Robert Ashley: A Radical Statement April 11, 1974

Bob Ashley’s ‘Your Move I Think’ on March 30 was the most radical statement I have encountered for some time. Even the normally liberal audience at the Kitchen began to dwindle in the first half hour, and I suspect that if the event had taken place anywhere else in New York it would have provoked mass protest. I don’t think anything in the performance was completely unprecedented. Nor was the material overtly offensive. There were no tortured animals, no political diatribes, no vulgarity, no painfully bright lights, no loud volumes—not even any nudity or repetition. Yet, in his own indirect way, Ashley was presenting something that people did not like at all. They did not look bored as they walked out, as people do when something is inept or just bad. They seemed really irritated, and even angry. I doubt that most of them could have explained exactly why they felt the way they did, but I suspect that Ashley understood it all very well. Such controversy can only be generated by an artist who understands what we want and expect, understands why he wants to give us something completely different, and has mastered the art of involving people who don’t want to be involved.

When I entered the Kitchen, a few minutes before the program was to begin, Ashley was already seated at a dining-room table with Kathey Beeler and Anne Wehrer. Four floor lamps surrounded the group, shedding a pleasant light and marking off the playing area. Prerecorded tapes played softly in the background, but the focus was on the three performers, who rambled on as if the audience wasn’t even there, all the time sipping on mixed drinks.

Their conversation was intelligent, and much of it was quite interesting, though it sometimes bogged down, the way dining-room conversations generally do. They talked about art vs. entertainment, about California vs. New York, about Nick and George and other friends, about the art establishment, about grant distribution, about how dull they felt most performances were, and about the difficulty of gaining recognition for new approaches.

Aside from short snatches of diverse music and some dreamlike monologue on the tape, nothing really happened. The performers just kept talking and getting drunker, and the audience kept leaving, and the general irritation kept increasing.

The irritation must have had something to do with the sharp realism of the performance, which reflected many conversations we have all participated in, and was not always a flattering mirror. And it probably had something to do with the way the performers insisted on being themselves rather than playing roles, which must have given people the feeling that they were not seeing a show, and not getting their money’s worth. We like to talk about spontaneity and slices of life, but we seem to have trouble dealing with them in a raw form, which has so little artifice or formal structure. And of course we were left out, unable to express our own opinions, and unable to share in the alcohol. The performers didn’t even bother to tell us who Nick and George were.

But perhaps the essential irritation had to do with power. At one point in the discussion the performers observed how artists tend to put themselves in positions of power, particularly when they perform, forcing people to listen, manipulating their perceptions, and titillating their emotions. Ashley’s attitude toward the artist’s power trip was strong. ‘You don’t have to do that anymore,’ he stated several times.

One could argue that ‘Your Move I Think’ also represents a kind of power trip. Ashley was giving us a calculated experience, after all, and one that most people did not want. Still he wasn’t trying to sell us a bill of goods, and he certainly wasn’t trying to prove he was clever or profound. Basically he was just offering a provocative real-life situation and allowing us to make of it what we would. I guess most people still prefer pieces that let them know how they are supposed to respond.

This is not the first time Ashley has offended audiences. Born in 1930, he was one of the founders of the Once Festival at Ann Arbor Michigan in the ’60s. People who were there still talk about Ashley’s ‘Wolfman Motorcity Revue,’ which must have been one of the really major statements from the days of multi-media. He was one of the first to discover new forms of music in speech sounds, as he did in ‘She was a Visitor.’ He has evolved a number of unique theater pieces, such as ‘Four Ways,’ in which four performers carry microphones and loudspeakers in attache cases. His String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies utilizes one of the more ingenious systems for hooking up live performers with electronic equipment, and also produces some of the most attractive sounds in the whole string quartet literature.

Ashley is currently based at Mills College in California, so his work is seldom heard in New York, except in connection with the Sonic Arts Union, a cooperative group which he formed with David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. So it is still fairly easy for New Yorkers to avoid Ashley’s iconoclastic work. But that may not always be the case. I have the feeling that sooner or later the music world is going to have to come to terms with Ashley. And the dust may not settle for quite a while.