Cutting-Edge Classical Composer Lives for the 'Now'

If composer Robert Ashley's credo, "just do it," sounds more like the Nike ad campaign than the profundities of a serious artist, then it's all the more fitting.

This determinedly avant-garde musician has devoted his extensive career to resonating with cultural references of his own time - and fighting what he sees as the "museum mentality" of most of the contemporary, serious music world.

"I'm not Italian or German, and I could no more be Puccini or Wagner than I could be John Coltrane," he explains. He believes that Americans need to get over their love affair with old European memories and begin a relationship with the sounds of today.

Ashley's works, which utilize electronic sounds, include "The Fourth of July" (1960) and "Detroit Divided" (1962), as well as film scores for "The Image in Time" (1957) and "Overdrive" (1968).

"I wish we'd live in the present the way Puccini lived in the present," he muses. In his day, he says, the Italian composer was as popular as today's Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson. It is this relentless love of the now that has placed him at the cutting edge of today's classical-music scene.

"Robert is really trying to redefine opera," says Joan La Barbara, a singer and performance artist who has worked with Mr. Ashley over a period of decades.

She adds that while other experimental figures such as Philip Glass or Robert Wilson often take a new approach to traditional material, Ashley has a made a career of striking out into utterly fresh territory.

For instance, Ms. La Barbara points out, the singing style he evokes in his performers (a small nucleus of whom have worked with him for years) can best be described as speaking on pitch. "This does not mean a monotone," she laughs. "The best way I can describe it is with another contemporary cultural reference. It's like Bob Dylan or Laurie Anderson."

"Robert Ashley's work is storytelling of the highest order," remarks David Rosenboom, dean of the School of Music at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, Calif. He recently brought Ashley's mini-opera, "When Famous Last Words Fail You," to the CalArts Spring Music Festival, a showcase for new music.

Not only does Ashley work with synthesizers and other digital electronic equipment to produce new and utterly modern sounds, but "he creates entirely new forms of narrative," says Mr. Rosenboom.

Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed agrees, noting in a recent review that Ashley seems to get only more contemporary as he gets older.

"He's interested in today, in seemingly mundane people and events," adds Mr. Swed, "but he wants to get at the deeply universal in these individual experiences, which elevates it to the grandly operatic."

While Robert Ashley has been called "one of the true visionaries of our time," he regrets that this country's serious music world relegates his work to the fringes. He applauds highly publicized events such as the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson multimedia digital collaboration "Monsters of Grace," currently on show at UCLA, although he believes the public regards them "more as novelty acts" than representations of serious modern music.

Rather, what Ashley envisions is a culture where regularly scheduled modern classical-music concerts sell out "just like Garth Brooks," whom he admires. In truly modern fashion, his recipe for how we get there from here?

"Just do it," he laughs. "Just leave the past behind, where it belongs."

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