40 Years Later, Robert Ashley's 'Private Parts' Is Still a Hilarious Mystery
The composer's recently reissued record is a spoken piece about philosophical abstractions with jokes about jerking off. There's still little else like it.
Photo by Mimi Johnson
Words like “confounding” and “singular” and “visionary” get thrown around a lot and can sound like hype, but they actually apply to Robert Ashley. A true pioneer of the American compositional avant-garde, Ashley’s work stretches logic and fogs genre. It’s funny, freakish and wild in ways that polite “new music,” and especially the more domesticated forms of American minimalism, are not. Loose and flexible along some parameters, tightly controlled along others, the Private Parts LP, which first came out in 1978 and is being reissued by Lovely Music on February 1, is a paradoxical combination of elements.
The music is mostly realized by other people, though according to Ashley’s instructions: delicate synth chords and sprays of piano arranged by “Blue” Gene Tyranny and tablas by the mononymous Kris hover and flutter as a quiet speaking voice pointedly declaims a rambling, poetic libretto that turns tight corners between philosophical abstraction, dirty jokes, and some kind of implied but partially obscured narrative.
Ashley’s voice is a hybrid wonder of Michigan vowels and demi-Southern-drawl timing whose odd cadences and spurts can sound off the cuff but on closer examination reveal the subtle through-composed trellis on which his seemingly free-associative utterances are strung. As “The Park” libretto puts it: “He has a special way of speaking, but it seems only to make him more like other men.” There is a slight resemblance to the liquid Cheshire cat purr of John Cage’s speaking voice, but Ashley has a more wayward and flexible instrument (check out “The Wolfman” for howling, screaming feedbacked evidence of Ashley in sicko mode).
Here, Ashley is mixed at a delicate threshold of audibility. You can always hear what he’s saying, but his words are delivered with a vulnerability that makes you want to slow your own breathing down and lean a little closer to the speaker. The work thus has certain calming physiological side-effects that feel similar to guided meditations or ASMR videos, but instead of dolphin vision-quests or “caring friend” roleplay, the libretto of Private Parts eludes easy description.
So what is he talking about? In its final form as the full seven act panorama, Perfect Lives describes, in a highly oblique and roundabout manner, a bank robbery in a small Midwestern town. Bookending that narrative, the two sides of the Private Parts LP presents the alpha and the omega of Ashley’s larger work. “The Park” attends to a male figure sitting in a hotel room anxiously planning something to come, and “The Backyard” focuses upon a woman standing in the doorway of her mother’s house, looking retrospectively back upon an unexplained act that has entered local folklore and is distorting into the past. But they almost never reflect in a direct way upon the “story” of the opera, instead meandering across ephemera involving a bewildering array of content: masturbation, solitary drinking, out of nowhere ruminations on Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno, breakfast, desert mirages, lists of numbers, passing clouds of trivial observation, jarring descriptions of camera movements for the video realization of the opera itself. These dreamy non-sequiturs offer an intermittent ticker tape of consciousness in repose.
The bracketing of the core narrative means that “The Park” and “The Backyard” complement each other and, in their relative distance from the turbulent center of the opera, they travel light outside the context of the larger work that grew around them. They have added resonance in the context of the opera, but they can be savored on their own as examples of Ashley’s weird magic trick: turning a voice talking about everyday life in a Midwestern town into a rich, strange music.
Everyone who is exposed to Private Parts for any extended amount of time starts quoting its cryptic, poetic phrases (“two gs in eggs” will get instant recognition from some, and blank looks from everyone else). For me, the line “Short ideas repeated massage the brain” from “Perfect Lives” became a mantra that at once exemplifies the compositional promise of minimalism and sends it up: what if all those conveyor-belt hammerings of ostinatos were up to nothing deeper than massage? There’s always a curious mixture of celebration and satire in the way that Ashley’s work laps like an ocean at the passing phrases which bob across its currents. One can see the possible influence of his poetics upon a later generation of askew populists from David Byrne and Laurie Anderson to Jenny Holzer and David Lynch. Everyday life in the USA is deeply odd, full of potential that swims beneath its flat surfaces, and its clichéd fragments take on a talismanic power when cropped and framed in just the right way. Private Parts is a magpie nest of language: allusive, glittering, broken.
But in concentrating on the clipped, dry fragments of everyday dialogue in a small town, Ashley’s work is also democratic to its bones. We live in an era in which the question of who speaks for the “real” America has become horribly vexed by Fox News and the Trump administration’s appropriation, projection, and manipulation of a mythologized white working class at the expense of seemingly everyone else. It’s not an easy situation. Against that backdrop, it is worth re-examining what Ashley achieved. The poetics of everyday speech in small town America is encountered anew by the estranging effects of Ashley’s sly interventions as ready to hand phrases become magnified and loaded with increasing subtlety. Ashley can load a simple phrase—“working against time,” “fight like a man,” or even a single word like “etcetera”—with a loaded, arch pileup of implication.
In an interview about “The Future of Music,” Robert Ashley predicted that “music will get much faster and much slower.” This forecast has already come true: sequencer technology and digital audio manipulation allow for both faster-than-human playing and the absorption of increasingly dense amounts of information (see the “black MIDI” craze) and has enabled the languorous extension of increasingly longform works (from the Paul Stretch plug-in remixes of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to Jem Finer’s 1000 year long algorithmic composition “Longplayer”).
This playful stance towards the meaning of “fast” and “slow” is, I think, also true of the twin poles of Private Parts as an LP. Heard at the level of the arrangement, there is a deeply self-similar flatline of formal sameness to each of these pieces, which is why, if you stand at a certain distance, one can receive them as more or less workable examples of “ambient” music. Heard at the level of language and the individual breathing and speaking of Ashley as he colors his prickly text with contrary gusts of thinking and feeling, the music is continuously and rapidly changing its mind.
Asking “how can we pass from one state to another?,” “The Park” tries to square the circle of stillness and change through expansive abstraction and moody stasis. But Ashley’s album comes to rest in something more grounded and every day. The final line of “The Backyard” is the quiet declaration that “I’m not the same person that I used to be.” By the end of listening to this LP, you may not be either.
Drew Daniel is one half of the electronic group Matmos, and an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Johns Hopkins University. He only has three music related tattoos: the black star of surrealism used by Coil, the logo of the INA/GRM, and three glyphs from Robert Ashley’s “Perfect Lives” that represent The Park, The Bar, and The Backyard. Matmos’ new album Plastic Anniversary comes out in March on Thrill Jockey Records.