I. “The Park”
Robert Ashley was once asked whether or not his works were to be considered opera, to which he responded: “Well, if I say it’s opera, it’s opera! Who’s running this show, anyway?” Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in March 2014, wrote music of ordinary people talking ordinary talk. His performance art, music theater works, and television operas, such as the trilogy Perfect Lives, Atalanta (Acts of God), and Now Eleanor’s Idea, are fashioned around intricately detailed, anecdotal libretti, the words spoken (and occasionally sung) over minimal accompaniments.
Perfect Lives is the most frequently performed of the three, though it has never been presented in the United States in its intended format of seven television episodes roughly 25 minutes apiece. Composed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it received a television production on Great Britain’s Channel 4 in 1984, as well as a 1983 CD recording and a 2005 DVD recording (both released on the Lovely Music label, and both featuring Ashley’s solo voice). Over the past three years, however, the opera has finally begun to receive its due, and has been interpreted all around the country by the new music group Varispeed Collective, cellist Alex Waterman (in Spanish, as Vidas Perfectas), and most recently, by the electronic music duo Matmos.
On a Tuesday evening last December, I saw Matmos perform the first and last episodes of Perfect Lives while seated on the soon-to-be renovated floor of ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn. The two scenes, “The Park” and “The Backyard,” originally existed as an opera called Private Parts, which Ashley later expanded and renamed Perfect Lives. Matmos may have initially seemed like an afterthought to the end-of-year benefit program, roughly fifty minutes of live music tacked onto several hours of drinking and mingling. But as Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt began reciting Ashley’s rhythmic, unruffled lines (“He takes himself seriously . . . ”), and in a murmur uncannily akin to that of the man himself, a hushed thoughtfulness descended upon the space.
Flanked by fellow Matmos member Drew Daniel (on electronics), two back-up vocalists chiming in for key phrases (“as is”; “sure enough”), as well as instrumentalists performing on bansuri (South Asian bamboo flutes), electric violin, upright bass, and cellos, Schmidt brought to life the not-quite stream-of-conscious rambling of Raoul de Noget, a washed-up singer who is one of the major characters wandering and wondering through Ashley’s opera. In Britton Powell’s arrangement, the accompaniments wavered between “some state or non-state,” as Raoul does, the bansuri lending a touch of blustering unease, the strings sliding along in placid undercurrents.
In “The Park,” Raoul sits in a motel room, musing over a photograph of two men on a park bench somewhere in the small-town Midwest. The episode traverses everything from the metaphysical to the comic, and includes what Kyle Gann, in his 2012 Ashley biography, refers to as “the first meditation on masturbation in the history of opera”: “He handles himself in the morning. / It’s just like for every other man. / The fantasy is the distance, / the reluctance, the reticence, the otherness. / The fantasy is the uncleanness. / So, getting up gets to be a problem for / a sensitive person like him.” Schmidt’s wry, restrained monotone animated these mundane thoughts; only those listening carefully picked up on the jokes.
In the planned televised version, these phrases were to have been matched with images of Ashley speaking, making a drink (“He pours himself a small drink in a fluted / plastic glass sans ice”), or of Ashley’s accompanist “Blue” Gene Tyranny, his fingers marking an oom-pah beat at the piano. At the ISSUE benefit, the onstage humming was coupled with hallucinatory projections from video artist Max Eilbacher; oscillating shapes and sketches of electronics loomed behind the musicians, these images later contrasting with backdrops of clear blue skies and shocks of green grass.
Despite the knowing, self-deprecatory humor, “The Park” is really a meditation on ephemerality both physical and mental: the photograph held by Raoul is a symbol of what remains after death. (Matmos’s delivery of Perfect Lives was solemn and occasionally even eerie—fittingly so, given the timing of the ISSUE benefit, which fell at the end of the year of Ashley’s death.) Ashley declared that his television operas were influenced by three books: two by Frances Yates, on the philosopher Giordano Bruno (The Art of Memory and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition), as well as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In one of the many instances of Ashley’s preoccupation with light, a symbol of infinite reincarnation, Raoul “wonders, as we all do / how it comes to you that the light has changed.”
