Robert Ashley - Perfect Lives
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PERFECT LIVES — BACKGROUND, CREDITS, SYNOPSIS
Robert Ashley’s television opera “about” bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, et al, in the American Midwest. One of the definitive text-sound compositions of the late 20th century, it has been called a comic opera about reincarnation.
“Nothing less than the first American opera, written within an American language utilizing various American attention spans: snippets for the channel switchers, layers of meaning for the smart-alecks, something for everyone, and accessible. Works such as this put to rest any doubts if opera can or should survive, and how.” — Fanfare (Allan Evans), March/April 1992
PERFECT LIVES was developed musically through live performances in Europe and America. “Blue” Gene Tyranny was Ashley’s first collaborator — his keyboard melodies and harmonies define the character of Buddy. Tyranny and Ashley performed a chamber version of the piece many times together (including at The Kitchen in early 1978). Shortly after, The Kitchen commissioned PERFECT LIVES as an opera for television, the live version expanded to include richly layered orchestral tapes produced by composer Peter Gordon, and the singing of Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem. In 1980, John Sanborn recorded the basic video tracks on location in Illinois according to the templates provided by Ashley’s score. From this material, The Lessons, a preview version of the opera (based on keyboard gestures by “Blue” Gene Tyranny) was produced through the TV Lab at WNET.
In the fall of 1982, a pre-sale was obtained from Channel Four Television in Great Britain, making possible the completion of Perfect Lives. John Sanborn, the television director, designed an elaborate shooting and editing plan for the visual elements of Ashley’s score. The post-production was completed this August (1983) at VCA Teletronics, under the supervision of Dean Winkler, who worked with Sanborn on image processing and was the videotape editor. Since its premiere on Great Britain’s Channel Four in 1984 PERFECT LIVES has been broadcast throughout Europe and in various cities in the United States.
PERFECT LIVES was produced with support from the National Endowment for the Arts (Media and Visual Arts Programs), the New York State Council on the Arts (Media Program), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Beards Fund.
Over the years Lovely Music has made various formats of PERFECT LIVES available: on audio cassette in 1984; on CD in 1991, for which the audio track was re-mastered by Allan Tucker at Foothill Digital; on VHS in 1994; and in 2005, on DVD, completely re-mastered at Blink Digital under the supervision of Dean Winkler, available in both NTSC and PAL.
In 1991, Burning Books (Santa Fe) published a hard cover edition of PERFECT LIVES’ libretto, edited by Melody Sumner Carnahan, with Robert Ashley’s commentary.
* * * * *
PERFECT LIVES — an opera for television by Robert Ashley
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)
The Backyard (T'Be Continued)
Raoul de Noget (No-zhay), a singer, and his friend, Buddy, “The World’s Greatest Piano Player,” have come to a small town in the Midwest to entertain at The Perfect Lives Lounge. For some reason, unexplained, they have fallen in with two people from the town, Isolde (“nearing 30 and not yet spoken for”) and her brother, “D,” just out of high school and known as “The Captain of the Football Team” (his parents call him Donnie), to commit the perfect crime, a metaphor for something philosophical: in this case, to remove a sizable amount of money from The Bank for one day (one day only) and “let the whole world know that it was missing.”
“D” is currently Assistant to the Manager at The Bank. He learns that Gwyn, one of the tellers, intends to elope with his friend, Ed. “D” is asked to “come along” with Dwayne, another friend, who has a problem speaking (that is, he speaks, but has trouble being understood.) “D” knows the key to opening the safe. The plan is, then: to take away the money in Ed’s car to Indiana (goal of the elopers), to keep it in circulation, as it were. They leave at 5 AM.
While the lovers are in passage, Raoul and Buddy, with Buddy’s dogs, and, separately, Isolde enter The Bank at midday. The dogs create a ruckus (“like a noise from Hades”) that gives Isolde the excuse to get a bucket of water from next door to throw at the dogs and miss and soak the Bank Manager, who goes into the safe for a change of clothes, only to discover that “The Bank has no money in The Bank.” As part of the plan, Isolde has phoned the Sheriff’s Office, disguising her voice (her father, Will, is the Sheriff; Ida is her mother) to report an accident “out on the highway.” There is no “accident,” of course, and, recognizing the meaning of the decoy, Will puts it all together later under Ida’s questioning. But it’s too late.
Among the tellers (Jennifer, Kate, Eleanor, Linda, and Susie) who are witnesses to the dogfight and the terrible discovery and who understand what happened—from different points of view, so to speak — only Susie noticed that the dogs “went out together,” and she’s not telling. She fell for opera at first sight because of Buddy, who because of his fancy style of dress is often mistaken for a foreigner (“There’s no doubt the Mexican is in it. The doubt is that he’s Mexican.”) That was at 12:45 PM (“remember that!”) And in The Bank at that time are Helen and John, innocent bystanders from The Home, doing business “on a holiday.” That is, they have fallen in love (in The Home), but they are not allowed to marry, or one will “lose the privileges.” So, every other weekend they take adjoining rooms at the motel right off The Park (where, by coincidence, Raoul and Buddy live, and where we first meet Raoul trying to order breakfast on the phone.) This is just the beginning of their weekend, and at 3 PM we see them in The Supermarket, shopping, a little jangled, set against each other by the excitement, but far from down and out.
