It's spring, 1977. Robert Ashley locks himself in his fifth floor rooms in the Lake Merritt Hotel in Oakland*. He needs privacy.
He has been composing the libretto for a music film. Now a record possibility has developed; Lovely Music, just starting up, wants something from him. He's got the words, but not much time. He has tried to get various people to sing his words (or speak them or anything.) No luck. On the day before work is supposed to begin in a recording studio but with no work yet to do, he goes into a room with a tape recorder and sings the words himself. What comes of it is The Park and The Backyard. Eventually, he recognizes what he's created as the first and last episodes of his opera for television, "Perfect Lives," the middle opera of a monumental trilogy tracing the history of the movement of consciousness across America (east to west.) This original recording with Ashley's voice, accompanied by "Blue" Gene Tyranny on keyboards, and "Kris" on tablas, remains a classic. It is a masterpiece in its simplicity of form and in the purity and intensity of its effect on the listener.
Summer, 1978: What I hear broadcast through a clock-radio in my studio apartment near the freeway in Palo Alto one afternoon changes my life. Frankie Mann of KPFA describes the composer as the director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, and a founding member of the infamous Once Group. While I'm listening to this first recording of The Park, I realize that free will is possible. I am roused to a profound experience. The Vedas, too, were a revelation by sound. I wore out two copies of the stereo LP introducing it to friends. This issuing of a remastered CD recording of "the yellow record" is an event.
"This is a record," Ashley sings. "This is not a record, this is a story." I listened five times in a row before attempting to write these notes. Each time I've listened over the years, I've heard things I had not heard before. Everything in Ashley's creation makes metabolic connections; there's a transpersonal, time-exempt freedom in it; "the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air." In other words, the effect of his engaging, lyrical expression is that the mind opens. Only a masterpiece does that.
How do we know we are in contact with a masterpiece? Gertrude Stein says, "the masterpiece has nothing to do with human nature or with identity, it has to do with the human mind and the entity that is with a thing in itself of course masterpieces have no more time than they have identity although time like identity is what they do concern themselves about." Ashley, in The Backyard magnifies the details: "Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more attractive than fourteen dollars because of the twenty-eight. No one likes or dislikes zeros." We are in Isolde's mind, "She stands there in the doorway of her mother's house and thinks these thoughts Coincidence isn't a mystery to her...She is earth, we are the sun circling, but not circling her. She is circling, we are circling." And for him, in The Park, "Begins is a problem...He wasn't happy with the world, he worked with the forwardness and the backwardness...working against time as they say." His technique is judgment, gravity, the absolute. Her method is suspension, lightness, the curve. He sits with both feet on the floor, it's late morning: "In his mind the two men are frozen on the bench." She stands in light at evening watching the barn swallows: "This is the celebration of the changing of the light."
Ashley succeeds in immersing us in the essences of these people until we are overtaken by their particularities, by their atmospheres, and instantaneity ensues. We are in the moment, he is Adam-and-Eveing us, our identities merge with the characters and the narrator, and are blended in a chemistry, under the spell of his sensate technology. Ashley's words with music make a solvent for individuality, like compassion. Enter a masterwork the same way it was created. Only a person working without a sense of personal identity can make something of pure essence: There's the Eastern idea, also found in jazz, that music can only be performed correctly if one completely forgets oneself.
Did you ever leap out of a particularly murky human situation because you'd retrieved and incorporated the pure physics of, say, an Iago moving upon Othello's trusting bulk, or a blind Lear cast on the heath? Your own minor drama suddenly rings with a keen clarity beyond the mystery of its resolution. Robert Ashley's work . resonates in such a manner. And, he tells a great story, with beauty and grace. Every word is a locus from which the spokes of one's memory and cognition radiate out. Well, maybe that's a little too much. Let's just say, don't adore him. He'll insist: What good is praise, it never improves the work. He's a phenomenon like the reflective surface of a like. See the face, don't hear the name: It might as easily be Chaucer, Goethe, Jane Austen, or Frances Yates.
-- Melody Sumner, April 1990
*("The Lake Merritt Hotel, resting on the shares of lovely Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, California, is a once grand apartment hotel now fallen into disuse and semi-ruin. It was an almost perfect place to be fifteen years ago. Huge suites of rooms with great views, breakfast in bed, a flawless telephone filtering switchboard and message service and an interplanetary staff, all for a song. Gone now. I lived there for five years" - Robert Ashley)
Robert Ashley: voice
“Blue” Gene Tyranny: piano /polymoog clavinet
Settings for piano and orchestra by “Blue” Gene Tyranny at the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College, Oakland, California
Digital editing and mastering by Allan Tucker, Foothill Productions, NYC.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Copyright © 1977 Robert Ashley/Visibility Music Publishers (BMI).
© (P) 1990 Lovely Music, Ltd.