Robert Ashley: You Can’t Call It Anything Else But Opera
Traditions and Influences
FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been following your music for over 20 years and am a huge fan of your work which is often hard to describe to people who’ve never experienced it. It doesn’t seem to fit neatly in any particular musical tradition. Where do you see yourself fitting within traditions?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, for one thing there is a tradition in America from the 1950s of composers like myself doing their own production and running their own ensemble because in the beginning of the 1950s, any sort of new ideas were excluded from performances. Many of the people in my generation started doing their own performances with their own ensembles because that was the only way you could get the music done. That was the only way that you could rely on people who would be sympathetic to your music. And the coming of electronic technology meant that composers could actually produce real music. Composers could actually produce real music under their own control. And so I think that I fit within that tradition. I know there is a huge tradition of music from Europe that was being performed in the 1950s, but the financial possibilities of that situation were not available to us. The U.S. government was putting enormous amounts of money into rebuilding Europe after the war. And so that huge activity in Europe in the 1950s and 60s actually sort of recapitulated the European tradition from before the war. There were orchestras, there were publishers, and there were composers, but that situation of the composer writing and the publisher publishing the work and then the work getting performed by an orchestra was not available to us.
FRANK J. OTERI: When you refer to new ideas that emerged in the 50s among a whole generation of composers, certainly you studied music from composers an earlier generation: Wallingford Riegger, Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett… What was the reception to your ideas when you were studying composition? Were they supported? Were they not supported? And when did you feel that you made a shift away from the compositional aesthetics of your teachers?
ROBERT ASHLEY: I think that the 1950s were a kind of turning point for many people like myself because they had been fearless during the ’30s and ’40s. There was an academic network. I mean academic in the sense that all universities were connected and they played a certain kind of music that I didn’t write. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I didn’t want to write that music. So I didn’t feel myself to be a part of that network.
FRANK J. OTERI: What music did you grow up listening to?
ROBERT ASHLEY: I was like every American composer. I grew up listening to jazz. I grew up thinking that I might be a professional musician doing arrangements for The Tonight Show or something like that. I didn’t actually think of myself as a composer. I didn’t realize that I wanted to be a composer until the middle 1950s. I was probably 25 years old before I even thought of myself as a composer. I didn’t even know what a composer was. I didn’t study composition as an undergraduate. I studied theory and I studied piano and I was a pretty good pianist playing European piano repertory. It only occurred to me gradually that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. That wasn’t my cup of tea. And so it took me a few years to figure out who I was and what I was going to be doing.
FRANK J. OTERI: So the question that you would have asked yourself then that I’m going to ask you now is do you view yourself as a classical composer. And, if so, what does that mean?
photo by Joanne Savio
ROBERT ASHLEY: In musicology there is a classical period: Mozart, Beethoven… As you know it starts coming apart when you hit Brahms and Liszt and that kind of stuff. But in America classical music meant anything that lasted more than three minutes and that you went to a concert to hear and that was played by an orchestra or a string quartet or something like that. And everything fell under that, under that title of classical music. I don’t think for any of us there was a distinction between Beethoven and Ravel. It was just classical music. That’s what classical music was.
FRANK J. OTERI: By the ’50s with the advent of long playing records, jazz recordings started lasting longer than three minutes. You weren’t limited by the length of a 78-rpm record. So you could have Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis doing something for seven and a half minutes, eight minutes.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, but seven and a half, eight minutes is not very much compared to a symphony or something like that. It was big for jazz. I mean jazz is a whole different kettle of fish. And, even though I probably learned a lot from thinking that I might be a jazz musician, it finally occurred to me after a couple of years of playing in jazz ensembles that I wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t be Bud Powell. I couldn’t be Thelonious Monk. And the other part of it was that I wasn’t all that interested. So the whole think sort of like just stopped in the late ’50s. I stopped being interested in jazz. There were exceptions. I mean I read reviews, I listened to Miles, and I listened to John Coltrane. But all that stuff I learned while I was in my ’20s like Charlie Parker and those guys, I pretty much stopped doing. I didn’t want to do it anymore.
FRANK J. OTERI: There’s certainly a freedom involved among jazz groups that in the beginning helped to shape your view of how to work with an ensemble.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, certainly my idea of an ensemble is deeply related to the jazz idea of an ensemble. But I never thought of myself as writing jazz music. It’s more a condition of how you write music in America than it is a matter of influences. In the ensembles I worked with in the 1960s, I was not trying to make a new kind of jazz. It just came out to be eight or ten people because that’s all one could afford to do.
FRANK J. OTERI: Was it then a new kind of classical music using the American sense of classical being anything from Beethoven to Ravel as you said?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, but it’s hard in an interview like this to know where to start talking about how that music differs from so-called classical music which in effect meant European music, without starting to get very technical which is so boring. All I can say is that the important thing in the 1950s and 1960s for me and a lot of my colleagues was that there came to be this specific interest in the sound texture… I don’t know what Europeans would call this, but there seemed to be an interest in the sound as such. And, so all of those old rules of European music, harmonic architecture and other things that were intrinsic to classical music sort of went out the window. I mean we just abandoned them.
FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of people in the classical music industry say that they can’t define classical music, but they know what it sounds like. But if you already know what it’s going to sound like, why listen?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Right. I agree with you entirely.