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Bridge directions

December 5, 2018

As part of our research for this piece, some of us asked others of us (cough Brian cough) to teach us to play the game of bridge. We had one go of it, more to come. Stay tuned! Maybe candid pics!

If you’ve studied Improvement, you’ll note that the final four scenes spell out a kind of bridge game. I knew that the four players in bridge were referred to as north, south, east, and west because I’ve read a lot of sports sections of a lot of newspapers and gleaned that. I hadn’t explored it played into the meaning of Improvement.

This is a preface to say I’m no expert (I’ve played a lot of euchre though, which I now realize is quite similar, just with fewer cards), but I feel like there’s some meaning to the descriptions each direction gets in the introduction to the bridge game scenes:

This is the last hand. It’s getting late.
North: Berlin, a tango. Mixed Emotions.
East: River Rouge. The Red River. The Movement.
South: Campo de Fiori (Rome). Early Warning.
West: Atlantis, where what came before and now are joined.

If Berlin is North, Rome is South, and Atlantis is West, we’re in Europe. River Rouge I imagine refers to the Ford plant in Michigan, and there are a bunch of Red Rivers. So East may be an intentional outlier, or I may be wrong in my basic orientation. There is after all Berlin, Connecticut, which is pronounced “BUHR-lynn”, stress on the first syllable.

The North/Berlin section has a lot of overtones of conspiracy – Nazis hiding in South America after WW2, the JFK assassination, “everyone’s a spy”. Linda, who remember stands in for the post-expulsion Jews in this opera, has gone through a lot of tumult and assimilation in Act 2, and the bridge game scenes to me indicate that things are not so rosy on the horizon. But it’s not a clear linear progression of that. This scene has the air of a condensed Cold War thriller.

The East/River Rouge section is the clearest little song-let in the whole piece and it goes by in a breeze. The melody for this section contains in it (if you filter out the G naturals) the passacaglia you can hear plainly at the very top of the opera, and which recurs in many forms throughout. The lyrics are a riddle to me: “the biggest building/ in the world/ pays me five a day/ brand new suit/ cigarettes/ I don’t care what you say/ words can never change it/ money talks/ work is here to stay”. This makes me think of Crash, when Bob talks about having a day job for a few decades, and how it let him smoke real cigarettes, but how much better it was for him when he had no more day job. The River Rouge Ford plant was over one square mile, not sure if that was the biggest in the world, but it no doubt was connected to a lot of jobs that resulted in cigarettes and new suits. Hard to say exactly how this applies to Linda and the narrative. Also, “The Movement” is vague enough to not point to anything specific to me.

South/Campo de Fiori, Rome is to me an intimation of the Holocaust or genocide more broadly. It repeats the number 28,278,466, citing that as the number of people who vanished in a flash. It’s not near the figure of 6 million European Jews murdered by the Nazis and their associates, but it’s quite close to the 27 million who died in the Soviet union during the war. The numbers also have a bit of the air of the $14.28 and reconfigurations of those numbers that appear elsewhere in the opera and in “The Backyard” from Perfect Lives, numbers with a certain mostly even character that recur and don’t refer to anything concrete. Special internal numbers that people (at least I do) carry around. The Campo de Fiori is also the plaza in Rome where Giordano Bruno (represented in this piece by Mr Payne) was burned at the stake by the inquisition, and where you can find a statue of him today. So there’s some message here that Bruno’s death is tantamount to or representative of the death of millions, maybe? “Early Warning” is hard to say… sounds like a Cold War thing?

The last one is West/Atlantis. Not a lot of words here, it’s a suddenly placid way to end the opera. There’s a repeated reference to some islands which are gone now but still talked about. Amidst that is an alternation between “the first among us”, “safe place for sailors”, “lost in an instant”, and “still in the papers”. The vibe I get is an Atlantis narrative about it being the source of life/culture/civilization, the something cataclysmic will happen to reveal it again, and that there’s a greater arc that returns to where it started. “what came before and now are joined” is what it says in the preface. It’s a good open ended way to conclude an opera that’s just the first of four in a larger story.

Trying to shake specific meanings out of individual lines or scenes or characters in this work is not very fruitful, but trying to hold the text and titles up to the light to reveal more associations and connections is helpful for me. To talk (or type) my thoughts out to do some mapping helps shape resonances between unexpected sections within the piece, or connect it to other parts of Bob’s work. So, bridge: it’s a colorful overlay here. It lacks a specific meaning, but those are a couple bits of meaning you can put with the game and the scenes’ content if you care to do so.

– Dave



November 24, 2018

The scene I’m spending the most time on in Improvement is Sc 14, “The Doctor”. I’m playing… the Doctor. Linda meets him at a party. He’s callous to her, interrupting her constantly until he launches out an unprompted disquisition about how the offering of images is a secularized form of Judaism, and goes on to map Protestantism as a secularization of Christianity, Modernism as a secularization of taste, Science as a secularization of memory, and theater as we know it as a secularization of experience. She was just trying to tell him about her dream before he launched into all this. He’s totally misses the point of what she’s trying to say. She never comments on the content of his spiel.


