Robert Ashley (left) and Gordon Mumma (right) at ONCE Festival in February 1964 (image via

Robert Ashley, experimental musician and composer, has died at the age of 83, according to the artist’s website. The cause was cirrhosis of the liver. Ashley has long been a force of inspiration in the experimental music community, where he is recognized as a pioneer of electronic and improvised music. Ashley is also included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which will present three of his operas in April.


Robert Ashley (image via

Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he studied music at the University of Michigan, continuing his efforts at the Manhattan School of Music. He co-founded the multidisciplinary avant-garde collective ONCE Group, which organized the legendary ONCE Festival of New Music in Ann Arbor between 1961 and 1966; co-founded the Sonic Arts Union; and was a director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, as well as the contemporary music program at Mills College.

Ashley’s early engagement with electronic music was coupled with an unconventional compositional technique, wherein improvisation was understood as a new, unexplored musical paradigm. In turn, Ashley opened his diverse musical practice to indeterminacy, eagerly courting electronic feedback and noise, as heard in The Wolfman (1964), as well as involuntary speech patterns caused by Tourette’s Syndrome, as heard in Automatic Writing (1979).

Later in his career, Ashley would explore the operatic form, synthesizing his diverse interests into a noise-laden Gesamtkunstwerk aesthetic. Three of these works, Crash (2013-2014), Vidas Perfectas (1983/2011), and The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity (1968), are included in the upcoming Whitney Biennial, where his absence will undoubtedly be felt.

Plans for a memorial have not yet been released.

A biography of Robert Ashley by Kyle Gann was published in December 2012 by the University of Illinois Press. It is available there and on Amazon.

Charles Eppley is a PhD candidate in art history at Stony Brook University, where he researches the history of sound in modern and contemporary art. He currently teaches at Pratt Institute and Stony Brook...