I met Robert Ashley once. David Kulma and Dorian Wallace, two musicians I know and play with, wanted to perform a piece of Ashley's called Perfect Lives. They play together in a duo called Trystero, and I play with Dorian and a drummer named Max Maples in a trio Ammocake. With a dancer, Diane Skerbec, we were all set to perform this piece. We just had to figure out how.
Luckily, Dorian and David had performed the piece in the past, so the heavy lifting was already done. The thing about Ashley's work, the little bit of his giant body of work that I'm familiar with, is it's completely out of this world. Every time you try and approach it on a superficial levels, it smacks you in the face. John Cage said "What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn't matter. We have Perfect Lives." And that's just the text. The original soundtrack is the ahead-of-its-time mix of synthesizers that wouldn't work if we tried to just play it "straight." Dorian and David had worked out landmarks of sorts in the text that coincided to musical motifs, and we would sort of improvise our way between each one, all the while Diane is improvising this wild modern dance stuff in front of us. It worked out and I hope it was interesting for the 20 people or so that were there.
Two of the people attending were Mr. Ashley and his wife. I was petrified - performing a pretty heavy piece in the way we had arranged was enough. To be performing it for the composer was another thing entirely. We knew we had something going when Ashley actually yelled out "YES!" during one part. He must have been 80 or 81 one at the time. After we finished, he came up to us and gushed about all the different sounds we were able to create. His wife was a complete sweetheart as well.
What was thrilling to me was seeing his energy and accessibility. Dorian had emailed him an invitation to come see if. Not only did he show up, but he brought his wife and was on the edge of his chair. The man brimmed with excitement. After Perfect Lives, Dorian and David as Trystero did a song cycle of modern rock and hip hop tunes played as 20th century modern classical music and Ashley loved it as well. He even yelled out a few jokes during the performance. Weirdly, that kind of interaction was what made me love the guy. No matter how dense or obscure or difficult a piece was, he showed that it came from a place of joy ad love. Hopefully we can all follow that example.
Carl Limbacher is a bassist in New York City available for live performance, recording and teaching. He can be seen playing with Hannah vs. the Many, Hegazy, Melissa & the Mannequins and many more!