Robert Ashley's Private Parts is a truly remarkable and iconic, late 70’s masterpiece.
Ashley was a pioneer of the American avant-garde, member of the Sonic Arts Union (alongside David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma), the director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and eventually the Mills College for Contemporary Music where Private Parts was recorded. Despite his interest in experimental techniques, often modulating his voice beyond recognition, on Private Parts Ashley discovered that his own, untreated voice carried its own transfixing qualities. Split into two 20 minute pieces (one told from the perspective of a man, the other of a woman), Ashley narrates a philosophically rich, often absurd, mysteriously opaque quasi stream-of-consciousness, weaving around slowly unfurling keyboard and tabla ragas played by Krishna Bhatt and Gene Tyranny.
“This is not a record, this is a story…” he tells us not long into ‘The Park’, before referencing Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”, recorded a decade earlier - a piece famously concerned with frequencies and resonance. Was Ashley dismissing his formative tape music life, or merely producing a new kind of acoustic sleight of hand? Hard to tell, but in any event, these recordings marked a distinct new phase in his recording career; from this point on he became best known for that uniquely meditative, untreated voice.
Ashley had previously worked at the University of Michigan's Speech Research Laboratories, so it’s not a stretch to assume that his focus on ‘Private Parts’ was as much about tonality as narrative, but in any event, the impact of Private Parts was substantial, eventually adapted for television by Channel 4 in the UK (as part of Ashley’s seven-part opera Perfect Lives), but also carrying through an obvious stylistic influence on everyone from Laurie Anderson to David Byrne’s Talking Heads.
Over 40 years on, Private Parts has lost none of its potency. It’s a record that operates on multiple levels; it opens a portal into a curious narrative wormhole, but also triggers dizzying, gradual hypnosis. It makes you think of the deep, mysterious but also absurd minutiae of life - something that’s now most commonly (and far too often) referred to as Lynchian - in a way you’re unlikely to experience with any other record. And you’re unlikely to experience it in quite the same way more than once.