You’ll notice that Bob, as the narrator, invokes this same list of secularizations in the intro to Improvement – offering of images, Protestantism, Modernism, Science, and theater as we know. It’s central stuff to understanding what’s going on. Also significant to me is that the opera starts with “To continue…”, acknowledging that it’s picking up where Perfect Lives and Atalanta left off, using the same characters and tracing the same trajectory of stories and language as they proceed westward across the continental US. The intro first gives name to Now Eleanor’s Idea, the tetralogy of which Improvement was the first piece written, moreso than the individual opera by that name, also one of the four in the series. (for a full discussion of how these pieces fit together I recommend the notes at the end of the published Perfect Lives libretto or the book Outside of Time)

Eleanor herself, aka Now Eleanor, only shows up once more in Improvement, in Sc 7, where it’s rumored that she and Don are headed for Mexico. We’re told there’ll be more on this subject later, ie in Foreign Experiences (which is about what happens to Don next, hint: it doesn’t involve Eleanor) and Now Eleanor’s Idea, the opera. The titular idea that Now Eleanor has is germinated in Perfect Lives and expressed in Now Eleanor’s Idea – the idea that she needs to leave the bank and what she knows in the Midwest and go somewhere far away (the Southwestern US) to learn more about “the Mexican” she witnessed in the bank, the people he represents rather than the Mexican himself, who is not actually Mexican. She eventually finds her role in something far larger than herself, as a vocalist, singing of the importance of cars to a culture she’s gotten to know.

What strikes me, and what I can’t quite synthesize right now, is the way intro to Improvement gives a frames the rest of the four operas in the tetralogy and it’s relationship to the idea that Now Eleanor has. Here’s the frame (and here’s the audio):

“New Eleanor’s idea
conceived as if
in a flash of light”

(the flash of light is the moment the bank is revealed to have no money in it in “The Bank” from Perfect Lives… continuing on:)

“The offering of images is
a radical form of Judaism
which has come to us
in the same form as
and Theater as we know it
Her idea explains
at least to her how
all of these things have come together
and differences have disappeared”

It’s no doubt significant that the Intro ends with

“For the sake of argument Don is Spain in 1492
and Linda is the Jews”

Just to map that, if Don is the reunited Christian Spanish kingdom ending the convivencia, and Linda is the Sephardic Jews who spread through the Mediterranean, or South America or West Africa or became crypto-Jews, then who is Eleanor in this metaphor? Giordano Bruno, so important to the thoughts behind Bob’s opera, and other Renaissance hermeticists were thought to have built on the work of early Kabbalists of the late Spanish era and shortly thereafter. Maybe Eleanor, best friend to Linda, known to have flirted with Don, represents those like Bruno who worked within existing Catholic hierarchies but dealt with ideas far beyond mainstream Christianity.

The tricky thing is that the connection to Eleanor, and hence the other three operas in the tetralogy, is the intro but it’s never really addressed head-on in the rest of the opera. In the printed score we were first given when we started rehearsing Improvement, there’s a sheet that lays out the allegories in the piece (I think this is in the CD booklet also?). Eleanor represents “America” on this sheet, which in the logic of the overarching Atalanta-Perfect Lives-Now Eleanor’s Idea trilogy is where old ideas, stories, and cultures are gradually eroded as you pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is where we find ourselves starting with Improvement.

I don’t think this is the place to unpack each scene of Improvement and talk about the metaphor for post-expulsion Jewish existence, though I think there are some clear parallels Bob is trying to draw for assimilation, isolation, and violence over the centuries. I’m also coming at this from the perspective of being raised Jewish and being so inclined to think about the ways a common Ashkenazi narrative paves over the broad range of Jewish experiences in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. I don’t think Bob is thinking of any of that, despite the fact that the Sephardim, the descendants Jews exiled from Spain, really went all over and have had a huge range of experiences, in addition to Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Bukharan, etc narratives.

But Improvement is a brilliant piece because it works on a lot of levels. The Doctor scene is powerful to me more because what is says about gender than what it says about Judaism, Modernism, etc. Bob’s very deft at putting a complex thought on the connection between, say, architecture and food supply right out in the open in a text without taking you out of the flow of the story and characters, such as it is. In this piece he’s writing about his perceptions of Judaism and being a woman in society with no first hand knowledge, and it never feels cheap or pandering to me. Even when he gets something factually incorrect, like in Sc 14 referring to Moses as “the first Jew we can remember” (I mean, the first Jew he could remember, most people would say Abraham), it’s clear that he’s using these ideas with his own sort of flavor.

So to get back to the idea of the list of secularizations, how it plays into Eleanor’s Idea, and what it says about this opera and all the others, I don’t know. I don’t entirely grok the ideas and history of what Bob calls the offering of images. I can see what he means by “secularization” if “theater as we know it is a secularization of experience” – a removing of sacredness and vitalness until it’s fit for easier consumption, so you don’t have to wrestle with the heaviness all the time. With specific relation to Judaism, I think talking about its secularization sounds more interesting as a thing to say than it is as a thing to deeply consider (ie if he’s talking about Rabbinic Judaism, wouldn’t Karaite Judaism be a better parallel for secularization in the context of list? Or in a certain sense, Hasidism? I don’t think there’s a single “Judaism” to secularize in the way he thinks there is).

In referring to Eleanor as America in the allegory sheet, I do think he’s getting at the larger movement in these pieces – increasing atomization and isolation, in exchange for greater superficial personal identity, built through things like your job, your consumption habits, how good you are at playing bridge. In Perfect Lives, Linda starts from the position of a well-articulated community, having clear relationships to family and friends. Same with Eleanor. As they move west, the community is gone, Linda’s husband leaves her and she gets only the occasional letter from her son, she’s had to reinvent herself over and over again, and she and Eleanor don’t speak any more. Instead of the more fixed relationships, identities, and hierarchies of Judaism or pre-Protestant Christianity, instead of having a clearer handle on taste, memory, and experience, they’re fluidly moving through a secular world, shifting roles. So too do Don in Foreign Experiences, trying to fly higher than eagles and remake himself in an indigenous fashion, and Junior Jr in el/Aficionado, supposed to be the spy who can slip in anywhere but finding that the work gets mucked up.

– Dave

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