"For those who don’t already know about him, Robert Ashley is one of the most intriguing and significant American composers of the past forty years. (Peter Greenaway devoted one fourth of his Four American Composers miniseries to him, along with John Cage, Philip Glass, and Meredith Month; you can watch all four parts at UbuWeb.) Ashley is also a talking artist, akin to David Antin, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson, and Spalding Gray. He also hosted a short-lived TV program entitled Music with Roots in the Aether (1975), which featured appearances by David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley. (And you can watch and listen to those episodes, and read more about them, at UbuWeb.)
Perfect Lives is the libretto of Ashley’s opera-for-television of the same name, which he wrote and developed and premiered in the late 1970s / early 1980s in collaboration with several other artists—”Blue” Gene Tyranny, John Sanborn, and Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem (the couple on the cover of the Dalkey edition).
It’s one of my favorite artworks ever made. Indeed, despite my already owning the libretto, I take time to transcribe the opera’s final movement, “The Backyard,” once every year (usually around the summer solstice); it is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I’ve ever read. An excerpt (from my transcription, which I carry around on my thumb drive, and peek at often):
She thinks about her father’s age.
She does the calculations one more time.
She remembers sixty-two.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
She remembers forty-two.
“Remembers” is the wrong word.
She dwells on forty-two.
She turns and faces it.
She studies it.
It is the key.
The mystery of the balances is there.
The masonic secret lies there.
The church forbids its angels entry there.
The gypsies camp there.
Blood is exchanged there.
Mothers weep there.
It is night there.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
That number translates now to then.
That number is the answer, in the way that numbers answer.
That simple notion, a coincidence among coincidences, is all one needs to know.
My mind turns to my breath.
My mind watches my breath.
My mind turns and watches my breath.
My mind turns and faces my breath.
My mind faces my breath.
My mind studies my breath.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself.
My mind sees every part of my breath.
My breath is not indifferent to itself.
(Now I have Robert Ashley’s voice reverberating in my head—a thoroughly pleasant experience! Once you’ve heard him perform this piece, it’s impossible to read it without echoing his cadence.)
A description of Perfect Lives from the Dalkey site:
Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as a crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it all the next day. With this story at its center, Robert Ashley’s inimitable Perfect Lives goes on to demolish every narrative convention in the book, taking in conflicting perspectives, texts, tones, narrators, formal constraints, and philosophies, roping in Midwestern ennui, theosophy, road trips, pop songs, self-help tapes, daytime television, heist movies, the lost city of Atlantis, preachers, dirty jokes, the history of American immigration, the preternatural flatness of Illinois, rhythms from the avant-garde to boogie-woogie, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, and, finally, an elegy for thought itself. Perfect Lives is as much a summation of American thought as All in the Family or Patterson, and is every bit as essential.“ – AD Jameson
„Premiering on television in 1984 and first published in book form in 1991, Perfect Lives is several texts at once: a comic opera libretto, a novel about a temporary bank heist, a blurb-billed epic poem ranging through small town Midwestern vernacular and Eastern metaphysics, and a kind of textual final resting place for the titular performance in the form of notes, a preface, a synopsis, some notation from the score, and an edited conversation with writer, composer and director Ashley during which he explains the genesis and outcome of the project. (Ashley: “I had this practice: I’d go into a room, close the door, and start singing.”) It’s a good thing that the book is several texts, because while it’s a success as an engaging epic (experimental) poem, it would be a stretch to call it a novel and as a libretto it leaves you having missed out on the three-hour television program that it became with no idea of what it sounded like unless you’re familiar with Ashley’s work and no idea what it looked like except for a still of the production on the cover of the book and a frontispiece featuring Ashley himself playing narrator. Ultimately the loss of context doesn’t make the text suffer because as a set of eight experimental poems obliquely describing a bank heist and an elopement among more metaphysical things it wins at being an engrossing read and at capturing small town Midwestern vernacular and widescreen philosophy in very crisp but entertainingly malformed ways.
