Reading Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives

Context N°23

Kyle Gann

Rodney, on the other hand, is less idealistic.

Allow me to assert, without evidence, an eternal aesthetic principle: No piece of music can be a truly great piece of music unless it gets under your skin, in a good way, and stays there.

For thirty-two years, Perfect Lives has been under my skin. It is the great epic poem of the Midwest United States, our own personal Iliad. Yet what keeps the work under my skin isn’t just that it’s a great poem. It’s not just that the phrases get stuck in my head and I spontaneously weave them into conversation. Nor is it because “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s piano playing is incredible. It’s not just that the rhythms in which the speech patterns are cradled are so infectious. It’s not just that the video shapes echo each other so cleverly. It’s not even that all these things work together so well. All those things could be true, and you still might, after many listenings, eventually become sated with it and put it up on the shelf.

What raises Perfect Lives into the stratosphere of musical experience is its mystery: the feeling that, while all the parts are understandable and lovable, the whole thing is just too big to take in. It is so vernacular, so recognizable in its details, so catchy, that you keep expecting it to become familiar and start making as much sense as, I don’t know, My Fair Lady, or Oklahoma. But somehow it’s not a complete whole, only part of something immense and half out of view, and we can only intuit what we’re missing. The phrases have the simple form of platitudes, yet behind them is a world, familiar-seeming yet mysteriously ordered, and only incompletely alluded to. It is engaging yet permanently elusive. And that keeps drawing us back.
If I were from the Big Town, I would be calm and debonair.
Let me adduce another aesthetic principle, this one not on my own authority. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, in his Will in the World, points to a change that took place in Shakespeare’s plays around 1600: he began dropping the rational motivation of his characters. For instance, in the original Hamlet story, Hamlet must pretend to be mad, because everyone knows Uncle Claudius killed the king, and if Hamlet is seen as a threat, Claudius will have to kill him as well. But Shakespeare makes the murder a secret that Hamlet only learns from the ghost, so there’s no reason for Hamlet to feign madness: yet he does it anyway! And in the original King Lear story, Lear divides up his kingdom after his daughters declare their love, as an incentive to make them speak well of him. But Shakespeare has him divide his kingdom up first, so we can’t understand why he’s putting them through this pointless trial.

An intricate plot that follows step by logical step and ties up all loose ends at its close is a pleasure, and satisfies us. We smile, and then we forget about it. But a plot in which the action is clear but the motivation ambiguous draws us in, engages our imagination, and sets us searching for irrational or subconscious causes. So much more does Ashley’s action, more hidden by than revealed in the text, elicit the listener’s participation. Perfect Lives centers around a bank robbery. But the robbery, conducted by two locals and two out-of-town drifters, is merely for the purpose of removing the money for one day—and then returning it. Ambiguous motivation indeed!

If we’re all in this together, all jobs’re inside jobs.

Even more than that, in Perfect Lives the relationship of text and plot seems virtually reversed from the norm. Usually a plot generates a text, but here the text seems to engender its own logic, and the plot seems almost devised to hold the text together, kind of an afterthought. “Plot,” Ashley has written, “requires a lot of ‘exposition.’ We have to keep being reminded of what is happening. I don’t have time to do that, and it’s not interesting to work on.”1 So Perfect Lives dispenses with exposition, to concentrate on the interesting stuff. The plot lies just outside the frame, we can see parts of it, and yet, mysteriously, the text gives the appearance of a continuous narrative logic, but one we can’t quite comprehend. That Raoul de Noget begins the opera by looking at a photo “broken on the right edge / sometimes up to two thirds / across the frame” is the perfect metaphor.

Incredibly slowly our view begins to slide.

For instance, here’s one of my favorite moments: The people at “The Bar” sit around repeating sayings, “the sounds of life,” things like, “Don’t you read the Bible, man?” and “Wuh’ she’s a cute little thing.” Turning our attention to the bartender, Ashley continues: “Rodney, on the other hand, is less idealistic.” What!? What was idealistic about the people at the bar? Now we have to go back and figure that out. In Ashley’s scheme, if we’ve read it, Perfect Lives is about the Midwest. Those sayings symbolize the Midwest, the part of America between the Appalachians and the Rockies, because by the time people moved there they had forgotten the stories from the Old Country, and only remember the sayings distilled from them. And so something is idealistic about remembering those sayings . . . but it’s a little late, for the text has moved on. Maybe we’ll figure it out later. By the time “The Backyard” fades away in its nine degrees of twilight, there are a lot of things we were hoping we’d figure out, but the fading is so heavenly that we don’t mind that we missed something. We’ll just have to listen to it again. Get it next time.

