I met Ashley with my wife Celia for the first time during the 1989 American Coaster Enthusiasts’ Convention in Allentown, PA. We had a sales table there of souvenir items and I also brought some cassette tapes of my own music - a rare thing to do, considering these are just roller coaster fanatics. A large-framed, husky gentleman came up to our table, chatted a little bit in a shy and curious way and purchased one each of my cassettes and no souvenirs. I mentioned to him that the music was pretty weird stuff and had nothing directly to do with roller coasters. He said he had an interest in music and just wanted to hear what a fellow coaster enthusiast had created in terms of music.
I didn’t hear anything from him until a letter arrived on Sept. 19. He further introduced himself again, told me a bit about his background, and that he really enjoyed my music. I probably sent him a letter back with the idea of sending cassette letters back and forth. He loved the idea as did I. This continued into the late 1990’s. As we learned and shared more about each other, I became very surprised, yet thrilled, that someone my age had come to music virtually the same way I did – first through sound recordings and second, by studying an instrument, reading, etc. Ashley was a fabulous keyboard player and all of the keyboard work in his compositions is his. Besides keyboard synthesizers, he also played piano for parties and receptions and accordion. His skill at improvising was no doubt very good, given what occurs on the various compositions of his that he sent me over the years. I say, “no doubt” because he mentioned that he frequently would over-dub the various keyboard lines. He was an amazing writer of counterpoint and this is discernible in numerous passages in his works.
Besides collecting records and taking lessons, we also shared a love for roller coasters, anything to do with railroads (including subways and LRT systems), an early fondness for older popular tunes and no real great interest in rock or recent off-shoots thereof, and then, of course, an early and on-going fascination, study, collecting, curiosity and creating of experimental music, found sounds, improvisation, and all manner of electronica. I can’t emphasize enough how deep these coincidences struck me and to have met such a kindred spirit at a roller coaster convention! He would periodically send me rather large packages consisting of all kinds of stuff related to our interests such as cassettes of his music, railroad brochures, copies of his photographs and postcards, and video cassettes of roller coaster and rail related programs. His generosity was so sincere as he gave freely and never asked for anything in return. It was on one of those videos that I discovered his love for trollies, an area I had never really thought much about, since they have been out of our culture for decades. I remember the first time I watched one thinking, “does anyone sit around and watch these?” Trolley videos are pretty slow, minimal and good for insomnia. Or so I thought. My passion for them soon developed and I am forever grateful that he turned me on to yet another part of cultural nostalgia in the rail area.
I seem to be the only person that has a working knowledge of his music based on a sizeable collection of recordings he had sent me over the years. He has no internet presence except for his obituary. Like the famous Austrian composer Haydn, Ashley’s wife, Barbara, cared very little for his tastes in music or what he was doing in it other than perhaps some gigs that brought in some spending money. I shudder to think what happened to his huge collection of works, both completed and in progress. So we have here a phenomenal talent who is undeservedly unknown, who shunned any publicity or recognition and spent little or no time trying to promote himself - a slight parallel here to Charles Ives who also worked in isolation, preferring to create without the fetters of others’ opinions. And like Ives, yet different from my own music, Ashley frequently incorporates the vernacular of popular music, even Christmas carols into his work. His favorite carol, by the way, was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Speaking of that, he was a very religious person, always finding his way around matters of faith. He was raised Lutheran, became a Seventh Day Adventist for about 10 years around the 1980’s and then kind of drifted aimlessly during the latter part of his life.
Selecting music for this double album compilation/intro/in memoriam project was quite difficult because I have a lot of material. We all know how magnetic tape is deteriorating, so I transferred everything I have into a digital archive including his talkie tapes. I guess as usual for a project like this, I made a short list, and then a final selection which occurs here. Many of his works are lengthy and I did not want to include too many excerpts. So there are some complete works here including the Incantations, and the Fantasy Impromptus, and a few shorter works. He had two on-going series which are very important to understand Ashley Cooper the creator: the Book(s) of Floating Music (of which there at least six) and the Mix of the Month series. I have no idea how many of those were created although I do know they were definitely not created at the rate of one per month. These works are also extended, but because of their importance to his whole creative output, I had to resort to excerpts. The Magnum Opus, Ashley: My Dear, runs about 180 minutes. So because of its size and importance, I wanted to include at least a taste of this work as well.
