Robert Ashley by Alex Waterman

BOMB 118 Winter 2012
Cover 118
​Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley as The Narrator in the television version of Perfect Lives, 1983, stills from video.

When Robert Ashley talks about opera, he is referring to characters in a landscape telling stories musically. The landscape is represented either on television or on stage, and it is as expressive a feature in the music as any of the characters. In his operas, landscape becomes another piece in the puzzle of the grand cosmology of the American language.

Classical opera generally takes a central narrative—a love story or a tragedy—and makes it into a large-scale social event with enormous themes and casts to match, presented in a language we might not understand. Sets and design are as important as the opera itself, and the site of its plot has political meaning. The opera house and the large proscenium, the rotating stage, the trapdoors, the enormous lighting grids, the chandeliers, the balconies, and the boxes all construct an elaborate, artificial world vision that also happens to be exorbitantly expensive. Ashley’s operas do not work at the Met because there is still no economy to support a new style of opera that would put divas out of work and challenge the dominance of languages such as Italian, French, German, and so on. His work is self-produced: he writes it, stars in it, and owns all of his copyrights. That is just not done in the classical music world, where corporate models are employed and everyone needs a slice of the pie. As Ashley says: “If I’m not there, there is nothing.” His music is centered on his particular and unique form of vocal production. The composer, not an orchestra or a virtuoso, is center stage.

Perfect Lives —an opera “about” a bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, etcetera, set in the American Midwest—remains one of Ashley’s few works to have been televised. Commissioned by The Kitchen and many years in the making, the television version premiered in 1983. Essentially, the landscapes in the television version ofPerfect Lives take on symbolic significance while also standing in for the speaking voice. The cornfield or the park, the flatness of the landscape, the roads (mirrored by the piano) all are part of the construction of this Midwestern place. For Ashley, the flatness of the Midwestern accent, for instance, is just one way that landscape could become part of language.

Perfect Lives lacks an urtext or a score. There is no final version of Perfect Lives because it is a concept and a set of stories. The concept is that these stories are told musically. They can be told in different orders, one episode at a time, on stage or on television. None of those possibilities are definitive. I have had the opportunity to add another interpretation to the panoply of versions by recreating the Spanish-language Vidas Perfectas for the stage and television, filming on location in Marfa, Texas, under the auspices of ISSUE Project Room and Ballroom Marfa. It’s been a daunting task to take a piece that is perfect—I mean, it’s an amazing piece—and remake it in the other American language.

Alex Waterman conducting a rehearsal of Vidas Perfectas.

Alex Waterman I’d like to talk about the way in which the camera in Perfect Lives captures the Midwestern landscape and attempts to make it talk. The way that you speak about landscape in relationship to opera and American music is unique.

Robert Ashley What distinguishes traditional opera from any other form of narrative—like religious dramas, for example—is that most operas have a political landscape. This is especially true in Italian and German opera. You get a version of a landscape that has political meaning. I thought about that when contemplating the architecture of the opera house and how it makes those landscapes possible. Of course, that architecture is not available to me, nor would I want it to be. But the landscape has to be there however the opera is presented.

In the best of circumstances, the architecture and the music–for the people—match. But what’s happened in the last 50 to 100 years is that the music has outgrown the architecture. The instruments are old, the ideas are old—everything’s so old; it’s boring, you know? There is no architecture to deal with what we’re talking about here. I thought, There’s got to be one. And it occurred to me that our architecture might be the imaginary space behind the surface of the television screen. In other words, when you watch TV, you see whatever you see, but behind that there’s an imaginary space and maybe that’s the place for the music of our time.

It’s interesting how you can manipulate landscapes with television so that they have meaning. It’s different from having a person singing here, in my living room, which is something of a landscape. If you go outside of the personality of this room, the landscape is all of a sudden dramatically political—it’s a visual demonstration of how things work for everybody. That’s what opera is about. You’re trying to put the story in an appropriate place so that when you see it you say, Oh, that’s what the story is about!

AW Your living room is full of your rhythms and your ways of walking through it, navigating through your day, with your sense of timing. I wonder whether this particular interior becomes equivalent to a designed landscape, like a garden, which needs to be inhabited, walked through, and unfolded in the mind in order to exist. Landscapes become reflections of the people who have constructed them. But through the movement of the camera and the flow of musical time, we become aware that they’re not just reflections of the people, but also they speak to us—just as the characters do. Is this what is meant by making the landscape talk? It’s taken me years to really grasp what that might mean!

