Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives, 1978–83, digital projection, 175 minutes.


ROBERT ASHLEY was as much a writer, theatrical inventor, and video artist as a composer, but music was really at the core of his work. In Ashley’s compositions, pop music, Appalachian country, and jazz piano are never far away, combining with the experimental electronic music techniques developed over the decades since the 1960s.

He had a gift for collaboration, and the strength of much of his best work relied upon it. A thread of brilliant piano playing by “Blue” Gene Tyranny ran through much of his music, going back to the years of the Once Group in Ann Arbor in the ’60s. Collaborations with video artists Phil Makanna and John Sanborn contributed greatly to Music with Roots in the Aether (1976) and Perfect Lives (1978–83). Sound artists Paul DeMarinis and Peter Gordon made significant contributions to some of his pieces. The particular idiosyncratic performance personas of vocalists Jill Kroesen, Jackie Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, and others contributed to the unique character of his works featuring voices.

From Ashley’s early years, his outlook was marked by a fierce opposition to the status quo, a refusal to go along with what was considered normal and acceptable. Often, he startled audiences with radical, unexpected works. Once, in the ’60s, he remarked to his friends that if he performed a piece of music and, after five minutes, the entire audience hadn’t walked out, then he had failed. In a public discussion in Berlin in 2012, he referred back to that time in the ’60s when attitudes of defiance and opposition were widespread and expressed themselves in both political protest and the arts. He drew a parallel between political and artistic activism: Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat in the bus has a relationship to music/theater pieces by the Once Group, the Puppet People, the Living Theatre, the Judson Dance Theater, the Wooster Group, and the Sonic Arts Union.

With his impertinent, attitude-filled, Midwestern-tinged, gravelly voice, Ashley’s own performing persona evoked, at times, a half-crazed Southern evangelical preacher seeking converts in an old-time Appalachian meeting hall.

David Behrman is a composer based in New York.