Robert Ashley: (born March 28, 1930), is a contemporary American composer, best known for his operas and other theatrical works, many of which incorporate electronics and extended techniques. Along with Gordon Mumma, Ashley was also a major pioneer of audio synthesis.
Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He studied at the University of Michigan with Ross Lee Finney, at the Manhattan School of Music, and was later a musician in the US Army. After moving back to Michigan, Ashley worked at the University of Michigan's Speech Research Laboratories. Although he was not officially a student in the acoustic research program there, he was offered the chance to obtain a doctorate, but turned it down to pursue his music. From 1961 to 1969, he organised the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor with Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, and other local composers and artists. He was a co-founder of the ONCE Group, as well as a member of the Sonic Arts Union, which also included David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. In 1969 he became director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In the 1970s he directed the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music. His notable students include Maggi Payne.
The majority of Ashley's recordings have been released by Lovely Music, which was founded by Performing Artservices, the not-for-profit management organization which represents Ashley and other artists. Ashley's opera Perfect Lives was featured in Peter Greenaway's documentary 4 American Composers.
An opera for television by Robert Ashley
Robert Ashley’s television opera “about” bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, et al, in the American Midwest. One of the definitive text-sound compositions of the late 20th century, it has been called a comic opera about reincarnation.
“Nothing less than the first American opera, written within an American language utilizing various American attention spans: snippets for the channel switchers, layers of meaning for the smart-alecks, something for everyone, and accessible. Works such as this put to rest any doubts if opera can or should survive, and how.”
— Fanfare (Allan Evans), March/April 1999
PERFECT LIVES was developed musically through live performances in Europe and America. “Blue” Gene Tyranny was Ashley’s first collaborator — his keyboard melodies and harmonies define the character of Buddy. Tyranny and Ashley performed a chamber version of the piece many times together (including at The Kitchen in early 1978). Shortly after, The Kitchen commissioned PERFECT LIVES as an opera for television, the live version expanded to include richly layered orchestral tapes produced by composer Peter Gordon, and the singing of Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem. In 1980, John Sanborn recorded the basic video tracks on location in Illinois according to the templates provided by Ashley’s score. From this material, The Lessons, a preview version of the opera (based on keyboard gestures by “Blue” Gene Tyranny) was produced through the TV Lab at WNET.
In the fall of 1982, a pre-sale was obtained from Channel Four Television in Great Britain, making possible the completion of Perfect Lives. John Sanborn, the television director, designed an elaborate shooting and editing plan for the visual elements of Ashley’s score. The post-production was completed this August (1983) at VCA Teletronics, under the supervision of Dean Winkler, who worked with Sanborn on image processing and was the videotape editor. Since its premiere on Great Britain’s Channel Four in 1984 PERFECT LIVES has been broadcast throughout Europe and in various cities in the United States.
PERFECT LIVES was produced with support from the National Endowment for the Arts (Media and Visual Arts Programs), the New York State Council on the Arts (Media Program), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Beards Fund.
Over the years Lovely Music has made various formats of PERFECT LIVES available: on audio cassette in 1984; on CD in 1991, for which the audio track was re-mastered by Allan Tucker at Foothill Digital; on VHS in 1994; and in 2005, on DVD, completely re-mastered at Blink Digital under the supervision of Dean Winkler, available in both NTSC and PAL.
In 1991, Burning Books (Santa Fe) published a hard cover edition of PERFECT LIVES’ libretto, edited by Melody Sumner Carnahan, with Robert Ashley’s commentary, also available through Lovely Music.