RA The landscape in Perfect Lives starts as big as possible, in The Park, and it’s described quite precisely in political terms. And then it goes to The Supermarket, which is not totally indoors. Then you get the ride through the landscape with the lovers eloping and the bank robbers driving to Indiana in The Bank episode, where you are dealing with mixed outdoors and indoors. Next, you enter the most close-range landscape, in The Bar with Rodney and Buddy talking. Then you move out again to a bigger space in The Living Room, which has more imaginary space. At the beginning of that episode, the characters talk about the Sheriff’s Wife as if she were on the South Pole and the Earth were revolving around her.

AW Consequently, the imaginary space of The Living Room is represented visually by showing heavenly bodies in motion, the North Pole, grain silos, and the Atalanta building in Lower Manhattan with the World Trade Center behind it, in addition to a short shot of a generic living room. The Living Room as an episode cannot be described just as interior shots because the stories and the narratives extend far beyond the confines of the room itself.

RA Yes. Then there is The Church, which is a type of interior that corresponds, in the use of space, to The Supermarket—they’re pillars of architectural reality.

AW They both represent a large cross-section of the unconscious desires of America. They create a crossroads where we find consumption, social gathering, preaching, the body politic, and the display of material and spiritual riches (morals and your Sunday best).

RA Yes, then you go outdoors again to The Backyard and, in so doing, you have gone through different densities of landscape.

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Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem in the television version of Perfect Lives, 1983, still from video.

AW I see this density as made up of the permeation and mutual flux between interior and exterior. All of these places in Perfect Lives are places for congregating. The Living Room is the social center of the house, a “landscape of attachments,” as you say in the episode. The music is more intermittent, there are more pauses, and the narration feels more like the recounting of a conversation. First one person talks, then another, and then you describe how they sit in space and how they relate to one another. It’s a beautiful description of their kind of togetherness.

RA Yes, they’re all places where people get together and talk. Except in The Backyard, where Isolde is meditating and only remembering how people talk.

AW Well, she’s overhearing all these conversations from next door. There’s a barbecue where people are gossiping about people they know …

RA That’s true. The first and last episodes are meditations on landscapes.

AW Can you explain something I didn’t quite understand? What exactly do you mean when you talk about the innovations that television has made in terms of representing landscape?

RA When I first started watching television, I wasn’t very serious about it, but then I saw the TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination and was really impressed—it was the defining moment of the beginning of a documentary phase of television. The styles started to change after that, as documentaries and professional sports began being broadcast. The camera delights in looking at things like football or baseball fields. You’d have to be the baseball commissioner or pay 1,500 dollars a seat in order to see a ballgame and its landscape the way that you get to see it on TV. With television, you just have to turn it on.

AW Yet nowadays at the game itself there is also a large television screen—or actually many screens!

RA Yes, that’s right. You see these enormous spaces on television—I’m not talking about Animal Planet and that sort of thing—and what you are watching can only happen in thatlandscape. That’s exactly like opera; it can happen only there! Unlike the movies, which is a whole other ballgame. You don’t see the landscape in movies like you see it in television.

AW But if you take a film down to the American Southwest (as we will do with the new footage for Vidas Perfectas)—take the old cowboy films or the Coen Brothers’ films, for instance—you have to shoot the whole landscape. Everything looks distorted in a close-up shot. The wide lens makes the people somehow fill out the landscape instead of making them look small inside of it. You can’t be out there and not do a wide shot. Maybe that’s why you end up with larger-than-life stories that try to take on the scale of human ambition, greed, and violence. We need that kind of space to reflect on the evil that resides in the human spirit.

Anyway, one of the things I have to keep reminding myself of as we are working on Perfect Lives is that there is no urtext, a definitive text or score. There are the DVD and the CD of previous performances, but they are not definitive versions. From what Peter Gordon and others have said, one takes it that the opera was often very different from performance to performance. Could you talk about some of its performance history?

RA I started out doing it by myself with a drone tape. [Drone tapes were made using the Gulbransen electric organ; they have very slow-changing harmonies over an even-slower-moving bass pedal.] I did The Park, The Backyard, and The Supermarket. Then “Blue” Gene [Tyranny] started working with me. Then Peter Gordon joined me. We just added people along the way. We were never aiming for a perfect version of the piece. Basically, it was: Let me just tell you a story. There is no urtext or ur-situation because there is not an idealized world of Perfect Lives. It is a familiar world, but because it has been made strange through opera, you look twice at what would otherwise be considered ordinary and realize that it contains mysteries that you’d never noticed before. Perfect Lives is something that you know, but you have to be reminded that you know it.