You get all your diegetic heavy lifting done up front with a four page synopsis and then, minus the transcriptions and notes and prefaces, you’re left with the non-chronological text itself, seven sections, each of which are sung by a different narrator—maybe, and I’ll get back to this—with an italicized chorus that either comments upon or completes the narrator’s sung stories and meditations. The way Ashley went about voicing his elusive narratorial figures (it’s hard to call them narrators or characters) varies greatly but is often reductive and repetitive in a flatly reportorial way that kept reminding me of Leslie Scalapino’s early work (or Hannah Weiner if you replace clairvoyance with a Greek chorus) and reads in part like this, from section two, during which an unknown narrator mentally surveys a field while also gazing at elderly lovers in a supermarket:
looking for something interesting
now turn left still on the inside still
looking for something interesting
now turn left the fence is still there keep looking
keep looking for something interesting
now turn left again still looking still
looking we are looking for food
time to go
The drift and repetition here continues in many styles throughout the book and is the only real textual constant once it becomes clear early on that there’s no intra-book indication of transfer between characters and narrators and becomes clear across the width of the poem there’s no main storyteller, and while some sections have a more clearly defined narrator than others those sections still imbue said narrator with more information than he or she, as a character, could possibly know. So it’s incredibly confusing who’s voicing what but that twists the clipped flatness into a sidelong blur that never really ceases the entire book. The specific lines you’re reading might be clean and simple, but the bewilderment that comes from quick fades between narrators who exist either inside or outside the story is a more entertaining mystery than the oblique bank heist and its lack of consequence.
What’s also disorienting about the narratorial drift is that in a few places video camera movements are inserted seamlessly into that drift, movements that might have literal counterparts, placing the libretto in a weird situation in which song might narrate what you the TV opera viewer are seeing vs. what the character/narrator is seeing. The moves are so seamless though they don’t interrupt but rather just shift the real heft of what gets narrated, which is an assortment of landscapes real and imagined, literal and metaphysical, particular to Ashley when writing the libretto and loosely universal, from the back of a car headed toward Indiana at dawn to a repeatedly referenced fiery evening sky and from a household view of a horizon to rocks that live and create living bruises. These visions of different kinds of plains of existence that culminate in a vision of a backyard picnic in the final section move first through bars and hotels and parks and even a family home (in the opera’s only feint toward characters acknowledging and singing to each other) and in especially oblique form during the marriage of elopers Gwyn and Ed, narrated (we’re told in notes beneath each section heading in the opera-proper contents page) by the Justice of the Peace performing the ceremony. Here the text completely frees itself from the responsibility of narration and instead circles the abstraction of a spread of language itself via defining marriage and across the passage of a few eons:
Language has sense built in. It’s easy to
Make sense. To not make sense is possible,
But hard. Language does not have truth built in.
It’s hard to make truth, which is to stop the search.
Such generalities and the unknown source they’re coming from are a constant across the book, but rather than coming off cloying or meaningless they instead have an additive effect, a kind of plain-talk philosophizing voiced by most of the narrators in one form or another and touching on all the regular clichés of metaphysics: truth, language, the self, light, the passage of time, etc. Again, this doesn’t bug but in the nonlinear smear has a reaching quality as if the narrators are pushing toward something beyond them, something epic just beyond the edges of the set of songs as epic poem.
Getting lost in all of this though is exactly how great in particular the language is even as it constructs a flat, loose metaphysics; one of the themes in the work is performance itself, and in minute particulars we get delivered great passages like the following, recalling the attempt of a bartender’s wife to learn to play boogie-woogie piano by watching TV tapes:
Some got it and some don’t,
She says at night.
I got it.
Poor Rodney. Art Widower.
He lost it to the left hand memories,
He lost it to the right hand
The book roams as freely from poetic particular to dreamy generality as easily as it drifts between narrators and the cumulative effect is that the drift of voice forms a plural that’s both particular to the midwestern landscape it occupies and given over to what’s far beyond the particulars of a bank heist or backyard. The cumulative effect of reading Perfect Lives is one of being overwhelmed by an outpouring of language, completely adrift in the best way possible.“ - Nicholas Grider
„‘These are songs about the Corn Belt, and some of the people in it … or on it.’1 That’s what the man in the Perfect Lives Lounge says as you sit down with your drink, served in ‘a fluted plastic glass, sans ice’. Maybe he says it in Spanish, but you’re not sure. After all, even if you don’t speak a language, you can catch its drift if it’s sung.
