y friend Joe had a book—it doesn’t matter what the book was, really—that he kept on his bedside table. He opened it to a different page every night. “I don’t read the bible,” Joe admitted over breakfast one Sunday.
“Bob, what can you tell me about your new opera, Dust?”
“It's about five homeless people who live in a park some place around the world, probably in front of my house.”
-- Robert Ashley to Kenneth Goldsmith in the New York Press, 1999
By the time I turned nine I’d developed a crippling fear of death. What happened after and did the worms just come and get you and was that it. And if that was it, what happened to the remainder in the equation, the you that lingered when your body got kicked out. I irritated a small handful of rabbis and priests. I confused my mother, who started to treat me with a gingerness reserved for the elderly. Sleeping became hard, and when I wasn’t busy being in fourth grade, I wanted to die just to find out what happened.
In the next town over from where I went to elementary school, there was a new age store whose name I can’t remember. Outside the building was a purple sign with an Egyptian-style figure painted on it. (Egypt suggests ancient knowledge to most.) They sold crystals. Lots and lots of crystals; crystals and books to people who thought personal peace was a hobby. My mother carefully started bringing home white cassettes with titles like INNER JOURNEYS or CELESTIAL SANCTUM. She established regimented times each day where I was to lie very still on the floor of my room and listen to the tapes—big, long, beatific swathes of ultra-consonant music specifically engineered to make death-obsessed nine-year-olds fall asleep. And one night, I did.
I was playing David Behrman’s drone record On the Other Ocean one day this past March while my mother was over for a visit. Behrman composed the album in 1976 with the use of a computer called the Kim-1, which cost about $250 and had 1k of RAM (less than a hundredth of the space this document takes up on my computer). Three performers—Maggi Payne on flute, Arthur Stidfole on bassoon, and David Gibson on cello—played one of six pitches while the computer “listened” and harmonized according to a program Behrman developed.
And though the record was articulate on then-radical approaches (interactivity, the presence of drones), it was Behrman’s emotional—not conceptual—grace that comforted me. He wasn’t rigorous but he wasn’t vague. He wasn’t stupid, either, just quiet; On the Other Ocean’s sense of beauty was downbeat, non-instructive. I heard it more deeply than I’d heard anything in years. When recalling the album 20 years after its release, Behrman’s memory didn’t emphasize the piece’s historical importance, but the experience of how surprised they were to feel so calm—“how unflappably unhurried we were.”
My mother stopped our conversation as On the Other Ocean played: “It’s funny that you love this music. It’s so you.”
On the Other Ocean was released on a small New York label with a name as simple and arresting as the album itself: Lovely Music, Ltd. Behrman, along with Robert Ashley and "Blue" Gene Tyranny (whose music I'd also fallen for around the same time) composed “new music,” a term used to roughly classify non-traditional composition after John Cage. When I moved back to New York in February, I found myself obsessing over Lovely albums in the midst of a brainless depression. I was shaken by how acutely environment distorted time and experience—somehow, returning to a place I’d already been tricked me into feeling like I’d never left. And I mention time not in advance of embarrassing melancholic pondering, but because time is the only thing all music has in common.
“Our generation was the drone generation,” Tyranny explains. He is quiet; he hunches, but he beams. “We used continuous atmosphere. We were also concerned with extended time-sense in music, with things that take a really long time. And—and I don’t want to get too philosophical—we were interested in parameters of music that aren’t studied. Audience involvement takes place on human levels. It involves the audience’s sense of change. The more events there are, the more you perceive change. It could be an hour’s clock time, but the guy next to you has a date afterward, so it seems to take forever. Another person is having a lovely day, and the time is just passing.”
My propensity to repeat each eureka moment in my life at least four times (so far) is either a sign of a bad memory or idiocy or general reticence; either way, I am constantly re-experiencing revelations, and sitting with “Blue” Gene Tyranny brought on another: realizing the weight of expectation on time. Pop music takes root in anxiety. A “good” chorus or hook is something we hear and want to re-hear; we judge its quality based, basically, on how strongly we want it to come back. So when we hear a song with a great chorus for a second time, we’re heated by the anticipation of it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does mean something completely different to make music without climax, without a sense that everything will collect at a discrete point. Pop plays off of memory and nostalgia and anticipation of form; the records on Lovely seem to happen in real time. And because they do, there’s no convenient way to be distracted from them. Unlike pop, you listen deeply or you don’t listen at all. Understatement takes on new impact. There’s nothing to anticipate. They happen and that’s it.
