Skip to content

to croon

November 8, 2018

More on Improvement! We just finished another week’s work. Biggest news is that we’ll be doing seven shows at the Kitchen in February rather than three. We’ll have full info and links as soon as all that is available.

A bunch of things occurred to me these past few days, but I’ll just share a few for now:

1.) The restaurant that Linda and her companion are dining in when they get disrupted by some metaphorical anti-Semites in Sc 16, “Trouble”, in my mind is Grand Szechuan in Chelsea, quite near the Kitchen. Amirtha was also picturing the restaurant as a Chinese restaurant. Something about round tables, maybe? In any event, you can probably find us eating there at some points during the run. Yum as heck.

2.) When Linda lists everything that she’s consumed that day in Sc 15, “The Good Life”, and has this wonderful, spacious environment in which to vocally unfurl the list, I am reminded of the part in Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl” when Vanity asks for something that she can croon to. Of course I don’t think that what Prince delivers after that request in “Nasty Girl” is really all that good for crooning, but if Linda rhetorically asked for something she can croon to to list her intake, this would be more than sufficient.

3.) When Linda sets up the letter from Junior, Jr in Sc 19, “The Bridge Game”, she says “I’d like to read you this letter from my son”. I didn’t rigorously double check this, but having been living inside the piece for a while, I’m pretty sure this is the only second person bit of the piece where there’s no clear “you” being addressed. The assumption would be that she’s talking to three friends she’s playing bridge with. It’s not clear at all. It’s a cool moment.

4.) In Sc 12, at the very end of Act I, there are mysterious figures “hidden but near” to Linda, and the narrator says that “they are watching”. Linda tells them they don’t, can’t understand her and expresses some optimism the world will change eventually. Then the narrator counts these lurkers as “four or five people, secretly drunk”, just feeling it kick in. I love the ambiguity of four or five people. The fuzziness is so perfect and threatening.

(This is Dave speaking… or rather, writing)


time for emotional reflection illustrated in opera

October 25, 2018

Okay. More Improvement thoughts. This one’s about Scene 15, “The Good Life”, arguably my favorite scene in the whole dang thing. The catalog of Linda listing everything she’s consumed that day is stunning and captivating. So simple, so impossible to turn away from.


Part of what gives the scene its pull is the stark texture. Occasional ping-pong-ball and sine tone iterations of an E minor chord (it’s written as F flat in the score, why not) in a way that harkens back a little to “the Supermarket” from Perfect Lives is the whole background. Linda and her unnamed companion go back and forth, and the theme of memory returns from earlier in the opera when Mr Payne memorizes the contents of Linda’s purse, and from the immediately preceding scene with the Doctor [nb even though Tom Buckner in the original and Brian in our production play both Mr Payne and the companion, it’s specified that the male companion in Scene 15 is not Mr Payne, this took me a while to realize].

But the chorus part in this scene, done by Aliza & Paul in our production, mostly by Sam & Joan in the original, is really what rewards repeat listenings. Often, the chorus is just saying what Linda & her companion are saying with a slight delay, but other times they add pithy subtext. One of the best lines in the whole piece is here – a fast “men give drugs to women” after the companion offers Linda some cocaine and she turns him down. Elsewhere, when Linda mentions the newspaper, the chorus enumerates everything Linda can remember about what goes in the paper.

The chorus bit that makes the hairs on my neck stand up a little is line 1313. The companion starts listing everything she’s consumed around 1:00 in the album recording – tea, toast with butter, orange juice… and the chorus says “this is sixteen hours ago”. It’s slower and easier to catch than “men give drugs to women”, the rhythm helps it stand out. Maybe what we’re meant to understand is that she consumed these things sixteen hours ago. But equally plausible and more powerful to me is that the chorus means that Linda is remembering this conversation with her companion 16 hours after it happened. The conversation is situated such that it seems to be happening in the restaurant when the “Trouble” of Scene 16 goes down. The Trouble itself to me is a metaphor for various expressions of state-condoned violence against Jews over the centuries, though in the list of allegories in the opera, Bob says it’s “politics”. The Trouble is clearly a turning point for Linda, it comes up in Scene 17 that she sees the men who caused the Trouble again, and they’re literally brownshirts this time.

So the chorus adding in this time displacement is a subtle and fantastic touch. After a mentally scarring event, Linda the next day is thinking back on this seemingly mundane attempt to catalog her intake. Much in the way that Mr Payne’s manipulation of the information of what was in her purse when they first met at the Airline Ticket Counter (the Inquisition in Bob’s allegory) is something that she can’t understand until she’s had time to go over it in her mind.

Whether you’re reading the actions on the level of divorce, or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, or the numerous other levels it works on, it’s a deft way to illustrate emotional trauma. When it happens, you’re just trying to get through it, to survive. The story that you eventually tell yourself when you have a minute to breath is what becomes the true story, and that’s the story that Linda tells in Improvement.

Of course I might be reading too much into this and maybe it just means that they’re talking about breakfast 16 hours later. But that’s no fun.