“Incredibly slowly our view begins to slide” is another one. As Schmidt declaimed these words, the images expanding and contracting and rotating on the screen behind him, I could almost hear Ashley’s soothing voice on the Lovely Music recording. Like the park bench photograph, the recording has outlasted Ashley’s physical and mental architecture. But Ashley was also supportive of divergent interpretations and instrumental arrangements. In the last few years of his life he attended and promoted stagings of Perfect Lives that disregarded all but the text.
The opera itself is straightforward in neither plot nor score. As with many of Ashley’s operas, it sounds upon first listening like little more than overlapping, mumbled lines of speech that may or may not be related to one another. The words are baffling yet somehow soothing; they are always spoken in a very specific, rhythmic way, and even the most grotesque or disturbing anecdotes are delivered in this manner. Anchored by Ashley’s precise tempi, the texts somehow avoid slipping into murky rambling. Meanwhile, electronics, percussion, and piano arpeggios twinkle along in the background. Occasionally, a sense of plot glimmers through: several of the characters have hatched a bank robbery. They will take all the money out of the bank, and then put it back in: the perfect “philosophical” crime.
Yet each and every word is critical to the bigger picture. Like his philosopher hero Bruno, Ashley used patterns of words and intertwining stories to map out not only a cosmology of memory and a theory of infinity, but an entirely new way of structuring opera. Not nearly enough is made of the fact that some of Ashley’s greatest inspiration came from a Dominican friar whose heretical pantheism overshadowed his scientific and mathematical discoveries. Ashley was a pantheist in the way he thought that sounds belonged to everybody (even the audience), and that they should be heard everywhere (even in a grocery store—even and maybe especially in the comfort of one’s own home), and that the arrangement of “noise” into speech and dialogue could be considered opera. (Taking a page from this playbook, Matmos has used amplified crayfish nerve tissue and other unusual materials as sound sources in their performances.) The interpretation of Ashley’s works by Matmos and other groups continues this tradition. Given the vagaries of Ashley’s compositions, performers even feel the license to complement his texts with tubas strutting down supermarket frozen food aisles.
II. “The Supermarket”
Since 2011, the “durational experimental performance group” Varispeed Collective has been touring Perfect Lives all over the Northeast, adding fresh interpretive layers and details with each new site-specific presentation. At seven sites wherever the event is taking place (these have included Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Catskills, and most recently, Pittsburgh), they spread the 25-minute segments over a span of twelve hours, allowing roughly an hour and a half between each for relocating to and setting up in the next location. Accompanying instruments have ranged from melodicas and euphonium to Ashley’s original scoring (for piano, synthesizers, and electronic percussion) to the saxophones and tabla of local musicians who have dropped by for the day or even for just a single episode.
Varispeed’s high-energy interpretations are given at seven sites correlated to the seven scenes, e.g. “The Bank” outside a bank, “The Church” in a church, “The Backyard” in a backyard, garden, or park. Gelsey Bell, one of Varispeed’s founding members, writes in the new music journal Tempo that “each place elicits particular kinds of social behavior and ways of engaging with music.” Yet the characters and settings achieve a certain universality as Ashley’s words flow across the public spaces. The bank that agrees to host “The Bank” comes to represent all banks; the church in which the audience is handed Varispeed’s “audience hymnals,” asked to participate in the reading of Ashley’s text, comes to represent all houses of worship. This in contrast to the blank canvas of ISSUE which, as a venue, admittedly had nothing to do with the opera, its settings, or its characters. (Here Eilbacher’s oblique video projections transformed Ashley’s visual concept into a more abstract experience, though the resulting sense of detachment actually intensified the performance.)
The audience hymnals aside, the most memorable episode in Varispeed’s rendering of Perfect Lives Catskills, which I attended in August 2013, was “The Supermarket” (second in Ashley’s ordering but third in Varispeed’s reordering). This section centers on Helen and John, an unmarried couple in an old folks home, and the trivialities of aging. (These themes would crop up again in two of Ashley’s later operas, Celestial Excursions and Concrete.) Here the music shifts from the pensive murmuring characteristic of “The Park” to a bouncy oom-pah mimicking Helen and John’s limping and bantering.
