How Robert Ashley and His Music
Helped Return Me to Sanity
by David Kulma
Early in the morning of March 4, 2014
in memory of Robert Ashley
and with apologies for the solipsism
A few years ago I was sitting in a rented house in Palatine, IL
basically trying to figure out how to still be a musician. I had
recently spent a year working part-time admin for a famous new music
ensemble (the wonderful eighth blackbird, but they don’t
participate in my story), and was now working part-time teaching
music theory at Chicago State University.
That year of arts admin (2010-11) occupied the space between my
master’s degree in music composition (and almost theory) and my
return to academia as a form of income. I was at a cross roads in my
life. I was angry about a lot of things I couldn’t control, and
since I had 5 days a week to myself in a suburb where I knew no one,
I spent a lot of time in my house being depressed. When I returned to
Kent to after a few months to defend my thesis, from the way my
professors were reacting to me, it was clear that I was acting
differently. I hated playing the oboe, and I tried very hard to get
out of music. I applied for many jobs at banks and insurance
companies, but got no interviews.
Early in 2011 I was finding things to occupy my time. I was
reading lots of poetry and decided to start memorizing some. I did a
few short poems, but at one point had all of Whitman’s “When
Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” from memory. I would take me
20 minutes to recite it.
As I slowly pieced my sense of self back together in 2011, my
friend Dorian Wallace kept calling me. He had moved to New York and
wanted to start an ensemble to play his and others’ music. For some
reason, he decided he wanted me (living in IL) to help him begin this
venture. I thought he was crazy, but he asked for my help, so we
started. After a while, it was clear the original idea we had wasn’t
going to work, but I think we both were looking for ways to
collaborate but didn’t know how at the time.
As I started work as a teacher again, I decided to go back and
research some of the composers I had learned about reading Kyle
Gann’s blog. (For years, I have used Kyle Gann in books and on the
internet as a source for many things I new nothing about. Thanks
Kyle!) I had recordings I had procured while a student of some of
this music. I liked some of it, but I remember my first try of
Perfect Lives at the time as being weird and kind of banal. I
was going to have to come back to that one. A guy talking over music
for 3 ½ hours?
Well, it seems in mid-September 2011 I tried Perfect Lives
again, but this time it clicked for me. I thought, “Holy Shit! This
is incredible. And I can perform the speaking part!” I’d never
done anything like that before, but I was determined to find a way.
And I knew immediately who I could work with on this project, Dorian.
Dorian is an amazing improvising pianist, and a lover of far-fetched
ideas. I have facebook to document our first exchange on the matter.
September 18, 2011
Crazy idea time:
So I posted four videos on your wall today.
One is about Robert Ashley and his opera, Perfect Lives.
From what I understand, the earliest versions of this piece were
of Ashley "narrating" and Blue Gene Tyranny improvising
on the piano.
I think it would be awesome, if you and I performed this piece.
You have the piano chops to do whatever it is that Tyranny is
doing, and I would love to do Ashley's part.
Watch the video, and let me know what you think.
Will do. Let me look at it.
So began our exploration of Ashley. I began immediately learning
and researching this music and the man himself. Dorian’s lack of
fear led us to contacting him a month later, and we both had phone
conversations with him about our idea. Ashley gave us permission to
do our own version of Perfect Lives, and we were off.
I spent months memorizing the first episode, the Park. I was
determined to perform the piece from memory. Memorizing a half hour
of text that has a loose narrative structure is a daunting task, but
I’m a stubborn man. In many ways, this hard, mind altering work
solidified my slow return to normal life. Regularly repeating the
words, and trying to figure out meanings, and sometimes giving up and
just learning the words as they were, was a kind of salve to my life.
This was the therapy I coudn’t afford.
Dorian and I got a lucky break in 2012 and were able to work on
crafting our version over the summer at a music camp we both happened
to be working at. As Trystero, by a year later we had added other
musicians and a dancer to our performances and had performed in
Michigan, Ohio, and New York.
Ashley and his wife, Mimi Johnson, attended our strange little
concert at SOMETHIN’ Jazz Club last May. I will cherish the memory
of him walking in, introducing himself to me, and the smile on his
face as he saw the melodica in my hand. I had been nervous to meet
him, but in that moment I realized that he would like the silly
performance art and choices I made in his music. This made the
evening for me.
Even more imprinted on my memory is the fact that he acted like an
audience member at a jazz gig. He was viscerally enjoying the
performance. I was doing my best memory work that evening. I had
really worked to make sure I was not going to forget any words this
time. At one point, I found a pitch someone played behind me, and
sang that note on the next phrase. And Ashley, three feet away from
me, immediately yelled in affirmation, “Yes!!” I was so surprised
and overjoyed at the moment that I forgot where I was in the text for
a bit. Mimi chastised him, I found my place, and we had what I think
is our best performance so far. (All of this way caught on video, and
is on our Trystero website if you want to watch this happen
It was so thrilling to meet and perform for Robert Ashley. It is
crazy to think that two years earlier I was going to quit music and
try to sell insurance. I had no idea in 2011, my crazy idea at
10:46pm in the evening would become the basis for my own performance
career and the most fulfilling musical experiences of my life so far.
None of this would have happened without Robert Ashley and his music.
I am devastated that he has now died, but I can’t come anywhere
close to the grief of his family and friends who knew him for years.
If any of those people are reading this, I want you to know that
his words and music have meant so much to me, and living with it
every day has made me a better musician and a better human being. As
John Cage has said, “What about the Bible? And the Koran? It
doesn’t matter: We have Perfect Lives.”