– Dave

I used to smoke you coo coo

October 15, 2018

File under Bob Ashley catalog serendipity:

It’s very easy and compelling to superimpose the “you coo coo” melody from The Bank (Episode 3 of Perfect Lives), after which this blog is named, on top of the choral F-7 chord in Scene 18 of Improvement. Particularly at 6:03, the “I used to smoke cigarettes…” line, around there. Go ahead, give it a try. And when you hear us perform it in February, think about that melodic overlap.

so many thoughts

October 12, 2018

We just finished another week of Improvement rehearsals. It’s so great. I have so many thoughts. I’ll share them periodically from now to February on here.

One thing not specific to the piece that happened to me this week: When going from an existing tone that’s playing to a pitch I have to sing, I usually have sung the new pitch quietly. It’s bad practice. This week, with all the various entrances in this piece where I have to sing an Eb while a F is sounding, or get an F from an E minor, or whatever, I’ve been (mostly) doing it in my head, silently. It’s fine, I can do it, it turns out. Getting into the humming in Scene 16 is tricky. I’ll get there. Singing a Bb during the Mr Payne’s mother scene is tricky. But I’m not gonna sing it first, that’s my goal.

– Dave

What an idea, Linda!

September 21, 2018

This is the first official recognition here on the Varispeed blog that yes, the rumors are true, and indeed we’re going to be performing Robert Ashley’s Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) early next year at the Kitchen. It’s really exciting to be undertaking this piece, which in many ways is Bob’s most complicated one. We started working on it in summer 2017 and have been slowly ramping up. More info soon on timing and tickets and all that, but first off, enjoy this info on the front page of Bob’s site.

There’s so much to dig into with this piece, and we’ll share some thoughts over the next five months, but let’s start with a single line from Act I, Scene 12:

The last line Linda speaks in Act I is “This is Linda speaking”. I love this line.

There’s a few other instances in the piece of the chorus saying the same thing. It’s never in places where there’s ambiguity as to who’s speaking. While some of us give voice to several discrete characters over the course of the piece (eg Brian voices Don, Mr Payne, and Linda’s unnamed companion after Mr Payne in Scene 15, “The Good Life”), Gelsey only voices Linda. Granted, we all do most of the chorus parts. But the statement that Linda is speaking isn’t ever in ambiguous places for the listener, here most of all.

Linda’s identity morphs and expands in ways that are hard to pin down as a traditional narrative. In the logic of the piece, Linda represents the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Her travels and romances can be read as various attempts at assimilation and cultural cross-pollination, with varying degrees of success and rejection. The metaphor stretches in time from the late 15th Century to the late 20th Century, and accordingly there’s a lot of moments where Linda gets dropped into a new and unfamiliar world or suddenly has a new home, a new outlook, a new identity.

In this scene, she’s talking about slow these evolutions. There’s a resonance with the line in “The Park” from Perfect Lives about “how it comes to you that the light has changed”. After a first act in which she’s had her life upended and started to try to remake something for herself while maintaining a healthy skepticism, you can read “This is Linda speaking” as a simple affirmation to herself that she’s still there, that she’s still herself. It’s a beautiful line, I think.

– Dave

Empty Words album coming soon!

August 20, 2018

Dear Loyal Varispeed Readers –

In the 7+ years we’ve been a collective, our work has existed as live performances and a handful of videos of Perfect Lives performances. This fall, for the first time, we’re releasing a Varispeed album!

In a couple months, highlights from Part I of our 2012 performance of John Cage’s Empty Words, recorded live at Roulette, will be released on Gold Bolus Recordings. The whole of Part I was 2.5 hours, but this album documents the beginning of the process of turning language into sound. In addition to the five of us performing with our voices and on electronics, we were joined by some amazing guests.

More thoughts to come on this release, but for now, you can listen to the first released track, “and we fs”.


July 18, 2018

If you haven’t heard, Aliza, Gelsey, and I will be performing some music of Robert Ashley’s this Friday at Issue Project Room as part of a two night tribute to the Sonic Arts Union.

Back in 2014, Brian, Aliza, & Gelsey performed a version of Love is a Good Example at Roulette, in a trio arrangement by Gelsey, you can hear it here at 2:33:30 or thereabouts. LIAGE is an early 90’s that Bob performed a lot in the last two decades of his life as a solo piece with a simple set up – two microphones, one with generous reverb, the other more dry. Like a lot of Bob’s pieces that are part monologue, part lecture, part musing, part poem, part song, the thread comes in and out of direct address. This is my first time performing, unlike the other four ‘speeders (Gelsey & Paul have done solo versions in the past), and while I’ve been listening to it for years and saw Bob perform it, it’s striking to get inside of it.

The thoughts in the piece about communication and society operating at different levels of impedance, and the speaker’s openness to models of society other than the current one, are speaking to me a lot right now. I don’t propose to know exactly what Bob’s getting at with some of the metaphors in the piece, but working through it can be a way to remind yourself that what we think as high functioning, as productive, as successful, is far from the only way to operate. I think the past two years, like the years at the end of the Cold War when it was written, daily raise the idea that society could be on the brink of a massive change in almost any direction. I’m finding this piece a useful world to sit in for 15 minutes at a time when I run through it to allay some anxiety, to have passing moments of clarity and not feel distressed when they fade into relative chaos. If you’re in NYC, come hear what we’re doing with the piece, or if you’re not, give it a fresh listen, I think you’ll be happy you did.

– Dave