ROBERT ASHLEY’S ‘PERFECT LIVES’ COMING TO KNOXVILLE
In a small Midwest town, two traveling musicians and two local siblings hatch a plan to take all the money from the Bank across state lines to Indiana for one day and then bring it back, thus performing the perfect crime… or a work of art. Originally released in the 1980s as episodes of a music-based television show, Perfect Lives is Robert Ashley’s quirky, energetic, and philosophical modern opera, adapted anew by Varispeed Collective and performed by the band and guest musicians live at seven different locations throughout one day.
A seamless merger of poetry and sound, the performance of Perfect Lives is divided into seven half-hour episodes. As performers and audience members journey from location to location – a park, a bank, a supermarket, a church, a backyard, a living room, a bar – participants imagine a town where the bank tellers know the captain of the football team and everyone drinks together at the end of the night. Varispeed’s performance uses spatial intimacy to animate the story – performances happen inside homes, parks, and businesses, rather than on stages.
Robert Ashley was a singular figure in twentieth-century music. Writing for a unique fusion of speaking and singing – utilizing electronics, extended techniques, and embracing the potential of television – he composed a distinctive kind of spoken word opera, using the everyday expressions of Midwest America to create a poetic mix of mundane observations, introspective ruminations, and metaphysical musings. In Perfect Lives, the story is narrated by a different primary voice for each episode, supplemented by an interjecting backing chorus, and with arrangements culled from various musical genres.
Varispeed’s inventive reimagining of one of Ashley’s seminal works was experienced by the composer himself, three years before his death in 2014. He told BOMB Magazine, “They did it last summer. It was beautiful…Better check them out. So we have another version which is going to be as good, and it’s going to break my heart again.” One thing’s for certain, Perfect Lives will add an altogether new dimension to the Big Ears experience in 2023.
“This live version of Robert Ashley’s seminal multimedia opera was punky and profound, showing that innovation has less to do with bottomless budgets than with vision and spirit.” -Steve Smith, New York Times, “Best of 2011” list