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 for what might be a crime and might be a piece of performance art, depending on whether they’re caught: 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 Paterson, and is every bit as essential.
Robert Ashley (1930-2014) was primarily an operatic composer, whose work often dealt with the intersection of electronics, human speech, and musical notation. His 1979 opera Automatic Writing, for example, was organized around recordings of Ashley’s own involuntary speech: he had a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome and wondered if, because “the manifestation of the syndrome seemed so much like a primitive form of composing,” it might be “connected in some way to his obvious tendencies as a composer.” Perfect Lives was also filmed as a TV opera in 1983 and released on DVD in 2005.