Atalanta (Acts of God)
by Robert Ashley
Burning Books, 2011
208 pages / $25.00 buy from Amazon or SPD
24. When I began this review Robert Ashley was alive. In light of his death, I feel a compulsion to redraft and make these twenty-five points address something more. I want to talk about seeing Foreign Experiences and Lectures to Be Sung performed, about composition and improvisation, contemporary opera, and the intersection of music and language. Ashley’s work is full of good discussions. I’m attracted to the just-some-dude delivery style and storytelling aspects in the operas. One of my composer pals can’t follow the stories at all, and seems obsessed with the involuntary speech in Ashley’s work. Ashley’s work is so dense, and there are so many lessons that I take away from his work as a performer and writer. It’s hard to limit the discussion, especially given this kind of retrospective appreciation and the span of his work.
I first learned about Robert Ashley through Peter Greenaway, thanks to his Four American Composers series. I rented all four videos because I was interested in John Cage and Philip Glass. I didn’t know who Meredith Monk was, or Robert Ashley.
As it turns out, the episode on Ashley interested me the most. I didn’t understand the opera being discussed, Perfect Lives, but I knew I had to hear and watch the whole thing. I took to the internet and discovered that I could order it directly from Lovely Music, on VHS. I did so. It cost me $100—but I had to hear it.
Few people I knew at the time had ever heard of Robert Ashley. When I moved to Illinois and met Mark Tardi and Jeremy M. Davies, we bonded in part over our shared love for Perfect Lives, “an opera for television” made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s still not widely known. It’s still never been broadcast in its entirety in the US. But I’m not alone alone in regarding it one of the greatest operas and long poems in the English language. (John Cage wrote of it: “What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives.”)
THE ORAL MODE of composition — underused, perhaps kept hidden — where was it we found it first?
I myself am Native Appalachian, and so you figure there’s that: the whole history of telling & singing murder ballad news carried over from wherever the fuck the muddy blood sprang over from from Europe, the campfire & the kitchen table, raconteur tall tales, et cetera.
I have, I’m told, a gift as an orator, as a storyteller. People sometimes say to me they say, Garett you should write how you talk. I say, No thanks. Those things are different.
There’s a load they tell you in the stone age classes about show-don’t-tell, tho telling stories is always the most important aspect stressed by those classes as such, no matter how much the general public appreciates an image.
A story paraphrased or
condensed unwritten divorced
from the page becomes a kind of fable.
Speech, however, has properties wholly apart from poem- or storycraft. Speech possesses aspects of musicality that cannot exist on the page. The musicality of written or typed text is closer to a form of notation toward that musicality, and in its own right holds potential for a variety of readings and tones.
Speech is sound and so primal. We understand vocal detonation, whether it’s linguistic or otherwise.
by Robert Ashley
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011 (Reprint)
240 pages / $13.95 Buy from Amazon, Dalkey Archive
Premiering on television in 1984 and first published in book form in 1991, Perfect Lives is several texts at once: a comic opera libretto, a novel about a temporary bank heist, a blurb-billed epic poem ranging through small town Midwestern vernacular and Eastern metaphysics, and a kind of textual final resting place for the titular performance in the form of notes, a preface, a synopsis, some notation from the score, and an edited conversation with writer, composer and director Ashley during which he explains the genesis and outcome of the project. (Ashley: “I had this practice: I’d go into a room, close the door, and start singing.”) It’s a good thing that the book is several texts, because while it’s a success as an engaging epic (experimental) poem, it would be a stretch to call it a novel and as a libretto it leaves you having missed out on the three-hour television program that it became with no idea of what it sounded like unless you’re familiar with Ashley’s work and no idea what it looked like except for a still of the production on the cover of the book and a frontispiece featuring Ashley himself playing narrator. Ultimately the loss of context doesn’t make the text suffer because as a set of eight experimental poems obliquely describing a bank heist and an elopement among more metaphysical things it wins at being an engrossing read and at capturing small town Midwestern vernacular and widescreen philosophy in very crisp but entertainingly malformed ways.