Some other characteristics of his music that I had been able to discern include a penchant for very decorative, thought-provoking titles even into the titles of movements and sub-sections of the more extended works. Most works fade in and out quietly with extensive detailing in the development of his ideas. I also want to re-emphasize the importance and quality of his counterpoint. I say this not just in terms of the layering of diverse material but in particular, in the tonal works (or sections) and most noticeable in his treatment of popular tunes and carols. Also impressive is his ability to derive what I feel is maximum interest and color from the often limited equipment that he used, particularly in the earlier works. Indeed, there is almost a retro hokeyness to some of the synthesizer work that some may find a little simplistic, but that I feel adds to the charm of those works. He frequently commented that he wanted to get old equipment repaired (which was evidently becoming very difficult to do) and create a larger studio for himself. The latest work included here, Ascension and Transformation in the Lair of the Rave, brings him definitely into the modern digital era. I’m guessing that it dates from around 2001. I hadn’t heard much from him after he sent his one and only CD that he self-produced (in 2002). All of the works on it attest to a newer “sound” in his music. One of his last talkie tapes to me spoke of a very excitable Ashley who was embarking on a divorce with great plans for his new studio and freedom in his personal life. Alas, that was short-lived.
William Ashley Cooper served in the U.S. Air Force during the Viet Nam War. For most of his working life, he was a draftsman for Mack Trucks. He died on March 30, 2003, at age 59 in Allentown, PA. By yet another twist of fate, we heard of his passing at the 2003 American Coaster Enthusiasts convention at King’s Dominion in Doswell, VA. So at the first and last we were linked by our love of roller coasters. He passed away at critical time in his life just as he was emerging into new realms with his new studio and equipment.
One Day Round Trip
Spring, 1974. Setting of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”. Mini-Moog, Rhythm machine and ambient sound recorded at the Trenton Railroad Station.
Life’s Railway Back To Heaven: Suite
Subtitle: A Little Travelin’ Musique (1974/1977).
Preface: All Aboard for the Material World/Descent into Mortality .…
Remaining movements: Arrival, Panoramas of Past Train Trips, Points & Crossovers, Trois Heaven Celestials, Postscripts.
Summer Liberations (Mix of the Month – July, 1982)
Cooper writes: In this freeform style of composition I initially selected several of my source tapes and then randomly mixed them together. This piece can be described as “Washington Square meet the Mad-cap Electronics of Ashley-Cooper.” In the 1988 versions I have added some new parts which are mainly a reoccurring choral theme with several foundation rhythm lines from my EML 400. I would like to thank the people who were performing in Washington Square on July 4, 1977 and who form the ambient core of the piece. I call them the Washington Square Singers, Percussionists, and a fabulous guitarist who brings the piece to a bombastic close. My Electronics contribution uses the sounds and assemblies of a piece done in California known as the Trio for Three Voices and Tape which used Buchla Synthesizer parts, prepared piano, and various concrete sounds along with the processed voices of the three singers who performed the piece. Trio Source tapes (Spring, 1971).
Mix of the Month series:
Cooper writes: The mix of the month tapes were done for the purse pleasure (torture) as a way of manipulating many aspects of my tape music library by freely mixing these sources by random choice and various applications of tape process and distortion. Final selection of what shall actually be heard in the mix is the resultant tape composition. As such the one and basic purpose of this mixture is to serve up a grand buffet of old and sometimes forgotten left-overs and re-hash them into a new pot luck feast for the ears and minds of those willing to taste them.
On A Christmas Suite:
Winter, 1972 – Dec., 1980. 6 Movements, approx. 1 hour total.
Movements: Prologue: Good Christian Men Rejoice! Rejoice!, In Bethlehem: The Nativity, Interlude: Shepherds refrain in the Fields, In the Fields: Sheppards and Angels, In the Desert: The Three Magi, Epilogue: Sing We Now at Christmas
Cooper writes: A Christmas Suite began as a project around the holiday season of 1972 after I purchased a Moog Model D Mini-Moog synthesizer. The early version was sketched on 2-channel tape recorders until I was able to obtain 4-channel equipment in 1974 (EML Model 400/401 Sequencer and Maestro Rhythm Box). I reworked and expanded the initial materials from 1975 to 1977 and completed a four part version for Christmas of 1977 which was played in parts on Christmas morning on radio station WSAN in Allentown with host, Dave Fox [ed. the only known broadcast of a Cooper work]. I finally added the epilogue in 1980 as a homage to the American hostages who were being held in Iran. During that period churches were directed to ring their bells and carillons every day and these tolling of the bells seemed to inspire me to work with the bell themes that play an important part throughout my Christmas music. Most of the material I use in the suite are derivations of standard Christmas Carols....
Ashley: My Dear.
Subtitle: Burlesques – Communiques – Plastiques. (1975 with revisions in 1977 and 1989)
Cooper writes: The beginnings of this composition are founded in a taped letter from a friend, Glynnis Rea describing a weekend getaway trip from southern Texas into the border town of Reȋnosa, Mexico. I was greatly amused by the last several minutes of that tape and decided to create a composition by slicing, dicing and looping certain words and phrases spoken by Glynnis. The music evolved spontaneously as I experimented with reorganizing and distorting words along with bits of rhythmic and melodic whims of improvisation.