Old people tell the same story again and again. I may tell you the same story I told you yesterday, two weeks, or five months ago. Maybe I remember it a little differently. Perfect Lives is storytelling in a musical style as opposed to an evening-news, soap-opera, or movie style. It’s just a bunch of stories that can be told musically in many different ways. We’re remaking the original and keeping the idea of television because of what it can do to, and with, the music and the meaning of the words. TV focuses attention on the music in a way that is not possible in a concert because of distractions intrinsic to concerts—same thing for the words. Put it another way, if you want your music to feel at home, I would suggest you start knocking on the doors of television and saying, Let me in. That’s the space for my music. It has everything in terms of the speed of the music, it can handle any situation, and it can go from not much money to a whole lot of money—and you want to be on both ends.

AW I wanted to reimagine the landscape for Vidas Perfectas through the Spanish language and to put it in a landscape that I know—West Texas—but that will never be the same after we put the opera there. Television allows us to imagine a totally new place.

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“Blue” Gene Tyranny in the television version os Perfect Lives, 1983, still from video.

Now, this isn’t the first opera of yours in Spanish. Tell me about your relationship to the Spanish language and the American Southwest. Why is Spanish the other language of your operas?

RA Spanish is the second language of America. An American who doesn’t know Spanish is sort of out of it. It started with Atalanta (Acts of God), performed and composed between 1981 and 1987. A lot of Atalanta’s scenes were performed in Spanish. Also, in 1979 I had a chance to do Yellow Man With Heart With Wings with Ned Sublette at KUNM (University of New Mexico radio) and I wanted to have Spanish people performing. Of course, living in New York, as we do, you see and hear Spanish everywhere. I don’t speak Spanish, but I was very lucky in that I was going to Spain a lot in the 1980s. I was totally fascinated by the Spanish landscape. When you get out to the country, you notice that it’s exactly like the deserts and mountains in the American West. It’s a miniaturized version of the land from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. That’s why the Spanish conquistadores went out there.

When we did Perfect Lives on television, in 1983, it was shown on Spanish television; their TV station also put it in an outdoor music festival and projected it on a big screen. Ignacio Collado, a young artist and writer, saw the piece in Madrid and thought that it should be translated into Spanish. His friend, the head of the Filmoteca de Andalucía, commissioned the translation. Ignacio found a man who made his living translating English prose into Spanish and who was married to a Canadian woman who worked translating Spanish prose to English. They translated Perfect Lives, although it was ultimately never produced in Spanish. I went over there and sat down with them for two weeks. They would ask me questions about the meaning of certain phrases. It was wonderful because it gave me a look at Perfect Lives that I hadn’t had before. The opera is full of idiosyncratic sayings, which are sort of squeezed versions of ideas. You say something like, ”We don’t serve wine in half-pints, Buddy,” and that’s a whole world of meanings. The piece is jammed full of those things: “She never had a stitch that she could call her own, poor thing,” “Two gees in eggs, one gee in fogs,” etcetera. The translation had to be reconciled with what could be done with those sayings in another language. It’s not a straight narrative. It is full of double meanings—that’s what sayings are all about. That’s why that form of language is important to Perfect Lives and why other forms of language are important to other operas.

AW Right. Other forms being ranting, chanting, ultrafast speech as in format radio advertisements, and so on.

The opening line of your opera Dust (1999) could be used to explain how Perfect Lives works: “If you take a bunch of short ideas and arrange them so that they overlap, that’s one long idea. That’s a thought.” You’ve said that the structure of Perfect Lives became apparent after you had been reading it over and over again by yourself in a room. All of a sudden you realized that you had a structure.

RA Yes. I was just following what the logic of the language would do. I didn’t have any big plans; I was just saying, Well, this kind of language leads me here, and I’ll follow it.

AW The composing takes place as an active listening process where you literally discover the music in your words after writing, then speaking what is written, and listening back. When other musicians enter into the process, the work comes to life in new ways.