The Perfect Lives Lounge – let’s just call it The Bar – is sparse, but elegantly decorated. Colour scheme: hints of neon against inky black infinitude, here and there a blush of pink and baby blue. Seven vertical neon strips form The Bar’s sign. As your eyes adjust to the light, everything looks soft-edged, like a 1980s video or television broadcast, occasionally flecked with static. Come to think of it, from a certain angle, The Bar looks like a television studio set. Exact dimensions are uncertain; windows between interior and exterior dissolve rhythmically into one another. The man – Corn Belt Guy – is standing in the middle of the room. He has a full head of fine white hair, dusted with glitter, which is neatly parted down one side. His lips shine with gloss. He wears big tan-tinted glasses. Round his neck hangs a dapper navy blue scarf, smoothed neatly onto the lapels of his grey silk suit. Occasionally he swaps the scarf for an orange or pink number. A red light-bulb hanging from the ceiling hovers right next to his face. He looks debonair, although perhaps sleazy from some angles. The music in the bar has a Latin swing – simple drum-machine rhythms with soft jazzy chords from a piano drifting over the top. You order another round from Rodney, the Bartender, who looks a lot like Corn Belt Guy. ‘He says, right off, we don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy.’
In The Bar, Corn Belt – we must stop calling him that now – is better known as Raoul de Noget, or ‘R’. ‘R’ is a singer and he’s here with his friend Buddy, ‘The World’s Greatest Piano Player’. They’re supposed to be taking the day off from making music, but that was Buddy you heard teasing out those soft, jazzy chords earlier. Check out his look: black fedora, shades, royal blue shirt with blousy sleeves garlanded in rhinestones. There’s a ring with a big ruby rock on his little finger and constellations of sequins stuck on his hands – and it’s mostly his hands we’re interested in looking at. Now he’s ripping up that keyboard with explosive boogie-woogie improvisations, playing like he’s … ‘The World’s Greatest Piano Player’. Rodney reminds us: ‘We don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy / Is the sound of God.’
Outside The Bar, beyond the unnamed Midwest town in which it sits, ‘R’ is better known as the composer Robert Ashley. Ashley – now aged 81, and one of the most important living exponents of opera in America, or, more precisely, the most important living exponent of American opera – created Raoul, Buddy, Rodney and The Bar for Perfect Lives, an opera originally conceived and developed for TV between 1978–83. Produced by Ashley, Carlota Schoolman and The Kitchen in New York, Perfect Lives evolved through a number of live iterations before being broadcast in the UK by Channel Four in 1983, back in the day when the broadcaster’s schedules supported radical art and minority-interest audiences.
Perfect Lives is an opera about... Jeez, where shall I begin? Well, not at the beginning, because Perfect Lives is about digressions. As Ashley says, ‘No story has a beginning, it’s all digression […] It’s digression what everybody does, every time. The trick of performing that piece is that we literally never know what we’re going to do until we hear the first note.’2 Like talking, it’s about being in the moment; we don’t know what we’re going to say until we say it. ‘Composing music’, Ashley holds, ‘is the process of constantly making a decision about when you’re going to update what you’ve just done.’3 Perfect Lives consists of digressions about the US landscape and American lives, performed in American vernacular language. ‘I’m trying hard, in Perfect Lives, to reproduce the music of the way people talk. It’s not poetry, it’s song. It’s song in the same way that, I suppose, The Iliad was a song. It’s just a song. If you read any one line, it’s not that interesting in itself, but if you read a hundred they start to make sense.’4 John Cage once said of it: ‘What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives.’
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Digressing. ‘If I were from the big town, I would be calm and debonair. The big town doesn’t send its riff-raff out.’ The drink must be going to my head, buddy. To get back to the point, it’s been said that Ashley is a great American writer disguised as a composer. (‘A little knowledge dot dot dot.’) You could also say that Perfect Lives – with its future-retro animated title sequences, complex fusions of internal and external locations, wild video effects and outlandish costuming – is a great work of experimental television drama disguised as performance art disguised as video art disguised as an opera. It was originally conceived of as the second work in a trilogy, bookended by Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982–91) and Now Eleanor’s Idea (1993), each work using progressively smaller and more fragmented units of narrative, and each concerning itself with different stages of the American story – from its links to the old world in Atalanta (Acts of God), passing through the Midwest for Perfect Lives to life at its most western edge in Now Eleanor’s Idea. The works use aspects of language that have long interested Ashley: dialect patterns, chanting, ultrafast speech, ecstatic religious preaching, Renaissance philosophy, involuntary speech (also explored in his 1979 work Automatic Writing), understanding the world verbally as opposed to physically, or even metaphysically (an idea he first touched upon in his 1967 opera That Morning Thing). Some parts of the trilogy share the same characters. Like a human heartbeat, they all have a pulse of 72 beats per minute.
