Robert Ashley, Maneuvers for Small Hands, 1961, 1988, Silkscreen on cloth, 122 × 101 cm
Courtesy of Archivio Conz, Berlin
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  • Silkscreen on cloth
  • 122 × 101 cm
    (48 × 39 ¾ inches)
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  • Robert (Reynolds) Ashley was an American composer best known for combining electronic music, theater, and storytelling through his original television operas and multidisciplinary projects. He studied first at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and then at the Manhattan School of Music, where he also worked as a researcher on psychoacoustics and sound architecture. Out of his friendship with the composers Gordon Mumma and Roger Reynolds, Ashley founded the ONCE Group, a multifaceted ensemble of musicians, dancers, architects, and visual artists mainly active in Ann Arbor. The group’s activities and the eponymous festivals held annually during the 1960s represented a significant benchmark for Intermedia avant-garde experiments, promoting innovative approaches to electronic music and theater through multimedia performances. In 1966, along with members already involved in the ONCE Group, such as Mumma, David Behrman, and Alvin Lucier, Ashley co-founded the Sonic Art Union, which toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe until 1976. Taking cues from John Cage and David Tudor, the four composers performed using custom-made instruments designed and built by themselves from spare circuits. The Sonic Art Union’s members were characterized by a relentless fascination for technology as a new potential means of expression. With their groundbreaking compositions, they are widely recognized as pioneers of live electronic music. By 1969, Ashley was appointed Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, California, one of the first institutions committed to making synthesizers publicly accessible. Ashley’s body of work fostered the revival of opera within the avant-garde tendencies. In addition to the many accomplishments since the beginning of his career, more complex works certainly include the video interview series Music with Roots in the Aether (1975), described as a collaborative music-theater piece portraying seven different composers such as Behrmanm, Mumma, Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Ashley himself. The opera premiered at the Festival d’Automne à Paris in 1976 and was subsequently broadcast by hundreds of television channels. The monumental Perfect Lives, a seven-episode television work commissioned by The Kitchen in New York in 1980, is perhaps Ashley’s most comprehensive work. The plot combines hypnotic and delirious aspects with intimate ramblings, eclectic visuals directed by John Sanborn, and an essential musical structure. The opera piece has been broadcast and staged all over the world, as well as being revived by countless artists. A luminary across the arts, Ashley received the John Cage Award for Music from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, New York (2002) and the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction (2008). Throughout his career, he has written music for the dance companies of Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham, as well as being one of the subjects of Peter Greenaway’s film Four American Composers (1983). Among his numerous commissions are, most notably, those from Creative Capital, the Berliner Festspiele, the Kanagawa Arts Foundation, the American Composers Orchestra, and Bayerischer Rundfunk.

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