He is at the center of a ball of hot stuff / that we haven’t put our minds to yet. / And, sitting on the bed in the motel room / is no different.

Part of what’s out of view are all the books on occult subjects Ashley was reading in the 1970s when he wrote Perfect Lives. The two men on the bench in the park in the small Midwestern town come “to make a great division between that which is impermanent and that which is permanent,” and the transitory category turns out to include “the particulars of our existence,” both those that are physical and mental and those that are neither, such as “attainment, aging, and coincidence.” Whence derives this categorizing? From The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whose foreword tells us that the

illusoriness of death comes from the identification of the individual with his temporal, transitory form, whether physical, emotional, or mental, whence arise the mistaken notion that there exists a personal, separate egohood of one’s own, and the fear of losing it.2

Buddy takes up this theme for the patrons of the Bar, and, at the piano, gives us a disquisition on the Self, which is ageless, without coincidence, and without attainment. Buddy knows there is no separate egohood, that we’re all in this together. He doesn’t react to Rodney’s contempt because he and Rodney are aspects of the same consciousness. He knows “We don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy” is the sound of God.

Just a sip or two and Buddy talks this way.

Buddy is only one of the characters from whom we learn the framework. The Sheriff in “The Living Room” explains the omnipotent role of opinion (the producer’s opinion, that is) in the realm of commercial art such as the movies, and the alternative needed to pursue art outside that world: “the answer to a bad opinion is to assert that, finally, opinion is nothing. People respect this idea.” This continues a digression begun at the end of “The Bar” on “the industry”:

To be part of industry is to be real . . .
If you’re a part of industry, both in your
Industriousness and in the nature of
your work,
There is a chance that everybody will like
your work,
Because it is a part of industry.
And things that are not a part of industry
Are not possible to like.

Ashley is giving us the meta-narrative surrounding his opera; it is made for television, the industry, but it is not part of the industry. Perfect Lives comments on its own outsideness, ironically, for it is outside only in its nature, not from any lack of industriousness.
And then, the meta-narrative beyond the meta-narrative. Ed and Gwyn’s wedding sermon is an exposition of three rules that correspond to three eons of history:

1. Don’t talk to yourself
2. Speak only when you’re spoken to
3. Make sense

“Don’t talk to yourself” is a reminder that talk isn’t a part of understanding, but a habit, an arrangement of sounds. This is a central thesis of Ashley’s output, the idea that speech is music, and that its sense can be secondary to its sound. As he’ll ask in another opera, Atalanta, “Who could speak if every word had meaning?” Ashley is convinced he has a mild form of Tourette’s syndrome (a condition the Sheriff explains to Ida), and in Automatic Writing, a work he made concurrently with Perfect Lives, he capitalized on this by capturing his involuntary speech on tape.

The preacher, in fact, infers an eon prior to “Don’t talk to yourself,” in which speech “may have been prior to the arrangement of sounds as / An experience external to ourselves, or as an experience / Of something external to ourselves.” The idea here comes from Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which Jaynes argued that ancient man believed in the gods because his left and right brain hemispheres had not yet been integrated, and he was interpreting verbal messages from the right hemisphere as voices outside himself. “Don’t talk to yourself” brings the eon of conversation. Rule Two, “Speak only when you’re spoken to,” brings the eon of marriage, which followed conversation as, in Ashley’s cosmology, religion followed agriculture. The third eon is in the age of technique, in which we make sense: “we have accomplished ourselves, / (Or invented man, as The Philosopher says).” As the preacher continues here:

Language    has sense built in. It’s easy to
Make sense.    To make no sense is possible,
But hard.    Language does not have truth built in.
It’s hard    to make truth, which is to stop the search.

Well said, indeed. Thus marriage and religion are part of the attempt to control the arrangement of sounds, and Ed and Gwyn, by getting married, are doing their part in this evolutionary ritual whose meaning is still unfolding.

