Watch the seven-part surreal and transcendental TV opera by the American avant-garde giant.
The complete seven acts of Robert Ashley’s celebrated visual work Perfect Lives have been uploaded in their entirety. For those not familiar, here’s a little backstory on one of our favorite American composers:
Ashley was a co-founder of the ONCE Group, an Ann Arbor collective that helped organize early performances by Meredith Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Pauline Oliveros. He was also a member of the Sonic Arts Union, which included David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. In the 1970s, Ashley directed the legendary Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, whose alumni include some names you may know: Terry Riley, Joanna Brouk, and Steve Reich. At Mills, he taught ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, Maggi Payne, and Peter Gordon. You could argue that Ashley helped legitimize and pioneer contemporary “experimental music” from its humble beginnings, and that’s undoubtedly true. He, however, would disagree, as he rejects the term “experimental music” entirely, despite his long history and deep associations with it. He once wrote about the tag, “Composition is anything but experimental; it is the epitome of expertise.”
Ashley’s debut album, Private Parts, which inspired the opera below, sticks to that philosophy. It comprises two side-length pieces, “The Park” and “The Backyard,” episodes that bookend the opera Perfect Lives that later arrived, albeit in a more stripped-down form. These earlier compositions and the newly written parts contain plot – but were you to try and follow the story linearly, the plot is tough to discern. Ashley even said that some of it makes sense, some doesn’t. Instead, we get a beautiful stream of continuous observations and poetic aphorisms, loaded with satire, metaphysics, humor, and, ultimately the contemplation of the work’s unanswerable theme.
‘Perfect Lives,’ which premiered on UK television, Channel 4, in 1984, is a TV Opera originally commissioned by Kitchen, New York. The opera itself is composed of seven, thirty-minute vignettes, that follow characters from the Corn Belt and their interaction with two out-of-town musicians.
The opera is composed of a bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, and other everyday events in the American Midwest that are both banal and surreal. Each narrative is interlaced with streams of consciousness touching on eastern philosophical concepts to running commentaries on modern capitalist culture. Typical excerpts from the opera are largely conversational, ranging from colloquial ‘bar talk’ to the more far-reaching philosophical musings on Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance, phenomenology, and learning how to shave.
Ashley’s interests were far-reaching, chaotic, and disjointed. A sufferer of Tourette’s syndrome, this imbued his works with a familiar eeriness of an inner, sometimes sporadic, dialogue that takes place between ourselves and our environment.
Another release, recorded over a period of five years, entitled Automatic Writing, “is the result of Robert Ashley’s fascination with involuntary speech. He has recorded and analyzed the repeated lines of his own mantra and extracted four musical characters. The result is quiet, mysterious, melancholy and an early form of ambient music.
According to Ashley, the opera’s structure was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Blue” Gene Tyranny plays piano (he’s also featured throughout the series as “Buddy – the World’s Greatest Piano Player”) and arranges all the keys and synths with a minimalist approach and great repetition which, combined with Ashley’s elusive, monotonal musings and Krishna Bhatt’s delicate tablas, warrant some form of transcendent response. In its somber moments, when it doesn’t teeter into abstract game-show-esque territory, it’s hard not to succumb to some kind of meditative state while listening to these cyclical, peaceful rhythms. At the same time, the most bizarre set of ‘80s visuals float across the screen as endless words pour on, hinting at and posing the question:
Of the theoretical underpinnings of Perfect Lives, Ashley stated, “I put my pieces in television format because I believe that’s really the only possibility for music.” The American tradition, Ashley added, “is not tied to the great opera houses of Europe: La Scala’s architecture doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t go there. We stay at home and watch television.”
Ashley’s televised opera, which he defines as “a comic opera about reincarnation,” is a beautiful contemplation via text-sound composition and is cited as one of the 20th century’s definitive works in the medium. He is the maestro conducting this perplexing form, revealing the mysterious beauty that lies in listening to art embedded in sound and vision.