A thumbnail sketch of the narrative that Ashley – or, if you prefer, ‘R’ – tells in Perfect Lives looks something like this. The story is divided into seven episodes, each set in a different location in a Midwest town: ‘The Park (Privacy Rules)’; ‘The Supermarket (Famous People)’; ‘The Bank (Victimless Crime)’; ‘The Bar (Differences)’; ‘The Living Room (The Solutions)’; ‘The Church (After the Fact)’; and ‘The Backyard (T’Be Continued)’. Raoul and Buddy are itinerant musicians playing a residency at the Perfect Lives Lounge. They befriend Isolde and ‘D’ (‘The Captain of the Football Team’) and together hatch a plot ‘to remove a sizeable amount of money from The Bank for one day (and one day only) and let the whole world know that it was missing’. If they get caught, it’s a crime, but it’s Art with a capital ‘A’ if they get away with it. ‘D’ works at The Bank, where one of the clerks, Gwyn, is planning to elope with his friend Ed. A plan is made to use the lovers’ car to take the money across the border to Indiana and then return it the next day. That, at the very least, is the kernel of the dizzying story. As the opera unfolds, we also meet characters such as Rodney The Bartender, Lucille, Snowdrift, Will and Ida – The Sheriff and his wife, also ‘D’ and Isolde’s parents – Helen and John (innocent bystanders from a local old people’s home), Dwayne (who has problems making his speech understood), and the bank clerks Jennifer, Kate, Linda, Susie and Eleanor (who falls in love with Buddy, and whose later religious experiences are explored in Now Eleanor’s Idea).
As living and breathing musicology in practice, Perfect Lives explores how storytelling creates music and – tangentially – how American social models grew in tandem with musical forms from Europe and Africa. Built into the very structures of how it was written and is performed – there is no definitive score, only the libretto, some diacritic and harmonic indications, and a set of intricate time signatures to follow – Perfect Lives is about the sociability of music. Ashley realized Perfect Lives over a period of years with a number of close collaborators. (‘I only work with geniuses,’ he says. ‘In the end it pays off.’5) In a documentary made by Peter Greenaway in 1983, as part of his ‘Four American Composers’ series, Ashley said he wanted to ‘allow the performers to make musical statements as unpremeditated as speech itself’. Rehearsal allows performance to become habitual, in the way that speech is habitual, but Perfect Lives’s realization is largely in the moment. It’s about the musical commons that being in a band grants access to. Buddy’s virtuosic piano playing – which, over the course of the opera, wraps cocktail jazz inside pop inside boogie-woogie inside classical – was by ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, who developed the harmonic structures used in the opera. Composer Peter Gordon was the music’s producer and in charge of electronics and mixing, while musicians Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem evolved the singing parts for the various characters that make up the chorus – Isolde, ‘D’, Gwyn, Ed and so on. Musically, the result is unique, of no school of postwar US music other than its own: steady, loping drum patterns, washes of synthesized strings, Buddy’s almost stream-of-consciousness piano – all somehow harmonically smooth and easy on the ear yet packed with complexity and detail. And throughout it all, there is Ashley’s voice: a sing-song patter with the soft-spoken intimacy of a late-night radio DJ.
Perfect Lives found its visual form through John Sanborn, who directed the opera for television. Dean Winkler was responsible for staging, video editing, animations and graphics, while Jacqueline Humbert designed the opera’s audacious lounge lizard and ’80s high-fashion-meets-sci-fi costuming and make-up. Templates for the camera movements in the opera were mapped out by Sanborn, who divided the screen into a series of vertical and horizontal bands: ‘The Park’ is represented by the low, tracking shot of a horizon, for instance, and ‘The Supermarket’ uses the baseline of ‘The Park’s horizon from which it shoots two converging lines to form a triangular pattern – like an aggressive zoom shot. ‘The Bank’ is a grid and ‘The Bar’ just the vertical lines from the grid. These are subtly echoed by ‘R’s hand-gestures – sometimes side-to-side, other times up-and-down – or Buddy’s hands dancing across the keyboard. Perfect Lives is opera for the screen age, not the crumbling theatres of 19th-century operatic form.
