In Memory of Robert Ashley

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 ofPerfect 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
9/18, 10:46pm
David Kulma
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.

9/19, 1:18am
Dorian Wallace
Will do. Let me look at it.

9/19, 2:00am
Dorian Wallace
I’m in.

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 couldn’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 yourself.)

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.”