This surreal and transcendental work by the American avant-garde giant was the first iteration of what would be Robert Ashley’s televised 1983 opera Private Lives. A theatrical work that broke down, with self-awareness and a dreamlike lens, the current US landscape and the digressions of American thought, he called it “a comic opera about reincarnation.”
A little backstory: Ashley was a co-founder of the ONCE Group, an Ann Arbor collective that helped organize early performances of Meredith monk, Eric Dolphy, and Pauline Olivieros, as well as being a member of the Sonic Arts Union, which included David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. In the 1970s he directed the legendary Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, which has a long list of avant alumni that include some names you might know — Terry Riley, Joanna Brouk and Steve Reich among them. At Mills, the taught ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, Maggi Payne and Peter Gordon, among others. Knowing this, you could argue that Ashley helped legitimize and pioneer contemporary “experimental music” from its humble beginnings, and that’s certainly true. Ashley, though, would disagree to that statement, as he rejects the term “experimental music” entirely, despite his long history and deep associations with it. He once wrote about the labeling, “Composition is anything but experimental, it is the epitome of expertise.”
And Private Parts sticks to that philosophy. The album is composed of two side-length pieces, “The Park” on side A and “The Backyard” on the other, the episodes that bookend the soon-to-be opera. Which means it contains plot, but were you to try and listen and follow, what story is being told exactly is tough to discern. Ashley even said that some of it makes sense, some doesn’t. Which makes sense (this is indeed a pun, since Ashley constantly uses this kind of logic flip throughout the script), because it’s a beautiful stream of endless observations and poetic aphorisms, loaded with satire, metaphysics, humor and, of course, the contemplation of the work’s unanswerable theme.
According to Ashley, the opera’s structure was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the same case could be made for how the music’s sculpted. Ex-student ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny arranges all the keys and synths with a minimalist approach and great repetition which, combined with Ashley’s illusive monotone musings and Krishna Bhatt’s delicate tablas, warrant some form of transcendence in response. It’s hard not succumb to some kind of meditative state while listening to these cyclical, peaceful rhythms while the words pour on, hinting and pondering, sometimes obviously but mostly not, the question:
When a person dies, shall they live again?
A beautiful contemplation via text-sound composition, Ashley is the maestro in this perplexing form, and through works like this reveals to us the kind of mystery that lies in listening to art buried in sound, with experimental expertise.
Recommended – Full listen
Tags: Deep Listening / Minimal / Spoken Word