There’s a tent in the middle of Robert Ashley’s studio, two floors up via caged elevator from the Tribeca apartment where he’s lived for over 30 years. It’s the kind you see at a farmers’ market, and it covers an inner sanctum of sorts where all the cables converge. He bought it to protect his equipment during some roof renovations a few years ago but kept it because he liked how it changed the acoustics. The old furnace doesn’t bother him, though it rattles and hisses. When it kicked on halfway through our interview, two feet from the mic, we thought about pausing to wait the noise out, but he laughed and said it was “part of the piece” and kept on talking.
Ashley is 81, and he’s incredibly busy. His landmark opera That Morning Thing re-opens this weekend at The Kitchen in New York, staged for this first time since the late ’60s. Then in December, a new Spanish translation of his 1983 television opera Perfect Lives, called Vidas Perfectas and directed by Alex Waterman, opens in Brooklyn. “Opera” is such a funny way of conceiving of Ashley’s life’s work, woefully insufficient to describe its mixed-media experimentation but fittingly high-art. John Cage once said, “What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives,” and the music scholar Allan Evans called that work “nothing less than the first American opera.” There are decades of praise like that. By all means, check out one of the upcoming shows. For now, here’s the master in his studio, speaking on living in New York, being in a band and working with your friends when your friends are geniuses.