Speculation follows about the “arrangement of space that we call straightness” and its relation to sound. Some of the background for this comes from the writings about ley lines in ancient England by Alfred Watkins in his 1925 book The Old Straight Track. Watkins found evidence that in Druidic times men had made burial mounds and placed “mark stones” in patterns of long straight lines that may have had practical and even magical significance. Ashley originally went further and contrasted the flatness of agriculture with the verticality of cities. Rocks were alive for the ancient Druids, “but for people who make cities rocks appear to be dead.” Realizing that his text was too long, he separated this further argument out as a separate text called “Ideas from ‘The Church,’” and later used it in two other works: the opera Foreign Experiences and the tape piece Yellow Man With Heart With Wings. And so, literally and textually, Perfect Lives is indeed a segment of something much longer. Moreover, the incident at the Bank, in which Isolde throws water on Buddy’s fighting dogs to create a distraction, becomes the focal point of other Ashley operas: Atalanta and the tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea. The characters also continue their lives in other operas: “Now Eleanor” is the Eleanor who was a teller at the Bank, and her search for Buddy’s origins is the beginning of a personal odyssey that leads to the lowriders of the New Mexico desert. Junior, Jr., becomes the protagonist of Foreign Experiences, a satire on the Carlos Castaneda books. Like the novels of Robertson Davies and John Le Carré, Ashley’s operas are a world in which the characters continue to grow and evolve in other episodes.

I am guiltily trying to paraphrase, and explain, something that cannot be explained after all. After thirty-two years of enjoying Perfect Lives, I can’t say I completely know what it means. As Robert Frost answered when asked to explain one of his poems, “What do you want me to do, say it again in worser English?” There are, however, a few other things you deserve to know. First: at University High School in Ann Arbor in the 1940s, Ashley was captain of the football team. That’s right: Donnie is Ashley. His best friend was named Ed, but not Ed Strapping. Snowdrift was his crowd’s bawdy nickname for a girl he knew and liked to drink with because she had the key to her father’s liquor cabinet. She truly was left at the altar by a groom who never showed up, just as described in “The Church.” In other words, in addition to the large-scale historical categories that govern Perfect Lives, Ashley is also describing his life in high school. Representing a later stage of his life, Iris, while Ashley was writing Perfect Lives, really did want to borrow the typewriter. Lucille, who appears during the wedding, “her hair the color of the sunset,” is a homeless woman who lived in Tribeca Park across the street from Ashley’s Manhattan apartment, and whom he came to think of as the guiding spirit of Perfect Lives.

Coincidence isn’t a mystery to her.

So Perfect Lives is a window into an immense world, stretching from the most quotidian details of Ann Arbor teenagerhood to the vastest theories of the evolution of human society, of which our angle of vision gives us only glimpses, from which we must extrapolate the rest. Ashley is a minimalist in that his music does not break into sections and is not articulated by events. That inexorable pulse of seventy-two beats per minute runs through all of Perfect Lives, and through some of the other operas as well. He is a maximalist in that his palette contains the entire range of human experience. More than that, he is a mystic.

His characters react to everything that happens with Buddhistic calm. They see everything sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity. There is an implied vastness beyond the words and music and images of Perfect Lives, but in a way there is nothing beneath or behind them. We are not meant to comprehend. We are meant to hear. The words are arrangements of sounds. There is something spiritual about the direct experience of reality here. The music crescendos from the sparseness of “The Park” to the glorious analytical fullness of “The Church,” and drops back to quiet in “The Backyard.” It’s a curve Ashley has likened to the trajectory of an old-time revivalist.3 But even the return leaves us where we were, in the quiet of the mystery of the barn swallows. How is that possible? Giordano Bruno comes to mind. The mystery, the imagination, make Perfect Lives a perpetual fascination, like Hamlet, or A Hundred Years of Solitude.

    You don’t have to burn the chicken anymore to get heat.
It comes in bottles.

Ahhhhh . . .

1 “A New Kind of Opera,” in Outside of Time (2009: Musiktexte), p. 136.

2 Lama Anagarika Govinda, “Introductory Foreword,”
in Evans-Wentz, trans., The Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. lxii.

3 Kyle Gann, “Shouting at the Dead: Robert Ashley’s
Neo-Platonist Operas,” in Music Downtown (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), p. 18.

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