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Robert Ashley - Private Parts Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a surreal, transcendental work by a giant of the American avant-garde.

Robert Ashley’s Private Parts has a plot, but you wouldn’t know it. The 1978 LP, which would later serve as the foundation for the composer’s seven-part televised opera Perfect Lives, discusses at length the inner workings of two characters, a man and a woman, anonymous to us and perhaps even to each other. Words flood its 40-plus minute runtime, circling meaning but never arriving at a conclusion. What’s explored by Ashley, in his drawling monologues, seems to be everything that isn’t happening—an inversion that slinks and dances among the shadows. We are privy to his subjects’ fidgety obsessions, tics of behavior, heady ruminations and psychic detritus, but narrative, insight, or meaning remain as elusive as a not-quite-remembered dream. Private Parts is built on emptiness. It is startling just how riveting that emptiness can be.

Ashley was famous for his voice, an unhurried and boldly confident mumble; Private Parts was, in a way, his vocal debut. A few years prior, the composer had released the In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women, in which his speech is modulated and sliced up to dizzying effect, but on Private Parts, he assumed a role he would reprise for the rest of his career: the bemused and louche narrator of the cosmic-sardonic. Already in his late 40s, Ashely had kept active throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s directing the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, organizing the ONCE Festival of New Music in Ann Arbor, and collaborating with fellow unclassifiables Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma in the Sonic Arts Union. However, his recorded output was scarce and, for many, alienatingly confrontational. A rare 1968 release of “The Wolfman” is a quarter hour of migraine-mimicking din, while 1972’s landmark “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” describes ambiguously consensual oral sex with the thousand-yard stare delivery of a trauma survivor.

In Private Parts, however, Ashley discovered his true calling. These earlier punkish outings were notable, but the development of his televised opera spurred his creativity to unprecedented heights. Most of his work that followed—not only Perfect Lives but 1979’s Automatic Writing, 1985’s Atalanta (Acts of God), 1998’s Your Money My Life Goodbye—would build on the foundation laid by Private Parts. It was uncharted territory, and Ashley seized on the idea an entirely new form. “I put pieces in television format because I believe that’s really the only possibility for music,” he said in an interview. “We don’t have any tradition… We stay at home and watch television.” That his works traded in a kind of surrealism which would fly over the heads of all but the most dedicated audiences seemed not to bother him. “American television people are stupid,” he commented bluntly.

The album is structured into two episode-length pieces. At just over 20 minutes each—presumably, he was anticipating commercial breaks—there are still no suitably satisfying points at which to pause. Ashley is liberal, or perhaps literal, with the idea of opera. If an opera requires a theatrical setting, high drama, and rafters-directed singing, he doesn’t come close. But if it’s a medium built on a mixture of music, characters, spoken word, singing, set design, well, what else could it be?

Besides, the semantic nitpicking is rendered moot once you hear the music. It all comes back to that drawl. Ashley’s opera sounds like a stoned burnout reading the phone book, and yet it’s mesmerizing. Backed by the winding keyboard runs of avant-garde composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny and surname-shirking Kris’ percolating tabla, the anti-narrative of Private Parts exudes a steady gravitational pull. Small clusters of lines might suggest a direction, but Ashley keeps dodging any linear path.

On the A-side, “The Park” opens with the man: “He took himself seriously. Motel rooms had lost their punch for him. He opened up his bags.” We could be in the moody opening of a noir film. Then comes this detail: “There were two and inside those two, there were two more.” Already the looping, loping syntax trips us up, moving the story forward just vaguely enough that it starts to slip away. Perhaps Ashley was offering consolation for the rabbit hole to come with the next obfuscating line: “It’s not an easy situation. But there was something like abandon in the air.”

