of “Perfect Lives.” All the symbols, all the signifiers — the lounge singer / jazz piano, the midwestern landscapes, the t.v. personality preacher holding forth, the plain language — make the meaning seem graspable.  But it’s not. And it’s the very familiarity of the elements that gives “Perfect Lives” its truly unsettling feeling. I supposed David Lynch is a bit like that too.

In the words of John Cage, “Who needs the Bible? We have ‘Perfect Lives.'”

Here’s some excerpts from “Perfect Lives”:

And some amazing live footage and interviews with Ashley, Robert Sheff, and John Sanborn, who conceptualized the video and later worked with The Residents, among others:

The music was all improvised on piano by Robert Sheff, aka “Blue” Gene Tyranny, keyboardist from The Stooges and composer of this amazing song:

“Perfect Lives” is dense, beautiful, absurd, stimulating, and just out of reach at all times.  It’s an impenetrable jumble of familiar tropes that seem to operate in dream logic. The “plot” involves a bank robbery, a dog, Buddy (the world’s greatest piano player), Raoul (Mr. Ashley), the captain of the football team (pretty awesome David Van Tiegham, famed percussionist, wearing a swim cap and pretending to drive a tractor….. lol).

Oh, and it’s all a meditation on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The plot thickens.

– Bill Baird