With Varispeed jaunting through the aisles of the Boiceville IGA, supervised by Robert Ashley himself, pushing around an empty shopping cart, the result was an irresistible, infectious conflation of reality and performance. Audience members peered through rows of cereal boxes to catch a glimpse of the performers; unsuspecting shoppers looked up in bewilderment as spoken narration blasted over the PA system and the chain of vocalists sang ascending melodies.
Although the opera was intended to be experienced in the comfort of one’s own home, via television screen pixels, Varispeed’s site-specific interpretations are equally inviting and personal. After all, Bell notes that “the impulse to bring opera onto the television screen seems to me like a desire to bring storytelling and music into the everyday lives of people: to marry stories with a sense of place to actual places.” In his collected writings, Outside of Time: Ideas about Music, Ashley writes that Perfect Lives is
meant to be heard and seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work. They are meant to be seen many times. The details pile up, and finally there is a glimmer of the larger idea. This is my idea of opera.
Ashley and Bell both speak of reconciling the everyday with larger ideas, with glimpsing the fictional and the metaphorical through the lens of reality. Through the repetition of “bits” and anecdotes, the problems faced by all elderly Americans materialize much more broadly. In the routine of evenly spaced 25-minute episodes, themes of reincarnation and infinity shined through.
III. “The Bank”
No matter how many instruments or performers are added or subtracted from the originals, Ashley’s divisions of time and meter remain. Time, for Ashley, is nearly as important as it was for John Cage. In the early 1960s, before conceiving his television operas, Ashley composed tape and electronic theater works and organized the now legendary ONCE Festivals in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In an interview with Gann, Ashley observed that
music had always been about eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that . . . it’s about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense. There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me . . . That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.
Of course, Perfect Lives centers on events, namely the bank robbery and the ways in which the characters are touched by the drama. The characters are not only bound by time but hyper-aware of it; references to clock time are sprinkled throughout: 5 A.M. (when Ed, Gwyn, Dwayne, and “D” leave town), 12:45 P.M. (“remember that!”), 3 P.M. (when John and Helen jaunt through the supermarket), and sundown (when a group of neighbors gather in the backyard to watch the light change).
The stories are extraordinary (bank robberies) but also ordinary. Some elements are taken from “real life,” such as the vegetarian theosophist who married Ashley’s sister or the high school friend who got jilted at the altar. So if the opera’s overlapping, chronology-hopping happenings are still bound to time and place, the element of familiarity nevertheless lingers. Most of the characters, from John and Helen and the humdrum old folks home to the girls who work behind the bank counters, inhabit lives just as rhythmic and repetitive as the beats churning beneath such endlessly reiterated lines as “Eleanor works at the bank. That’s her job. Mostly she helps people count their money. She likes it.”
Churn the beats may, but they are not so regular as you might think. The tempo is 72 beats per minute in every scene, but the first four scenes are in asymmetrical meters (13, 5, 9, and 7 beats per measure, or pair of vocal lines), the next two in constant four-beat measures, and the final scene in a “dialogue” of meters alternating between 5- and 6-beat measures. Ashley stated:
The thing about symmetrical times for long songs—that is, songs that last about a half-hour—is that asymmetrical time is very very beautiful. The coincidences are so weak, the actual structural cadences are so ephemeral, that you can just go on forever. I mean, if you get things going in say, thirteen, there is no time . . . whereas if you do things in 4s, or 2s, or 6s, it becomes very heavy . . . You can’t stay out there on the stage for two and a half hours if everything is going 4/4, it makes you crazy. You have to think of a way that it’s interesting for you spiritually. Otherwise you might as well be driving a car.
