Graded on a Curve:
Robert Ashley,
Private Parts

It’s been nearly five years since the American composer Robert Ashley passed at age 83. Noted if underrated as a groundbreaker in the field of 20th century opera, he’s just as appropriately described as a leader in the modern avant-garde. But where many of his contemporaries were minimal, Ashley was labyrinthine. This may lead a novice to conclude that his work was formally rigorous or even downright severe, but in fact his mature work can be quite accessible while possessing depth that’s effectively inexhaustible. Private Parts is a crucial serving of the man’s brilliance, and on February 1 it’s getting reissued on vinyl by the folks who put it out way back in 1978, the aptly named Lovely Music, Ltd.

In chronological terms, Robert Ashley’s recording career dates to the 1957 piece “The Fox,” a five-minute hunk of vocals and early electronic manipulation inspired by a Burl Ives song. This is followed by “The Bottleman” in 1960, a much longer tape composition utilizing contact mics, loudspeaker, voice and other found sounds that was conceived to accompany the film of the same title by George Manupelli.

But the public at large didn’t get to opportunity to experience these pieces until 2003, when the Italian label Alga Marghen issued them on the CD Wolfman, where they were combined with the title track, an 18-minute blast of feedback, drone and vocals performed at Charlotte Moorman’s Festival of the Avant-Garde that’s been called the most extreme thing Ashley’s ever done.

A 15-minute “Wolfman” from ’67, performed as part of the University of California at Davis’ First Festival of Live-Electronic Music, hit wax as side-A of the 2×10-inch compilation/ magazine combo Source: Music Of The Avant Garde Issue Number 4, but that wasn’t Ashley’s debut on record, as his “In Memorium Crazy Horse (symphony)” was part of the ’66 comp Music from the ONCE Festival.

Alongside George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda, Ashley was a co-founder of the Ann Arbor-based ONCE Group; in 2003, New World Records issued the 5CD box Music From The ONCE Festival 1961-1966, which corralled the ’66 LP with more stuff from the co-founders plus such notables as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Krumm, and David Behrman.

But back before the ’66 ONCE vinyl, one of Ashley’s tape manipulations was used by future smooth jazz-merchant but initially avant-garde-oriented keyboardist Bob James as the sonic bed for a track once again named “Wolfman” that concluded his trio’s ’65 Explosions LP. As “The Wolfman Tape,” Ashley’s piece for James is heard on the Wolfman disc mentioned above but lacking the playing of the group.

The Italian Cramps label’s ’74 release of In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men And Women can be viewed as a transitional work, as it documents a shift toward text-based composition, but with enough synth (both rising and falling tones and note splatter) from collaborator Paul DeMarinis (later credited as the two-part piece’s co-creator) to trigger bad reactions from philistine roommates the globe over.

If In Sara, Mencken forecasts the reading of text by Ashley that distinguishes Private Parts, there is a key difference, as the ’74 album utilizes and thrives upon repetition of phrasing in a manner recalling experimental poetry. In a decidedly non-poetic context, if a person took a shot of liquor every time Ashley says “very titanically,” that person would likely die of alcohol poisoning (please don’t try and prove this statement wrong/ right).

For Private Parts (which Ashley aficionados often refer to as the “yellow record”) the text is…well, let’s just quote the man’s words on side one: “This is a record…This is not a record. This is a story.” More elaborately, in “The Park,” Ashley presents an interiority that’s deliberate unfolding (in contrast to the urgency of delivery marking In Sara, Mencken) underscores the vividness of the narrative, making it something other than a gush of undisciplined stream-of-consciousness.

As the words unfold, the music, played by “Blue” Gene Tyranny on piano, polymoog and clavinet and Krishna Bhatt (billed on the record as simply Kris) on tabla drum, encourages a sense of relaxation and the potential to get caught up in contemplating portions of Ashley’s reading (though Daniel Buckley, quoted in the PR one sheet from the pages of Stereophile magazine, astutely notes this “is no new-age, cosmic-bullshit, noodle-fest”).

The inclusion of the libretto allows one the possibly of closely following the text as it unwinds, though doing so won’t erase the possibility of future dives into deep listening; Private Parts isn’t wired as a complexity to conquer (i.e., this isn’t an academic exercise one figures out and then moves on) but a multifaceted experience to savor.

The libretto does reinforce the substance of Ashley’s writing, but it also heightens the reality that Private Parts isn’t a cataloging of an autobiographical perspective; side two’s “The Backyard” begins “She makes a double life” as it commences the inner thoughts of a woman. While eventually the first and last parts of Ashley’s opera Public Lives, these two pieces are in no way traditionally operatic (enhancing this, Public Lives was designed to be experienced on television rather than in the theater).

Private Parts does comingle music and fiction, so opera it is. Throughout the record there is a reliance on cyclical instrumental motifs (some textual repetition does occur on side two) that could remind some of contemporaneous minimalist goings-on, though any similarities are minor at best. There is also variety, as “The Backyard” is less instantly relaxing, immediately spotlighting Kris’ tabla rhythms. Amongst the record’s highlights is the sudden arrival of Tyranny’s clavinet in the tenth minute of side two.

Appropriately circling back to the beginning of this piece, Robert Ashley’s work is well-assessed as labyrinthine; the six-part Public Lives is but a third of a trilogy. Wielding this term can bring Borges to mind, but to these ears and eyes Ashley connects much differently here, in some ways similar to the Nicholson Baker of The Mezzanine. Private Parts is a work to return to again and again, with each revisit revealing new layers and offering new insights. Like great music and literature in general, it’s an achievement to relish across a lifetime.


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