Robert Ashley, 1930-2014

“There is only one Self. That Self is

Light. The Self is ageless.”

Robert Ashley died yesterday, March 3, at his home in New York. Articles popping up about it emphasize that Ashley was underappreciated and misunderstood. I had not heard of Ashley until I began graduate school. After listening to five minutes of Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon, a solo piece for voice composed in 1971 about sexual abuse, I had the rare feeling one gets only a few times in life: that I had heard something that was going to change how I perceived the world. It might sound cliché, but it’s true, what people are saying, that Ashley’s genius was ahead of his time.

As part of my research lately, I’ve been obsessing over Ashley’s television opera Perfect Lives. It’s an opera that captures American consciousness focusing on its characters more than a plot, though it travels through a park, a bank, a supermarket, a church, and into a friend’s backyard. In Kyle Gann’s biography he cites an interview in which Ashley announced Perfect Lives is “meant to be…seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work.” How refreshing, to think of opera as accessible to anyone with a television and to knock it off its bourgeois pedestal. How refreshing, to think of opera as basically human.

That opening quote is from the fourth episode of Perfect Lives, “The Bar (Differences).” Reading it now, I know it will always coalesce differently for me:

“And things in general are still


I brought up this idea, the idea of

The Tree of Life,

To have something to compare the Self to. We were

Talking about the Self.

We said the Self is without coincidence

Being singular.

We said the Self is without attainment

Being perfect.

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know.

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless…”

Robert Ashley, with glitter in his hair, performing Perfect Lives

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