Identities in Perfect Lives are fluid representations. Robert is Raoul, Rodney and The Justice of the Peace. Jill plays Isolde and Ida and Gwyn. (‘When I work in someone else’s work it’s more helpful to me to know what they want me to do, and I think I realized what he [Ashley] wanted me to do was to find out what I’m supposed to do myself,’ says Van Tiegham – or ‘D’, Will, Ed – in Greenaway’s film.) That’s an easy enough idea to understand, but then you get carried away listening to Buddy, take your eyes off ‘R’ to look down at your drink – sans ice – glance up again and ‘R’ is no longer Robert. Ned Sublette is now ‘R’ and ‘R’ is Cuban – grew up north of the US/Mexico border. Elio Villafranca has swapped places with ‘Blue’ Gene to become Buddy; also Cuban but grew up south of the border. The Bar has been rechristened La Vidas Perfectas Lounge.
‘Whoa, Lucille!’ How’d that happen? Well, the end of 2011 saw a number of revivals of Ashley’s work. That Morning Thing was restaged at The Kitchen in a production directed by Fast Forward, curated as part of Performa 11 by Mark Beasley. Varispeed produced Perfect Lives Manhattan and Perfect Lives Brooklyn; new arrangements of the piece performed in site-specific locations around New York City. Vidas Perfectas – with ‘R’ and Buddy now in residency in La Vidas Perfectas Lounge – is an ambitious new Spanish-language version of Perfect Lives, directed by Alex Waterman (who, with Will Holder, is currently working on a study of Ashley’s practice, due to be published at the end of this year) from a translation by Javier Sainz de Robles. Produced under the auspices of ISSUE Project Room and Ballroom Marfa, Vidas Perfectas is, like the original Perfect Lives, designed for television, and will grow steadily in phases over the course of the next two years. Three episodes were staged in December 2011 at the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn – ‘El Parque’ (The Park), ‘La Iglesia’ (The Church) and ‘El Patio de Atrás’ (The Backyard) – with further episodes to be produced in Marfa, Texas, this summer, and a pilot version planned for the end of the year. It is a slow, carefully evolving project, because: ‘we don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy.’
Vidas Perfectas relocates the action to west Texas, on the US/Mexico border. For Ashley, opera is characters in a landscape telling stories musically, and he’s been telling stories in Spanish since 1979. Spanish is the second language of the US, first arriving in the 16th century, and today spoken by some 35 million people. Jean-Luc Godard observed in Notre Musique (Our Music, 2004) that America is a country that has no name – there’s a US, which is in the Americas, but there are many other Americas too, and the US story has been one of looking for self-hood, along the way erasing other cultures that share the same territory. Vidas Perfectas is about the literal and psychological borders between the different Americas, so stories about the US are probably just as well told in Spanish as they are in English.
If, musically speaking – and Ashley’s work is nothing if not about musically speaking – Perfect Lives refracts US lives through jazz, boogie-woogie and pop, then Vidas Perfectas looks at the Cuban and Cajun strains that run through the culture: rock’n’roll, Caribbean music, mambo, salsa. Villafranca, the award-winning Cuban jazz pianist, takes on the role of Buddy, resplendent in a spangled customized mariachi jacket. Sublette – a Spanish-speaking gringo from west Texas whose musical experiences span ’80s downtown avant-garde rock, Afro-Caribbean music, and country and western, and who is a noted scholar of Cuban music and the musical cultures of New Orleans – cuts an imposing figure as ‘R’; Ashley’s silk scarves and shiny suits replaced with a black stetson, laredo tie and cowboy boots. Abraham Gomez-Delgado (a composer of Peruvian and Puerto Rican descent) and Elisa Santiago (a dancer, designer and performer whose Spanish is classical Castellano) play the chorus roles. Waterman has built Vidas Perfectas along the same lines as Ashley’s productions of Perfect Lives: with Gordon back on board as producer, and artist Sarah Crowner designing the sets, Vidas Perfectas ‘uses the social relations that were involved in making the music as the model for its remaking’6, embracing conversation, improvisation and process to tint and colour the production in new ways. ‘Experimental music’, Waterman suggests, ‘is about doing what you don’t know how to do.’7 Vidas Perfectas is not a slavish replication of Perfect Lives. The sets and costuming evoke the south; Sublette’s black-clad southern gent look, for instance, or the elegant way in which Crowner’s sets seem to evoke both early Modernist abstraction and Mexican traditional design. Waterman and his collaborators delicately transform Ashley’s music; it remains unmistakably Ashley, but Latin influences are teased out and foregrounded, by both Villafranca’s piano and by new shifts of rhythmic emphasis in the pre-recorded drum patterns. The performances in Spanish put Ashley’s libretto into motion in new ways: Sublette’s rich voice plays down the beguiling casualness of Ashley’s intimate patter, infusing the role of ‘R’ with a more brooding intensity. Even if you do not speak Spanish, surrendering yourself to the musicality of the overall sound still, somehow, allows access to the mystery of Perfect Lives’s libretto.
