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Innerhalb der Zeit

September 11, 2011

I think it’s fair to say that we’re in a Robert Ashley moment.  Granted, I’ve only been paying attention for nine years, it could have been like this in the 70s, or 80s, or whenever, but it seems that there’s a great deal of buzz and activity surrounding Bob’s work from not only the usual suspects (the man himself, Tom Buckner, Kyle Gann, etc.) but younger generations.  That’s where we come in.  Perfect Lives Manhattan goes along with the Incubator festival, That Morning Thing at the Kitchen, Vidas Perfectas, Burning Books‘s publishing of Atalanta and Quicksand, the republishing of the Perfect Lives libretto, and Kyle Gann’s new book in defining this Ashley moment, not to mention activities at the new Roulette and other things of which I am as yet unaware.

I’m personally very pleased to see all of this and be a part of it.  When I turn it all over in my head, I’m trying to figure out what our role in all of this is.  Things like the Gann book and the Incubator festival are wonderful instruments for casting light on new or lesser known gems from Ashley’s oeuvre like Automatic Writing or el/Aficionado, but that’s not what we’re doing.  We’re focusing on the piece with the biggest profile, and like Alex Waterman’s Vidas Perfectas, the goal is to reanimate a classic that has not be performed in nearly thirty years (for some of us here in Varispeed, in our lifetimes!).  In the introduction to the original (1991) libretto, Melody Sumner placed an open call for new performances:

“… aside from the purely literary aspect of the narrative, Perfect Lives, a major opera by one of America’s most important composers, needs also to be available with music notation in order that other composers, singers, and musicians might arrange their own performances.”

And so we are both finally, twenty years later, rising to that challenge in a way that I don’t  know of anyone doing in the interim.  It’s funny that our project and Alex’s are coming to fruition so close together, again, I would argue there’s something in the air these days.

But something that’s been on my mind is the difference of our approach to that of Vidas Perfectas.  This go round, Perfect Lives Manhattan is going to be seven distinct meditations on our understanding of the piece rather than a casual tribute to the original like we did in June with Perfect Lives Brooklyn.  Last time, we were not so much taking liberties as making quick decisions based on practicality.  We used what resources we had and stuck to an overall vision of what the day ought to feel like.  This time, we’re being much more deliberate in where we play, what we say, how we say it, how the music is arranged, and what it all looks like.  But in these decisions, our compass is in some ways less the original opera for television and more our own individual aesthetics.  We are not claiming to be performing a fully restaged, authentic Perfect Lives, and so we’re happy that Vidas Perfectas is more aligned with that goal; the presence of both will lead to a fuller understanding of what the piece means today.  We are in part trying to tell the stories of our own relationships with this piece – the extent to which one becomes a coauthor in a piece in which one invests years of study.

We are by all means presenting Bob’s work (we’re not altering the text, the form, or the chords, etc.), and we take that responsibility very seriously, but it would be doing ourselves, our audience, and Bob a disservice to not make the disclaimer that we’re altering some fundamental things – the very medium, for starters, no televisions will be involved.  We’re adding in major concerns of our own like endurance, non/minimally hierarchical performance, spatial transmission and rebroadcasting, and non-amplification into the basic fabric of the performance of the piece.  On a level of finer detail, we are telling our own musical and literary autobiographies in our re-arrangements.  My seven-year relationship with this piece has seen me pepper my own work and life with quotations and references, and I can’t resisting folding those references back into my interpretation of Perfect Lives.  This piece for me has been a friend to grow up with, and I’m compelled to work through this relationship when I perform in November (I personally think this is an asset, others may disagree).  My point is that the process of assembling this feels very different compared to the process of getting together the materials for, say, Trio I from White on White, which I’ve never performed before and will play in the Incubator concerts; I’m presenting Trio I, whereas I’m reimagining two episodes of Perfect Lives.  This is part of the mission of Varispeed (which = Brian, Gelsey, Aliza, Paul & I), to do such reimagining rather than strict presentation.

Maybe I need to think more explicitly about my relationship with this piece.  I like the model of the blog as a shrink’s couch.  Or maybe that’s just for myself t0 see.

– Dave

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