What the hell is happening? And what, if anything, is going to happen next? You sense clarity around the corner, that at any moment he will pull together the pile-up of disparate thoughts. But if he ever gets around to it, the lulling monotony of his delivery makes it almost certain you’ll miss the reveal. In the background, the keyboards float aimlessly while the tabla putters away—everything simmers, neither climactic nor cooling. The feel is closest to a spectacularly off-kilter lounge act, or of elevator music made by DMT enthusiasts.

Parallels can be found scattered across the post-war new music scene: John Cage’s text pieces like “Lecture on Nothing” certainly laid a groundwork, offering a template for good-natured, cerebral pranksterism. Ashley’s technique of writing vocal parts around the patterns of everyday speech echoes the early tape pieces of Steve Reich and the murmuring Greek chorus in Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” (ditto for his emphasis on trance-inducing musical structures). But Ashley had a balmy aesthetic all his own—his strangeness, though more extreme in many ways than his forebears, also seemed more relaxed.

Tyranny and Kris do as much of the legwork as Ashley by avoiding the traditional gestures of experimental music. (Ashley famously rejected the term experimental music outright, despite his associations with it. “Composition is anything but experimental,” he wrote. “It is the epitome of expertise.”) You might expect them to shade his prose with ominous clouds of dissonance, perhaps following his phrases with tightly orchestrated accents of free improv-inspired thwacks and skronks. Instead, they evoke the uncanny by keeping things bucolic and harmonious. Like a faucet left on, they just go, pouring out notes and phrases without end. They lean into new age’s welcoming eddies, yet there are trace amounts of menace detectable in their accompaniment. It’s not in the notes they play so much as the alien quality in the way they play them. Imagine a primitive algorithm attempting to emulate easy listening, droning on for no one in particular for hours on end.

It would be difficult for first or fifth-time listeners to distinguish between the A and B-sides in a blind listening test. Both move with the same placid stoicism, never giving the game away. Yet something about the B-side’s “The Backyard” hits just a little harder. Maybe it’s the lists, calculations, and appraisals. Starting with a meditative scan of the subject’s consciousness, Ashley then catalogs things she never thinks about, what she does, doesn’t do, and how her mind moves and operates (sort of). One of the most entrancing moments is built around the assertion that “Forty-two or forty and twenty is always sixty-two or sixty” which opens a chasm of price points and arithmetic that hooks into your brain and won’t let go. Why does the idea that “fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more attractive than fourteen dollars” leap out from this miasma? Ashley answers immediately: “It’s just that way.”

If this all sounds maddeningly opaque, it is. But its strangeness is matched only by its visceral impact, and you can hear its effect on a generation of avant-garde seekers: Laurie Anderson’s deadpan excisions of American life owe a debt, while Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” from the same year feels like a scorched earth counterpart. The entire no wave scene, only a year or two behind Private Parts, reveled in a similar collision of high-art seriousness and low-brow shoddiness, while Brian Eno would tread the related terrain of surreal, syrupy American with David Byrne on the Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light and the pair’s 1981 collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

I’m not sure there’s an “ah-ha!” moment that the cleverest listeners are privy to. Close readings and intensive analyses of the larger piece Perfect Lives only reveal how impenetrable it really is. Reaching for an authoritative understanding might trace a structure and story, but the story that Private Parts would eventually belong to sits back at a mirage-like distance, and, according to Ashley, is built out of fragments, “some of which make sense, and others not so much.” It stands cooly unfettered, revealing almost nothing yet offering so much to parse through. Ashley himself once described modern life as “a blizzard of nuance, so dense that the main form is lost.” That sounds about right.

But another quote sticks out. Writing about the opera’s origin, fellow composer Alvin Lucier tells of a night drive through Ohio with Ashley, his account hinting at the dreamy infinity contained in the album. Stopping at a roadhouse, they came upon a group. “There was a row of men and women sitting at the bar talking to each other very seriously. It seemed to me that none of the occupants was married because they were having such interesting conversations… When we stopped at the same roadhouse on our way back, the scene was exactly the same. Here were these lives going on and on. It felt timeless.”

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