John Cage once said: ‘Qué pasa con la Biblia? Y el Corán? No importa. Tenemos Vidas Perfectas.’ In the world of Perfect Lives – Manhattan, the Midwest or Texas – people ‘come to talk. They pass the time. They soothe their thoughts with lemonade. They say things like: She never had a stitch that she could call her own, poor thing. And, Carl’s still president over at the bank, ain’t he? […] They are the planets in this scheme of things.’ - Dan Fox
Interview by Jeremy M. Davies and A D Jameson
"A flock of young musicians has been gravitating toward octogenarian composer Robert Ashley, indicating that his truly original artistic voice is finally settling into its rightful place in history. This week, an unprecedented outpouring of Ashley’s music starts with four nights of chamber works at Incubator Arts Project, including an impressive lineup of old and new collaborators as well as a new live version of his seminal electronic work Automatic Writing.
The groundswell continues with the New York premiere (and first performance in 40 years) of his 1967 opera, That Morning Thing, at the Kitchen and a pair of new interpretations of his “television opera” Perfect Lives. One, an itinerant live version, will be performed at sites around the East Village by music collective Varispeed. The other, an ambitious new Spanish-language adaptation, Vidas Perfectas, directed by cellist Alex Waterman, will screen at the Irondale Center in December.
“Robert Ashley didn’t just reinvent opera—he has reimagined the American musical landscape,” says Waterman. “He brings us a totally new form of opera that makes sung speech sound like talk, synthetic orchestration sound like unconscious thought and the performance feel like a dream that we can’t wake from.”
Ashley finds the youthful enthusiasm for his work invigorating, but is unsurprised by the timing. “There’s a sort of time lag that’s constant,” he explains. “You get an idea, and then 30 or 40 years later that idea suddenly becomes more important and moves forward.”
In the case of That Morning Thing, Ashley’s first opera to abandon linear narrative, the political climate when it was written seems uncannily similar to today’s. “People get interested in this piece, and then all of a sudden there’s Occupy Wall Street!” says Ashley. “That’s a real 1960s idea, but it’s our idea too.”
Regarding the opera’s revival, which is part of the visual art performance biennial Performa ’11, Ashley is careful to avoid nostalgia, insisting, “I don’t want to make it like 1967 brought back.” This would prove difficult anyway, as very little of it was ever written down. So with director Fast Forward and a 17-person cast of dancers and musicians, Ashley has been re-creating the three-act opera scene-by-scene from a score that exists mostly in his mind.
“Writing music down on paper is an important idea and it led us to the orchestra, which is amazing,” says Ashley. “But it eclipsed the other idea, which is, ‘this is the way to do it, and I tell you and you tell her.’ That’s a different way of communicating, and That Morning Thing is in that tradition.”
For multitalented musician Dave Ruder, who will be appearing in That Morning Thing, the Incubator series and Perfect Lives Manhattan, this way of collaborating has been essential to getting inside Ashley’s work. “If you were just handed the page and told to perform [these works], you’d probably end up with something pretty flat,” he explains. “But having Bob’s guidance helps find the musicality in it, and the avenues along which musical investigation will be most fruitful. They’re not always obvious. For me, performing starts with making a decision that it can be beautiful to just listen to yourself tell a story.”
Sometimes that story is downright peculiar, as in Perfect Lives, a seven-episode opera that juxtaposes the surreal exploits of the narrator, R, and Buddy (“the greatest piano player in the world”), including a symbolic bank robbery. It was recorded for television in 1983, with Ashley as R and long-time collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny as Buddy.
“When it was done for TV, the idea was that it’s cooked; that’s the way it was done,” says Ashley. “Then these young people come along and say, ‘It’s not cooked! We have another idea about it.’ ”
Far from being protective of the original, Ashley welcomes the fresh approaches, explaining, “There’s not an ideal Perfect Lives, only the idea. The form of the piece is just seven dialogues, and the way those dialogues are framed in music becomes a pattern for all the other ingredients in the opera—the instrumental music, the location, the costumes. There can be other versions as long as people are interested in that text.” – Interview by Amanda MacBlane