A screening of Ashley's groundbreaking 1980's opera for television Perfect Lives
Perfect Lives, Robert Ashley, digital projection, 1983, 175 mins
Introduced by Alex Waterman
Robert Ashley’s operas are not made for the opera house, and his definition of opera as "characters in a landscape telling stories musically" so completely eschews tradition that it has almost single-handedly changed the way we think about opera, television, and performance. The landscape of Perfect Lives is the American Midwest, cut up and rearranged inside the impossible landscape of television. The cornfield, the park, the flatness of the terrain, the roads (mirrored by the piano) are all part of the construction of this Midwestern place, becoming another piece in Ashley's grand puzzle of the cosmology of the American language.
Perfect Lives challenges the ways in which we perceive the relationship between language and music, mixing chanting, storytelling, meditation, and ecstatic revelation with a complex score of odd meters, asymmetries, and elegant number series. This is musical storytelling—the music helps tell the story, and helps us recompose the narrative in our memories.
An opera “about” a bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, et cetera, the stories that comprise the work were based on actual events recounted to Ashley by friends and acquaintances. Perfect Lives uses imagined characters as the performers: Raoul, the storyteller (played by Ashley); Buddy, the World’s Greatest Piano Player; and the Chorus, two voices who represent all of the various people who appear in dialogues in the plot.
Commissioned by The Kitchen and many years in the making, the television version premiered in 1983. Avant-garde pianist and composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny was Ashley’s first collaborator—his keyboard melodies and harmonies defined 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 vocals by performance artists Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem.
Perfect Lives has inspired generations of musicians and artists, including Laurie Anderson and Spalding Gray, as well as new interpretations, such as the Spanish-version, Vidas Perfectas, which will be performed at the Whitney Biennial in April 2014 in collaboration with Robert Ashley. As John Cage put it, alluding to the fact that the piece is a book for the ages: “What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives”. - AW
Alex Waterman is a musician, composer, director, and music scholar, who has been working on the music of Robert Ashley for the past decade. Waterman’s collaborations with Ashley include the film A Necessary Music, which won the Tiger Prize for Best Short Film at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2008, and his upcoming book Robert Ashley: Yes But Is It Edible? with artist Will Holder, the culmination of performances and research around Ashley's unique scoring devices and notation. This April, Waterman will direct three Robert Ashley operas at the Whitney Biennial, including the premiere of an all-new opera, Crash, as well as the Spanish translation of Perfect Lives, Vidas Perfectas, which will appear in full theatrical staging in front of a live audience for TV recording at the Whitney.
Tickets - $7, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 6:30pm.