When I ask Mimi Johnson, who founded Lovely Music in 1978 or ’79 (and also happens to be Robert Ashley’s wife), what she looks for in music, she responds immediately: “Narrative. That’s what attaches me to music—a visceral feeling of drama.” When Robert Ashley and I meet, he talks about country music. "I've been listening to Brad Paisley. He has this song about wanting a car. It's a beautiful, beautiful song. He has a lot of beautiful, beautiful songs: about cars, alcohol, you know. But they're like sound bytes you read in Time magazine. Which is fine. But all my life, I've just wanted to tell long stories.” “Blue” Gene Tyranny tells me about a pivotal day he had growing up in Texas: “It was hot outside. Really hot. But I didn’t want to do anything. So I sat in a chair. And I just kept sitting, watching the light crawl across the room. I sat in the chair all day and watched the light change. I can’t explain it, of course, but it was truly amazing—anyway, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about, right?” When Mimi says “drama,” I know exactly what she means too, but most people don’t; not because they’re not capable of hearing it, but because they might not bother to listen. A new sense of story took shape in my mind: long, winding stories flecked with interiority and observation and seemingly dull, irrelevant moments.
Which, of course reminded me of life, which, of course, happens in real time. The music on Lovely is “composition” that doesn’t use intellect as an affront; it’s cerebral, but humble, pedestrian even. Ashley’s Private Parts sounded like a conversation taking place in the next room; Tyranny’s quietly ecstatic, stream-of-consciousness keyboard arpeggios were like musical lightning, or a hiccup. When Tyranny worries that he will get “too abstract” in our conversation, my mind giggles. He couldn’t abstract a point if he wanted to. For all his rhetoric about the drone generation, his examples are as obvious and comfortable as dirt.
There’s a segment in Ashley’s 1981 opera Perfect Lives where the narrator becomes lost in Buddhist rhetoric. The libretto twists, loosens, becomes useless. Then, he says, almost off-handedly, “Imagine the self shaving for the first time.” In the video for the opera—it was originally a television project—Robert Ashley appears, shaking his head. No. Given that the self is something we all have (regardless of how long we’ve been aware of it, historically), it’s remarkable how much crappy and obfuscatory rhetoric surrounds it. The self cannot shave. You couldn’t even give the self a razor to hold. Those are its parameters and they are simple. (In a review of Behrman’s Leapday Night, the critic Robert Christgau said that the problem with a lot of this quieter composition—not Behrman or Ashley, but others—wasn’t its low pulse rate, but that “it pampers the vaguer emotions.”) Ashley’s assertion sounded like the jokes my grandfather used to tell between sets with his dixieland band, but instead of being about bad chili, they were about metaphysics.
(The author Padgett Powell—my relation is spiritual, the name coincidental—has said he doesn’t write about the world as it is, but how he imagines it could be. This isn’t the same thing as imagining utopia; it’s more like making lemonade. His characters—horny idiots with concussions, drunken roofers getting drunker and falling off roofs—are not interesting or sensitive people. They do stupid things and it would embarrass your human core to share a public bus with them. It’s Powell’s perspective and empathy that deifies them. In his words, they become funny, sweet, even inspiring.)
When I ask Robert Ashley what ties his characters together, he tells me, “Well, none of them are bad people. I mean, we all have those sides. You have one, I have one. My characters probably have them, but I choose to not look at them, or they choose to not show them to me. I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in that 19th century idea of conflict.” (His voice is so gentle, his words so considered that it’s almost hard to process what he’s saying. He smears the word “bad”—baaaaaaaaaad—the timbre of his voice rippling as he slowly turns his head to the side. A hope that he will get stuck on the word lights in my head; that we’d both plateau right there, him saying “bad” and me listening to him saying “bad,” warm enough, 6 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, the fading sun glinting off our small glasses of potato vodka. The moment dissolves.)
I explain to him that I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but I understood what he meant. “You know, I’ve always loved the part from Perfect Lives where you talk about the women who work at the bank,” I tell him. “I often think about that—‘This is Gwen. She works at the bank. She likes it.’ It keeps me calm. It makes life feel manageable and transparent. I always think, ‘Working at the bank. Sure. That’s not so bad.’ Do you consider the simplicity of your characters’ lives a lesson?” His mouth bows into an almost imperceptible smile before he says “Well, there are worse places to work than the bank.”
I have never worked at the bank. But there are probably worse places to work. In 1997, David Behrman told Perfect Sound Forever, “The world is filled with busy noisy music—and noise in general—and I'd rather contribute to the quieter end of the spectrum most of the time.” These were peaceful thoughts. Peace is not the same thing as complacency; complacency is the look of the commuter, peace is what you see on the face of a child breastfeeding or a dog urinating. The distinction seemed especially prescient in New York, where peace is rare and pretty much unspoken of; finding peace—“contributing to the quieter end of the spectrum”—outside of the church or the yoga studio or whatever your pre-structured peacedome is could constitute subversion in a city where colliding strangers on the subway call each other “animals” and a lot of people seem tremendously invested in the act of yelling.