When you gave me Vidas Perfectas, I started working on how the translation would affect or transform the piece, especially put into context with whom we now have in the roles of Raoul and Buddy—Ned Sublette, a gringo from West Texas who has spent lots of time in Cuba and speaks fluent Cuban Spanish, and Elio Villafranca, a Cuban jazz pianist. For the most part, we have stuck to the original translation, but we have changed some details that don’t do what the original phrases did in terms of rhythm, humor, or punctuation. We wanted to make our version more singable and closer to how we imagined the piece. Yet we have decided to keep the Spanish itself in a more neutral place—if one can say such a thing about language! We will be presenting the piece to Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking audiences alike in several different countries over the next few years. To do it in Argentinean, Chilean, Mexican, or Cuban Spanish wouldn’t necessarily get us closer to the stories or the music.

You and I had some arguments about my initial idea to move the piece to the border between Mexico and the United States. I came to agree with you that the Mexican border is overpowering in terms of the politics and the violence that it represents, but you used a phrase that I was intrigued by, saying that the characters have a kind of “cosmic indifference.” I love this phrase—when you watch Perfect Lives and see the performers Jill Kroesen and David van Tieghem wandering in the landscape, they have this ghostlike quality, like they’ve come from someplace else. From the other side.

RA They definitely have come from someplace else; I don’t know where, but you can see that.

AW They are playing multiple roles. Can you talk about this?

RA It’s hard to explain. You have three people onstage and the subject of the episode involves two people—say the Sheriff and his Wife. When you are watching them, you think those two people, the singers Jill and David, are representing the two people in the story. Then you get to another pair of people in the story and you think, Oh, that’s Jill and David again. They’re not acting. They’re just representing the characters onstage. In other words, Jill is not the Sheriff’s Wife; she’s a representation of her.

AW So they are treated like the landscape is treated. Character and landscape are interchangeable.

RA Yes. I never asked Jill and David to act; I asked them to come onstage and sing with me. So when you get to that scene with Gwyn and Ed, the lovers who elope—well, there they are! All the pairs of people are represented onstage by Jill and David.

AW It’s like Commedia dell’Arte—traveling troupes of actors who play multiple characters in one performance. The actors do all the roles with fast changes of costume and identity. They do it all.

RA I didn’t think of it that way until we’d finished the television version of Perfect Lives. I just thought, Pretending to act is out of the question. So what are we doing up here? John Sanborn [the video director] got the idea of the two people representing all the characters right away.

AW He recently sent us a message that said, “Don’t forget, it’s a comic opera!”

RA Yes, a “comic opera about reincarnation.” It’s brilliant.

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Robert Ashley in Perfect Lives, 1983, still from video. Images courtesy of Performing Artservices, Inc. and ISSUE Project Room.

AW How does it feel having That Morning Thing and Vidas Perfectas in back–to-back productions? And having them produced by people other than yourself, Fast Forward and myself, respectively? Your music is so much about your band and your voice, your relationship to the music from the inside out. It’s been quite a thing for you to give the piece over.

RA It was scary at first and very hard for me to do. I struggled with it over the past year until the last week or so. I’m not exaggerating about the last week or so. All along I’ve wanted to get in and control everything. But I’m too old for that, for one thing—I don’t have the energy—and, also, I want to see what happens when you do it. I don’t want to put my opinions and my taste into it. I just want to show up for the concert. So, I’ve got Fast Forward doing That Morning Thing for Performa 11. He’s hired all the people and is rehearsing with them, and I’m going to just show up and watch. I may sit there and think, God, this piece is terrible! Not because of Fast Forward, but because of me. It might be what I would think of as a bad piece. When you’re involved with it, it can’t be a bad piece because you’re always pushing and pushing it.

AW You are in the music, you’re inside of it, so do you like listening back to it?

RA About 15 years ago I had to listen to a piece of mine. I didn’t like what I heard. Maybe it’s a problem just for me, but I think a lot of composers might have it. The depressing fact about contemporary music is that it is never rehearsed enough. This is purely a matter of economics. There is neither time nor money enough to make the piece sound like it does in the composer’s imagination. So I have too often had the experience that the piece doesn’t sound good. And I get upset. Later, maybe, when the piece has been played a lot, it starts to sound better. But there is always the nagging fact that the music doesn’t have authority—like the way, after 300 years, Mozart has authority. Or like the authority jazz has from being played so many times by devoted musicians.

