Performs Robert Ashley's Perfect Lives
Composer and performer Robert Ashley was often an essential presence in his wildly original, often bizarre modern operas. His phrasing, delivery, and mordant wit imparted a peculiar musicality beyond the meaning of his oblique language. His masterpiece Perfect Lives was created in 1983 as a video opera, a sprawling seven-part, three-hour opus. Its premiere was screened in the legendary New York arts space the Kitchen, and in a John Rockwell article in advance of the event Ashley said, “There’s no chance for me to do a piece of any scale in live performance. I’m 53 years old. If I were to wait for the Metropolitan Opera to give me a performance, I’d die first.”
In a 2012 essay about the work published in Frieze Magazine Dan Fox attempted to explain what it was:
“Perfect Lives is an opera about … Jeez, where shall I begin? Well, not at the beginning, because Perfect Lives is about digressions. As Ashley says, ‘No story has a beginning, it’s all digression […] It’s digression what everybody does, every time. The trick of performing that piece is that we literally never know what we’re going to do until we hear the first note.’ Like talking, it’s about being in the moment; we don’t know what we’re going to say until we say it. ‘Composing music’, Ashley holds, ‘is the process of constantly making a decision about when you’re going to update what you’ve just done.’ Perfect Lives consists of digressions about the US landscape and American lives, performed in American vernacular language. ‘I’m trying hard, in Perfect Lives, to reproduce the music of the way people talk. It’s not poetry, it’s song. It’s song in the same way that, I suppose, The Iliad was a song. It’s just a song. If you read any one line, it’s not that interesting in itself, but if you read a hundred they start to make sense.’ John Cage once said of it: ‘What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives.'”
Ashley died in 2014, but even before then other groups had begun to perform the work live, particularly the New York ensemble Varispeed, a new music ensemble that specializes in Ashley’s operas. They have mounted a couple performances, spreading out the parts in two-hour increments in the same public settings indicated in Ashley’s work, such as a bar, a supermarket, and a bank. For this super-rare event, Varispeed will present the opera in an unexpected assortment of Knoxville locales.