Sometime later, probably Monday, in The Bar, Buddy and Raoul on their “day off from music” have come to celebrate, little knowing that there they will meet Rodney, The Bartender, whose wife, Baby, aspires to Boogie Woogie, ceaselessly and without much success (“Happy she is the traveling salesmen say, but Boogie Woogie she is not.”) studying the video tapes (The Lessons) that Buddy takes around with him and distributes at the local music store wherever he is playing. Rodney is philosophical, especially about Baby’s talents, but skeptical about Boogie Woogie. And “now he’s met his nemesis...face to face.” They talk.
Meanwhile, back in time (to the evening of the big day), Will and Ida, in The Living Room, solve the puzzle, perhaps even to the motive, but it’s too late. Somewhere in Indiana, with the money hidden in the car (unknown to Gwyn, of course: “Gwyn’s not guilty”) and certain of their success, Ed and Gwyn and Dwayne and “D” have found a Justice of the Peace who will perform the ceremony (“I handle speed traps, elopements, true signatures and the like”), and who recognizes in Gwyn something so urgent (“and why is the Bride-to-be so—uhn—what is the word?”), something so dramatic—”(She is a (p’)monkey, Sir.”) — that he is transported to somewhere in the past, to another ceremony, to another Bride-to-be (“Lucille,” who speaks in tongues), to a confusion of time and place where other (famous) marriages are enacted: “Snowdrift,” abandoned at the altar; and so forth. And while we pause to eat the wedding cake, his humble situation (“right off my bedroom is my office”) is transformed before our very eyes into The Church (“the church of the great light.”) And we are satisfied.
Meanwhile, back in town, in The Backyard, a few friends and relatives have gathered, as usual in summer, to picnic, to celebrate the changing of the light at sundown. And watching from the doorway of her mother’s house, Isolde counts the days.
* * * * *
CAST AND COLLABORATORS
“The collaborative aspect of the work follows principles I have used for many years in search of a new operatic style. The collaborators are given almost absolute freedom to develop characterizations from the textual and musical materials I provide. The musical and visual materials are coordinated through ‘templates’, a term I have come to use to describe the subjective assignment of emotional values and moods to visual forms and corresponding musical structures. Within the rules defined by the ‘templates’ the collaborators in all aspects of the work are free to interpret, ‘improvise’, invent and superimpose characteristics of their own artistic styles onto the texture of the work. In essence, the collaborators become ‘characters’ in the opera at a deeper level than the illusionistic characters who appear on stage.” — Robert Ashley
ROBERT ASHLEY as “R” (The Narrator)
“BLUE” GENE TYRANNY as Buddy (The World’s Greatest Piano Player)
JILL KROESEN as Isolde
DAVID VAN TIEGHEM as “D” (The Captain of The Football Team)
Produced in collaboration with CARLOTA SCHOOLMAN for THE KITCHEN (New York City) in association with CHANNEL FOUR (Great Britain).
Television Director — JOHN SANBORN
Instrumental music beds composed in collaboration with “BLUE” GENE TYRANNY and PETER GORDON
Music produced in collaboration with PAUL SHORR
Video image processing — DEAN WINKLER and JOHN SANBORN
Associate director — MARY PERILLO
Videotape editor — DEAN WINKLER
Piano solos and electronic keyboard parts composed by “BLUE” GENE TYRANNY
Piano solos based on harmonic progressions by “BLUE” GENE TYRANNY
Pre-recorded chorus voices: JILL KROESEN and DAVID VAN TIEGHEM and REBECCA ARMSTRONG (The Supermarket)
Costumes and make-up by JACQUELINE HUMBERT
Piano landscape-mirrors and color design by MARY ASHLEY
Synchronous sound recorded by PAUL SHORR
Audio engineer: JOSHUA HARRIS
Rhythm templates derived from the “Palace” organ, courtesy of Gulbransen Organ Co. (CBS Musical Instruments)
Special thanks to PIERRE AUDI and THE ALMEIDA THEATER (London)
PERFECT LIVES was commissioned for television by THE KITCHEN — MARY MACARTHUR GRIFFIN, Director; CARLOTA SCHOOLMAN, Television Producer
Written and created for television by ROBERT ASHLEY
* * * *
Robert Ashley’s opera-for-television projects and other large-scale narrative works have brought him international renown as a composer and as a writer. He has influenced a generation of composers and artists working with new forms of music for the media.
“Electronically innovative, socially provocative, and incorrigibly theatrical, Robert Ashley epitomizes the conceptualism of the 1960s, yet more than any other figure he has also transcended it. No other composer is so associated with, or recognizable by, his own voice: mellow, nonchalant, and invitingly husky, he has used it in almost every work. Only a handful of his mature compositions are instrumental, without text. Unlike his conceptualist colleagues, he has never put his music’s emphasis primarily on technical gadgets or sonic phenomena. His works have often focused on sex, violence, and everyday life, and he is so fascinated by music as a social function that he has written, “the most radical redefinition of music that I could think of would be one that defines ‘music’ without reference to sound.” — Kyle Gann, American Music in the 20th Century, Schirmer Books, 1997
“Operas so vast in their vision that they are comparable only to Wagner’s Ring cycle or Stockhausen’s continuing mystical seven-evening Licht cycle. In form and content, in musical, vocal, literary and media technique, they are, however, comparable to nothing else.” — The Los Angeles Times (Mark Swed)
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