Lines that could go on forever, but only rarely coincide, evoking infinite ephemerality. Lives, like those of Raoul, his buddy Buddy, and their partners in crime, that fall together at the outset of an unusual chain of events. Bruno’s hypotheses of a God present in all beings, of suns circled by other planets (their orbits only dovetailing once even few centuries), of a spherical Earth in an infinite universe without a center, are echoed in Ashley’s music, which emulates an eternal present.
Unlike Bruno, whose theological and astrological theories resulted in his imprisonment and ultimate death in the Campo dei Fiori, Ashley’s music outside of time did not get him burned at the stake. It did, however, diverge drastically from operatic norms: plot, melody, harmony, and place both fictional (the setting of the story) and real (the hall or theater hosting the performance). Perfect Lives hinges not on a structured narrative, but upon the specific recitation of patterns of words. The only constants are the tempo, the words, and the “grids” upon which Ashley indicated which syllables were to be emphasized.
IV. “The Bar”
Even before Perfect Lives, Ashley was an idealistic composer who disregarded traditions and embraced his own intuitions. He was born in Ann Arbor, a college town with a prominent music program, and while he grew up listening to the radio, he “didn’t see a person play the piano live until [he] was 15 years old.” Eventually, he studied with a “horrible” piano teacher; more substantial exposure came to jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie, influences from which can all be felt in “The Bar,” the central section of Perfect Lives:
The money Baby spent
On lessons at the music store
Will not ensure her place
Among the greats of boogie-woogie . . . or even,
Get her playing at the bar.
Happy she is, the traveling
She is not.
Thirty lessons guaranteed to merge
The left hand with the right.
In one ear and out the other hand,
Across the great divide.
Some got it and some don’t,
She says at night . . .
I got it, Rodney’s Baby says,
Boogie-woogie all the way . . .
CCEE CCGG CCBB CCGG
CCEE CCGG CCBB CCGG
Boogie-woogie is the vessel of the eternal present.
That’s the only way to use that word.
Characteristically, Ashley channeled his own experiences to bring Bruno’s “eternal present” to life. The voices chant philosophical maunderings on “the Self,” juxtaposed with the low rustle of asymmetrical boogie-woogie accompaniments (and during “The Bank,” the occasional pop tune, simulating the radio cutting in and out in the getaway car). By saturating his operas with the vernacular of ordinary folks at a bar (“we don’t serve fine wine in half pints, Buddy”), Ashley hoped to transfigure preconceived notions about the “inaccessibility” of live performance.
Well before Perfect Lives, Ashley was interested in bridging the “divided consciousness” separating musicians and audience members. Take his 1961 composition Public Opinion Descends upon the Demonstrators: during the piece, the audience is separated into various sections facing different directions, plunged into an alternating current of electronic sounds and silences, the durations of which are determined by the Fibonacci sequence. During the silences, the sound controller mimics any and all audience activity (whispering, yawning, rustling) via taped sounds and electronics. While some spectators rejected the experience as “manipulation,” perhaps on account of the shift in audience expectations this created, others “were pleased with the peculiar effect of being able to create their own demonstration and with the interplay, not to say confusion, between ‘composer’ and ‘audience’,” as Ashley described it in The Musical Quarterly.
In the same article, Ashley wrote that Public Opinion was an investigation into the
divided consciousness I feel at concerts. I believed that the feelings could be made less ominous, that if one could accept that divided consciousness (the American Concert Consciousness), it could even be enjoyable. I think, too, we spend so much time in unreal situations (searching) that it is hard for us (Americans) to distinguish between the situation and what some other cultures might call the “music” (what you thought you came for).
Ashley’s desire to conjoin the “divided consciousness” had roots in the parallel and occasionally overlapping circle of Cage and the Fluxus group, who stretched or even demolished the boundaries between composition, improvisation, noise, performance, and “reality.” What set Ashley apart, however, was his lack of pretension, his desire to establish musical forms that would echo the muttering chatter of ordinary Americans (in the case of Public Opinion, literally).
