sam ashley tribute

Sam Ashley devoted his life to the invention of an experimental trance-mysticism, and for more than 30 years he used trance in music and art. Sam’s work is often about luck, coincidence and hallucination.

Much of Sam’s work featured the use of authentic “spirit possession”. Everyone Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, A Fish Clinging to Water, Every Heaven is the Best One, I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Good, among others, each explores a different form of spirit possession applied to performance.

Sam used to bring the mystical theme into collaborations too, sometimes performing his solo works in parallel with the work of various contemporary geniuses who he occasionally was privileged to work with. He co-founded the acclaimed Cactus Needle Project, a computer and electronics ensemble that performed around the USA for five years, and AA Bee Removal, a long running experimental LO-FI electronic duo.

Sam developed an unusual Animal Magnetism vocal technique derived from trance, which he applied to the performances he gave as a singer. He had principal roles in eight contemporary operas by Robert Ashley, with whom he regularly performed and recorded.

Sam’s installations (and harder to define things) also reflected the mystical theme. The sound works are often about finding ways to amplify “hallucinatory” or otherwise otherworldly sounds. Ghost Detector, Swept Off My Feet, The Truth About Matter and Listening for Bats would be a few examples of sound art or installation works about this. He and I collaborated on the piece we called Gated Ghost Detector for multiple radios and eight channels of gated audio which we toured in Germany in 2005.

In The Oracle Series, also known as The Source of Life is an Absolute Mystery, in which he strives to present artistic works with a practical purpose: “oracles which transmit messages from the soul that can help us in everyday life.”

Sam performed solo and in collaboration, or presented other kinds of works, all around the USA and Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, in several Japanese cities, in Indonesia and in Cuba.

Sam passed away back in May of this year. But he spirit is still with us through documents and sounds. During Subtropics 25 we will pay tribute to Sam Ashley by presenting excerpts from his 2014 Audiotheque performance as well as excerpts from various interviews we did during his many visits to Miami.

Sam Ashley and Subtropics have a long shared history. We met back in the late 90s during his visits to Miami related to Robert Ashley‘s large-scale project, the opera Balseros. He was one of the featured singers for that project. Later on in the early 00s, he came back with Jackie Humbert for a two-week residency to perform his adaptation of Foreign Experiences for two voices at Subtropics. My live recording of the voices was used in the Lovely Music edition of the CD released in 2006. Meanwhile, he and I toured Germany together in 2005 with a collaborative work titled Gated Ghost Detector. Since then he came back several times to Miami with wonderful projects of his own, the last of which was over a three-week residency in 2016 centered around the idea of hunting for Miami Sound Oracles. Over that time we brainstormed about many possible future projects in Miami and in New Orleans. Except, months later our interactions became less frequent. He had moved back to California from Berlin. According to Judy Dunaway, a year and a half later “he fell seriously ill while in Southern California. He lost his ability to communicate and was put in a nursing home.” I’ll skip the rest of the story here, but if you knew him and feel compelled to learn more, you may ask to join the Facebook Group, Friends of Sam Ashley.

Subtropics 25 will pay tribute to this loving friend of our festival community with a screening of Sam Ashley‘s Audiotheque performance of “In The Land Of The Headhunters” recorded by Stephen Malagodi during Sam’s 2014 visit to Miami. The screening will include his concert’s introductory remarks.

— Gustavo Matamoros, artistic director, Subtropics