Now, when I listen back to Perfect Lives, I think, Wow, this is wonderful! I’ve said this before about men and women being on different life cycles. Men are on cycles of 14 years, and women on cycles of ten years. Maybe if you come at your own work from a different place in the cycle from when the piece was made, you will think, God, this is terrible! But if you come at it from a similar place in the cycle, you think it’s great. It depends on what phase of the positive/negative cycle you are in.

AW Something you said in 2000, in the “Future of Music” lecture, that I’ve kept coming back to when trying to approach this project and the book Will Holder and I have been producing on your music is the phrase: “If I’m not there, there’s nothing.”

RA Yes, I’ve always thought that. The concerts this fall are a surprise for me. They’re a big deal. How do I say this? I go to a concert of Elliott Carter’s music and it’s terrible because there’s no Elliott Carter. It’s just a bunch of guys up there doing Elliott Carter. When I’m doing it, there can’t be any flaws.

The more people who think, If I’m not there, the music isn’t there, the better off we are. It’s terrible if you think, Well, I’m going to publish this and sell it, and they’re going to play it at Burger King. That’s not music. Or at least it’s not my kind of music. But if I’m very close to you, Alex, when you do it, it’ll be informed by our work together. You want the music to be passed on from person to person. You’ve heard the joke, right? “If you listen to a lot of Rossini, you want to be Rossini; if you listen to a lot of Beethoven, you want to invade Poland.”

AW (laughter) Well, I’ve been studying your music for a long time and we’ve been talking for a number of years, but I’m starting from the position that I have to start working on it from its original construct. I have to use the social relations that were involved in making the music as the model for its remaking. Singing or speaking in time, the musicians are creating the music together out of their interpretation of the characters that they are playing. In the case of the piano part, for example, the “notes” are created by interpreting who Buddy is—he’s “The World’s Greatest Piano Player”! Improvisation and conversation are the primary tools when approaching this kind of music making. You can’t just sit down and read music. Harmonies, rhythms, and all kinds of new layers are created with the particular voices and talents that the band brings to the storytelling.

RA You’re doing the right thing. That’s how it’s done. With Perfect Lives, we have to keep telling the story of a frame of mind that is being eclipsed. Sometimes it’s in more danger than other times, and it seems like it’s in great danger right now. It’s not meditation; it’s something else. It’s a frame of mind that is reinforced by a certain kind of language, and that frame of mind is so valuable we can’t let it perish. It has to be kept alive somehow, and now it’s up to you guys. When you finish with it, it’s going to be something that didn’t exist on earth before, just like the last version and the one before that and the one before that. And that’s the story we have to keep telling.

AW I always feel like a fish out of water in my work, but, in this case, I’ve invited a group of people to work with me in precisely the way you did originally. At first it was just Peter Gordon and me working. Then there was Ned Sublette and Peter and me. Then we worked with the chorus, and then we started putting it all together. It’s the perfect situation in order for us to get closer to spontaneous music making. We’re getting to the point where we’re understanding how much of the music is made through character development. It’s very hard to convey without doing it! And it’s a radical idea. It means that we have to create something new. I can’t reproduce Perfect Lives. It’s impossible.

RA You know, the curious thing is that there’s another version floating around. It’s by Varispeed, these people from Brooklyn who do site-specific performances. They did it last summer—it was beautiful. And now they’re going to do it again in Manhattan. Better check them out. So now we have another version which is going to be as good, and it’s going to break my heart again.

Vidas Perfectas is like a dream come true. I mean, who could wish for anything more? If you’re a composer and make a piece such as this one, and people start doing their versions … Who could ask for anything more?

When I was in my thirties, I was fascinated by Morton Feldman’s music. I couldn’t get enough Morton Feldman, and I became Morton Feldman in some weird kind of way. That’s what I think you’re doing. You are recreating that idea of using “this recipe to make this dinner.”

AW Music, for me, is about the people. The relationships you develop while making the music, what music makes us do, is what is important. When we finish working on this production in a few years’ time, it will have been a decade that I’ve spent working on your music. I would have never expected that.

RA You’re working on my music, but it’s always you.

AW It’s just more fun to live a life that is about the lives of other people.

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Originally published in

BOMB 118, Winter 2012

Featuring interviews with Jimmie Durham, John Miller, Suzanne McClelland and Barry Schwabsky, Paul La Farge and Peter Orner, Yang Fudong, and Radiohole.

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