Ashley’s life, particularly as it pertains to Perfect Lives and his “mature” operas, is explored with candor and careful detail in Gann’s biography. The early Michigan years, spent feeling out the post-Cage musical-ideological landscape, are chronicled with attentive foresight for what was to come. The book reads as a fairly general overview of Ashley’s life and music, and considering the scarcity of written material on Ashley, the slender volume is certainly satisfying on its own terms. Like Matmos and Varispeed, Gann has no agenda other than to convey his love of Ashley’s work. But what Ashley’s precise motivations were, or even who Ashley “really” was, remain uncertain—and this calls to mind another section of “The Bar”:
There is only one Self. That Self is
Light. The Self is ageless.
The body has four forms, times,
Eras, four ages.
But the Self the one and only Self is ageless,
Without age and without aging.
The Self is without coincidence, being
The only thing the self.
The Self is without attainment,
Being perfect . . .
The word eternal is a mystery to me.
Ashley’s preoccupations—with mysteries, words, and the eternal—were matched by his devotion to creativity that was without age and without aging. Like Cage, he was skeptical of eventfulness and its emotional limitations. Like Bruno, he saw infinite possibilities where others might have seen a group of nondescript Midwesterners carrying out a pointless crime. Ashley respected his characters, however normal, as individuals. He claimed in the liner notes for Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) that “we can never know” whether Linda understood her story within the larger allegory: “One thing is clear from her account (and I can assure that the same holds for the other operas), she speaks as an 'individual.' [ . . . ] In this, I think, she is an American.”
Ashley’s Midwest roots instilled him with scorn for the grandiose European operatic tradition, embraced and even imitated by people who had never been to the continent: “It’s like Eskimos playing baseball. It’s crazy! It’s nuts! It’s superstition. The form is related to the architecture. La Scala’s architecture doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t go there. We stay home and watch television.” Ashley’s desire to reconcile the literal architecture of performance with operatic form indicates just how important space was for him.
V. “The Living Room”
Already apparent in Public Opinion, Ashley’s proclivity for employing space in unconventional ways can also be traced to 1975, when he was formulating the concept for Music with Roots in the Aether, a fourteen hour-long series of interviews and performances by seven composers including Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley. Gann’s biography provides insight into the means by which Ashley extracted a hefty budget from the Rockefeller Foundation (when writing his grant proposal he was advised not to use the word “opera,” on account of its “tedious” and “pompous” connotations). Gann also chronicles the development of Ashley’s idea:
[H]e thought of staging a two-month residency in which various composers would come through. Each would stay a few days, talk to Ashley about various things, and stop to perform their own music from time to time. Eventually the idea arose to videotape the whole thing. As Ashley went on sabbatical in 1975, this videotape idea grew into the status of an opera, with the composers as characters, playing themselves and providing different musics through their different speaking styles.
Just a few years later he began composing Private Parts. Deriving music from different American speaking styles—from the stuff of speech itself—Ashley began to rethink how an audience could relate to sound. His operas from Perfect Lives on up to Dust and Concrete demonstrate the unmistakable musicality of human speech.
Space was one of the dominant forces at play in Varispeed’s Catskills interpretation. Watching “The Living Room” on floor pillows in the Mount Tremper Arts building, the air hazy with the smell of sawdust and the sounds of night insects just outside the windows, the wooden roof over our heads provided a sense of structure and intimacy missing from the open-air scenes. Matmos, on the other hand, was confined to the stationary darkness of ISSUE, where the visual architecture was digital rather than physical, the images crowding and careening across the screen. It allowed for the kind of completely abstract mental wandering that Ashley encouraged (admittedly, one of the recurring geometric shapes had the name “Buddy” stamped across it). In the absence of the changing light, the robbery and the lives of Raoul and Buddy and D’s sister Isolde took on the kind of cosmic boundlessness Ashley would have appreciated.
I would not say that either performance was “better.” Neither took place in the intended format, with the audience sitting at home flipping to other channels during the commercial break. But thanks to Ashley’s flexibility with the very notion of an “intended format”—and, for that matter, everything but the text—in neither case did the performers feel like Eskimos playing baseball, either. Both groups lent credibility to the characters and their navigation of what Ashley saw as the great mystery of life and death: the perception of time by ordinary mortals living a finite existence in an infinite universe.