My experience with every Lovely record is the same: It approaches from a distance—posing behind articulable ideas and concepts—but arrives at somewhere almost surreally close, close to the point that it becomes unchartable, subsumed into me. Writing in 1975 on the vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara—who has also worked with Robert Ashley for nearly 30 years—Village Voice critic Tom Johnson said she was a musician “at the moment anyway, fully devoted to basic research.” To me, the phrase meant creating music with the most intimate materials available: the speaking voice, the stream of consciousness (vague or not); it meant, in the case of Annea Lockwood, recording the sound of rivers; or for Meredith Monk, moaning hysterically, freely, in every available timbre available to the human voice; for Alvin Lucier, disappearing into the simplicity of a large, bowed wire. Music inspired by basic processes and attention to basic situations.
Paul DeMarinis, who worked on pieces with Robert Ashley, released an album on Lovely entitled Music as a Second Language in 1991. By analyzing the recorded voice with computers, he extracted the natural rhythms and melodies of speech. “An Odd Evening” was the sound of a conversation from a Chinese radio play backed by synthesizers mirroring the language’s tone and cadences. For hours after the first time I heard the record, listening to speech became a wild, nearly impossible task. My roommate walked in the door and started talking; I unceremoniously told him to shut up. The same happened with the best work of Robert Ashley—I became so fascinated with verbal economy and precision that I could barely speak. On several occasions, one of my best friends stopped by while I was listening to Lovely records, sitting at my kitchen table, enveloped. He’d glance at the speakers, sigh, and say, “You realize this music is going to drive you completely fucking crazy, right?”
But in surrendering to those longer, quieter, pointless narratives, I found something even more perfect than insanity: peace. It’s like, well, staring out the window all day. That’s Lovely’s world: the one we already know, from a quieter, more forgiving perspective. No dragons and no triumph and very few breast-beating teenagers. “Life is circumstantial,” Mimi Johnson suggests. “I mean, how could it not be?” Embracing change—peacefully embracing the present and the way it constantly changes even though nothing in particular happens—isn’t advice just for when people get dumped or get a new job or when someone dies. Music on Lovely makes me pay attention to what’s there, not dream of what isn’t.
My conversation with Robert Ashley shifts from a philosophy of his music to New York, where I grew up, and where he has lived for nearly forty years. One of his operas, called Atalanta, takes its name from a building on North Moore Street. Built in 1930, the Atalanta building was originally a large, windowless refrigerator used for a lot of the butter, eggs, and cheese produced in the area. “The man who owned it used to feed the people who lived in the neighborhood. We’d all go over there and eat. See, TriBeCa was New York’s pantry—very few people actually lived there,” he tells me, “so we stuck together. And he would have it cleaned every summer. Mimi [Johnson] had a rose garden on the roof. The building was this incredible pinkish-gold color. It was like the pyramids to me. And was just right there,” he says, pointing to the window. “It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
Lovely Music, Ltd. has been operating independently for nearly 30 years. All of these records can be purchased from their website.
Robert Ashley, Private Parts (The Album) and Dust. Two of my favorites of his, and both very different. Private Parts falls toward the more comforting, intimate end of his work; the synth-based Dust, while equally beautiful, feels colder, stranger, more uncertain.
David Behrman, On the Other Ocean and Leapday Night. Also very different in character from each other. On the Other Ocean is built on overlapping, continuous, soft sounds; Leapday Night makes more use of space, creating an atmosphere that both twitchy and static, like simmering water in a pot.
Meredith Monk, Key. Meredith Monk’s music is obsessed with the voice and what it can do. This means, yes, a lot of screaming and trilling, but also a lot of quiet sobs and uncannily vulnerable moments. Her only Lovely release, but, tied with Turtle Dreams (released on ECM), my favorite.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny, Take Your Time. I remember watching the DVD for Ashley’s Perfect Lives and marveling at how small Tyranny’s hands were; watching them skate up and down the keyboard was like watching a baker knead dough, but more precise, more soothing. I have speculated as to how long I think I could listen to him continuously playing the piano, and my current estimate is about eight months.
Alvin Lucier, Music on a Long Thin Wire
Paul DeMarinis, Music as a Second Language
Gordon Mumma, Studio Retrospect
Joan La Barbara, Voice is the Original Instrument
Eliane Radigue, Jetsun Mila
Jon Hassell, Vernal Equinox
Jon Gibson, Two Solo Pieces