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Experimental composer Robert Ashley dies at 83

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ashley_3Robert Ashley may not have been well known amongst everyday music lovers, but for the adventurous, he was notoriously innovative in the field of contemporary opera. In fact, I’d suspect history will be paying him a visit as one of the great operatic innovators of the 20th century.

Friend and colleague Kyle Gann, who had recently written a biography on the composer, broke the news on his website last night. Gann stated that that Ashley had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver last June, and died on March 3rd at 1:30 p.m.

“Bob was one of the most amazing composers of the 20th century, and the greatest genius of 20th-century opera. I don’t know how long it’s going to take the world to recognize that. And it hardly matters. He knew it.”

Ashley was best known for his radical reinvention of the operatic form, fusing electronic music and spoken text into his operas and theatre works. He believed speech to be just as powerful as the sung voice, and spent years perfecting a unique method of “notating” speech in place of traditionally sung text. He also worked with many other pioneers such as Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman.

His final opera, CRASH, is due to premiere at the Whitney in New York later this year. They are collecting funds for the project here.


I recall as a student in Vancouver many years ago, I contacted Ashley and had the honour of sharing an email correspondence with him. He was incredibly intelligent, funny, and wonderfully strange! He also sent me a personally signed copy of the libretto to his opera Dust in which he writes:

I have been fascinated by “street talk”, the so-called “babble” of marginalized and isolated persons, some of them seemingly mentally different from me, for more than twenty years. Their talk and speaking habits and repetitive routines seemed mysteriously connected to music and music composition in some way. I have returned to this interest, obliquely, in much of my work in opera over the last two decades, but there was never the opportunity to “take it on” directly, because of my obligations to the trilogy of operas, ATALANTA (ACTS OF GOD), PERFECT LIVES and NOW ELANOR’S IDEA and because of obligations to commissions and projects where the subject was given.

Rest in peace, Bob.



Michael Vincent


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