VI. “The Church”
Gann also insists upon thinking about Ashley’s compositional (a)symmetries through the lens of Bruno: “[I]t is worth cultivating a sense that his is ultimately an ordered universe, so that one can learn to perceive the large-scale balance behind the sometimes apparent chaos.” This ordered chaos, or chaotic balance, was derived from Bruno’s “theatre of memory,” developed during his wanderings across Europe after fleeing Italy. The concept was inspired in large part by Giulio Camillo, another Florentine Renaissance philosopher, who formulated an “Idea del Theatro” based on the creation of the world, with seven levels, perhaps echoed through the seven episodes of Perfect Lives.
Bruno’s earliest published works, De Umbris Idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas) and Cantus Circaeus (The Song of Circe), were published in Paris in 1582, and both works exhibit the orderings that Gann discerns in Ashley’s operas: sequences, series, memory systems, and memory wheels. In The Song of Circe, the universe is called to order by Circe, Greek goddess of magic:
Sun, who alone bathes all things in light. Apollo, author of poetry, quiver bearer, bowman, of the powerful arrows, Pythian, laurel-crowned, prophetic, shepherd, seer, priest, and physician . . . Who imparts to the elements their marvelous natures: by whose dispensation the seas swell and are calmed, the air and sky are troubled and soothed, the lively strength and power of fire is roused and repressed. By whose ministry the mechanism of this universe thrives . . .
Everything had a place and an order within Bruno’s infinite universe, and his memory works are instructive in this organization. This ordering relied upon the rising and setting sun, which can aid in the construction of human thought and recall. On the Shadows of Ideas and The Song of Circe are essentially exercise books on how to store memories.
Bruno pops up again and again in Ashley’s trilogy. In Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), the first part of the tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea, he allegorizes Bruno’s memory system through tap-dancing. Featuring characters taken from the Perfect Lives robbery scenes, Ashley effects an ironic, “everyday” transformation of his obscure obsession, an airline ticket counter standing in for the scene of the Spanish Inquisition. Religious questioning and “spiritual activity” materialize through the figures Linda encounters during her travels (“For the sake of argument, Linda is the Jews,” Ashley intones in the prelude); Mr. George Payne is a tap dancer who explains the workings of memory by mumbling lines like “the observer never sees what the dancer sees.”
Mentions of Bruno litter the Perfect Lives libretto, too. “The Church”, the sixth episode, takes the form of a long-winded sermon, tackling issues from the language and history of mankind itself to the Tourette’s Syndrome from which Ashley suspected he suffered (while Gann does not address a diagnosis, if ever there was one, Ashley states in his liner notes for Automatic Writing and Other Works that he “had come to recognize” that he had a mild form of the disorder). In Gwyn’s words can be heard the residues of Bruno’s Circe:
Those jokes don’t bother me, Your Honor. I am
Transparent to the wishes of my Lord. I am put here and it
Pleases me to serve Him. My soul feasts upon the rising
Of the sun. It is His presence. The great arc of the day is
The truth of my life. I learn from it, and am humble in
That knowledge. And in the evening my body sleeps.
Gwyn sees God in the sun, and she sees herself in the passing of time, the arc of the day. Later in the episode, speech is used as a metaphor for arranging things, and for taking sounds for oneself when they are meant to belong to everybody. “Language does not have truth built in,” Ashley concludes, but it does have sense built in, which can lead to the search for truth.
Ashley insisted that stream-of-consciousness does not exist in his operas, where every sentence and anecdote serves a larger purpose, just as every god, goddess, zodiac symbol, planet, sun, and moon contributes to the overall framework of Bruno’s memory systems. The idea of an infinite universe can baffle and terrify (which is why Bruno was executed), but a careful systematization of this limitlessness drew Ashley to Bruno. Every memory or acquaintance that touched Ashley’s life was fair game in the larger scheme of his works. His rejection of plot and subjectivity was a far cry from the accepted system of operatic narrative, but his own version of “storytelling” encompasses so much more of the world, time, and reality.
