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THE STORY OF THE HUGE FACE OF AN ARRANGEMENT: VARISPEED'S ADAPTATION OF ROBERT ASHLEY'S PERFECT LIVES

  • Gelsey Bell
Abstract

Robert Ashley's opera Perfect Lives was conceived for the medium of television and first broadcast (by the UK's Channel 4) in 1984. Partly for this reason, and also for other factors (the apparently necessary involvement of Ashley himself as narrator; the absence of a complete, fully notated score) the work has received very few live performances. In 2011 the New York City-based performance collective Varispeed reconceived the work as a day-long, site-specific event, following Ashley's available notations and recorded performances in broad outline but departing from them in creative ways. In this article Varispeed founding member Gelsey Bell describes the working processes and decision-making that informed the collective's approach to this experimental classic.

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1 See Ashley, Robert, Outside of Time: Ideas about Music (Cologne: MusikTexte, 2009), 132. And Michaels, Bianca, ‘Interview with Robert Ashley’, The Opera Quarterly, 22 (2006), 538: ‘There was at that time the idea that there would be a lot of independent television productions – they didn't all have to come out of Hollywood or New York. I thought that it would be possible for American composers to work in their own locations and make pieces that would be distributed through television as opposed to being distributed through scores and realized by different people depending on where the scores landed, as it is the European tradition. So I made a conscious decision for myself that I was going to write opera for television. Also, television is so important in American culture’.

2 Ashley, Robert, Perfect Lives (New York: Archer Fields and Burning Books, 1991), 168.

3 A live performance version of the piece was also made and toured for many years with the original cast. An example of this is featured in the Peter Greenaway's documentary Four American Composers: Robert Ashley (1983).

4 Ashley, Perfect Lives, xvii.

5 Ashley, Outside of Time, 230.

6 Video material from Perfect Lives Manhattan is available online at http://vimeo.com/varispeed (accessed November 21 2013).

7 The name Varispeed is itself homage to Ashley, who numbers ‘the Varispeed’ among his four-syllable recurring phrases of involuntary speech. See Ashley, Outside of Time, 544. Other Varispeed adaptations have included a site-specific all-night performance of John Cage's Empty Words (1974) and an assortment of Arthur Jarvinen's Adult Party Games from the Leisure Planet, a collection of conceptual scores from throughout his career.

8 In a lecture in 2000 Ashley quipped, ‘I will continue to make operas that will allow the journalists to say, “That's not singing. That's talking.” It will be a well-kept secret. I mean, that it is singing’. Ashley, ‘The Future Of Music’ ed. Karen Reynolds. http://www.rogerreynolds.com/futureofmusic/ashley.html (accessed 5 August 2011), 36. Ashley has also clarified that he distinguishes the piece as song, rather than poetry, in the way The Iliad is song (Perfect Lives, 168). From my own experience, the categorisation of song lies in the performance approach and listening technique – that is to say, in the mouth and ear of the beholder.

9 Ruder in Varispeed, ‘What Is This All About?’ You Coo Coo You Coo Coo Too (30 May 2011). http://perfectlivesbrooklyn2011.wordpress.com/page/3/ (accessed 26 October 2013).

10 For instance, see Simons in Varispeed, ‘This is the Celebration of the Changing of the Light’. You Coo Coo You Coo Coo Too (5 June 2011) http://perfectlivesbrooklyn2011.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/this-is-the-celebration-of-the-changing-of-the-light/ (accessed 26 October 2013).

11 Johnson is Ashley's wife in addition to being well known as the founder of Lovely Music and Performing Artservices. She is also a performer in some of Ashley's works, for instance as the female voice in Automatic Writing.

12 We have also been blessed by Mimi Johnson's generosity, sometimes in the name of Lovely Music, as well as by that of Melody Sumner Carnahan and Michael Sumner who, on behalf of Burning Books, sent us free copies of the libretto as well as a host of other printed goodies, like Ashley's first novel Quicksand (2011).

13 Ashley, Outside of Time, 190.

14 ‘Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone’. Artaud, Antonin, The Theater and Its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 74.

15 Ashley, Outside of Time, 236.

16 Ashley, Outside of Time, 250.

17 Kyle Gann, ‘Transcription from ‘The Backyard’ in Perfect Lives'. http://kylegann.com/Backyard-transcription.html (accessed 26 October 2013).

18 Ashley, Perfect Lives, 118–19. Italics indicate text for the chorus while the Narrator's text is in roman.

19 Ashley, Perfect Lives, 121.

20 Ashley in Corinne Ramey, ‘Modern Opera, Heading for the Hills’. Wall Street Journal (12 August 2013), A22.

21 For more information see Ben Popken, ‘Protesters Arrested at Citibank for Making a Scene, Closing their Accounts’, Consumerist (18 October 2011). http://consumerist.com/2011/10/18/protesters-arrested-at-citibank-for-making-a-scene-closing-their-accounts/ (accessed 26 October 2013).

22 Ashley, Perfect Lives, xvii.

23 Ashley, Perfect Lives, 140.

24 For more on Ashley's ideas about this structuring of Perfect Lives see Ashley, Outside of Time, pp. 250–74.

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Tempo
  • ISSN: 0040-2982
  • EISSN: 1478-2286
  • URL: /core/journals/tempo
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