What’s There & What Isn’t
In getting back into a performance-grade understanding of Perfect Lives (what do they call it in boxing? hitting fight weight?), I’ve been thinking of some issues that have been baseline assumptions in what we’ve done with the piece thus far. Compared to the original, there are a few novelties central to our performances:
1. Locations are not evoked through performance, rather each section is presented in an archetypical space that matches the title of each section.
2. Rather than performing each episode in succession in a single venue, the time of day each episode takes place is taken literally. As such, the episodes are performed out of their original order (our order is 1, 3, 2, 6, 7, 5, 4).
3. The original scoring for piano, synthesizers, and electronic percussion supporting three voices is expanded into larger formations incorporating not only the instruments the five of us play but also working in outside performers as they are available and as fits the arrangement.
4. While we follow the beat structures as laid out in published materials in certain sections, our arrangements make use of many approaches to delivering the text. Much more of our delivery is in free time than the original, we also have made wider use of distinct spoken and sung phrasings than the more unified delivery Robert Ashley uses in the original (particularly in Private Parts). Part of what I’m saying is that there’s five of us, which necessarily brings a greater range of vocal stylings than Ashley’s original, even though he is extremely range-y in the various recorded versions.
In tweaking our plans and arrangements, we’re reconnecting with the initial inspirations and aspirations we had when we first took up performing the piece. As with our realization of Empty Words, we have chosen to look to the libretto as a guide – when in doubt go to the text. With Perfect Lives this can come into contradiction with certain information in other non-published versions of the text (which were generously shared with us by Mimi Johnson) and what is perceived in watching and listening to released versions, especially the staged version presented in the Greenaway film.
For our next performance of Perfect Lives, we’re switching up some lead vocal duties. I’ll be doing the Park, Aliza will lead the Church, and Gelsey will lead the Backyard. The Living Room will feature all five of us spending some time as the narrator. While we’re pursuing an idea in the Living Room that we highlighted in Perfect Lives Manhattan – that the narrator of the episode embodies many different characters beyond just Will & Ida – we’ll be dispensing with the literal reading of staging the episode as a conversation between two vocalists. We’ll still try to focus on duality, but we’re treating the text more as a single stream than as two.
These changes in part speak to issues of gender – speaking for myself I think there’s something, again something literal, in having a man speak to handling oneself in the morning, even though it causes sadness for all men. Aliza has often remarked on how illuminating it was for her to inhabit the description of a woman nearing 30 and not yet spoken for who stands in the doorway of her mother’s house.
This quality of literalness is, when you think too hard about it, a little cheap, but it’s behind so much of what we’ve done. When dealing with works so magnificently large and potentially abstruse, one of the best ways forward is to start by taking everything at face value. The story happens in the supermarket of a town at 3pm with some old people examining succotash? Great, let’s go there and see what that’s like. Our realization is about uncovering resonances in places you didn’t expect them. Seeing an opera set up in a bar or while jogging through a park. Listening to a curious song while in line at the bank or strolling through a supermarket. Getting concise philosophical presentations in a small town bar.
While we’ll have other obstacles to contend with (we don’t make great slightly seedy older men at present), there’s an awakening of the scenes that we hope to affect when we bring people to these places and tell them stories in this manner. It’ll inevitably register very differently than it did in 1983, but we’re okay with that. We’re not trying to display a museum piece, we’re trying to keep things vibrant. For ourselves as much as for you, making sure our assumptions about the piece are good ones is where we’re at now. In the mean time, we get to look forward to sharing all this reflection with you in the coming months!