Ever attentive to the Tourette’s that he may or may not have actually had, Ashley needed to organize words in a way that was musical but not restrictive. Like Cage seeking order in the I Ching, Ashley felt compelled to organize the chaos of his memories—of life itself—in music, echoing Bruno, the man who sifted the infinite universe into planetary charts and elaborate astrological systems. Ashley’s symmetrical structures comprised of mundane yet cosmic stories were his way of conveying the wisdom and wonder of Bruno’s memory systems. Just as Cage’s work freely embodied the tenets Zen Buddhism, so should Ashley’s music be considered alongside the intellectual edifices of Giordano Bruno.
VII. “The Backyard”
There were no crayfish nerve tissues onstage, at least from what I could see, when Matmos returned to the stage after a brief intermission to perform “The Backyard” sans back-up orchestra. The final episode of Perfect Lives, “The Backyard” is Isolde’s meditation on mortality. The episode sees a return to the more leisurely cadence of “The Park”, although the accompaniment is only a lightly drummed beat (Drew Daniel’s electronics at ISSUE, tablas at the Mount Tremper Arts vegetable garden).
An unmarried woman, Isolde is standing in the doorway of her mother’s backyard, watching the neighbors, who are themselves watching the changing of light. Meditatively, she counts a series of numbers before fixing on forty-two:
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.
The great translation and coincidence of numbers provides Isolde with some form of consolation, of resolution, even: “That number is the answer, in the way that numbers answer.” In Ashley’s singularly powerful conclusion, the events of the opera cease to matter. Instead, they coalesce into a meditation on death, reincarnation, worldliness, otherworldliness, and (yet again) the wonder of boogie-woogie (“For her, piano playing is the only mystery”). It’s no wonder the episode’s subtitle is “T’ Be Continued”.
Even though we were indoors, the light changed as M.C. Schmidt peeled away at the inner workings of Isolde’s being:
Sundown, one, the time it disappears.
Gloaming, two, the twilight, dusk.
Crepuscule, the twilight, three, dusk.
Twilight, four, pale purplish blue to pale violet, lighter than dusk blue . . .
Clair de lune, five, greener and paler than dusk.
Dusk, six, redder and darker than clair de lune.
Here more than anywhere, Bruno’s ordering of lights and planets imbues every syllable of Ashley’s music. After all the action and inaction, the philosophical musings, the characters are elevated to an almost mythical status. Poised on the threshold between indoors and out, Isolde inhabits the space between life and death. “I’m not the same person that I used to be.” The numbers count by in Isolde’s mind, revealing Ashley’s profoundly ordered soundscape.
“Giordano Bruno comes to mind . . . whoever he is,” mused Schmidt. “I think they burned him.” A few people in the audience chuckled. “He was too positive. Fight fire with fire.” Ashley knew very well who Giordano Bruno was, but Ashley’s cosmology was founded on an acceptance of the unknowable. His “plots,” he acknowledged, were mysteries listeners were not expected to grasp after an isolated performance.
Ashley’s aversion to plot, to “eventfulness,” makes it nearly impossible to say what Perfect Lives is “about.” It possesses none of the tropes of grand opera (betrayal, love, tuberculosis), only the ordinary themes of the American everyday: money, confusion, forgetfulness, time. “They come to talk, they pass the time. They soothe their thoughts with lemonade.” One can imagine Isolde pondering these words in her mathematical mind, the neighbors sipping lemonade before heading home to watch television.
Most of what we can know about Robert Ashley can be found in Gann’s book, but what we can’t know is to be found in the operas. In Perfect Lives, Ashley’s memories are organized into anecdotes organized into episodes that fade away at the end of the day like the sky in Isolde’s backyard. The lines between the everyday and the infinite, between the known and unknown, blur together like the light and darkness along the horizon.
Rebecca Lentjes is the assistant editor for French and Italian materials at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. She researched Satie's influences on minimalism as an undergraduate, and will be starting doctoral studies in musicology in the fall.
Banner images Matmos at ISSUE Project Room by Peter Gannushkin, http://downtownmusic.net.