Words and Spaces An Anthology of Twentieth Century Musical Experiments in Language and Sonic Environments Stuart Saunders Smith and Thomas Delio editors and contributors _1989 University Press of America 2349w

[continuation from previous file]

It is an important technical point that the materials on the prerecorded tape should seem, for the purposes of illusion (that is, for the purpose of the relationship of what is seen to what is heard), an illusionistic amplification of the characters on stage only. That is, in the setting of the telling of the story, The Perfect Lives Lounge, there is no hidden orchestra. There is just "the four of us..." What is hidden is the technique of the illusion, which is the day to day invention of the amplification of the characters on stage.

The relationship of the parts on tape to the live invention among the performers is not fixed. Parts appear and disappear according to (and in "inspiration of") the performer's invention. In other words, the opera has a fifth character: the audience in The Perfect Lives Lounge, the active perceiver of the illusion. This role (job) is given to Peter Gordon, the musical producer on the opera project. He decides how the materials on the prerecorded tape are used. He is assisted in this by Marc Grafe in the live performances on tour. (Postscript: the final mixing of the television recording of Perfect Lives was done by Paul Shorr.)

The illusion, the active transformation of the performers' parts, serves to move the audience attention among the performers, to isolate the performers in their roles. This is a large case of some number of people talking to themselves. The largeness is in the miracle of the common-ness of the topic. They are (all) more or less talking about the same story. How is this possible? That they are all talking more or less in harmony is another part of it. Will wonders never cease? And finally, apparently, they don't know we're here, watching, listening. How embarrassing.

Above each character or pair of characters -- most of the characters in Perfect Lives are of a pair, and on stage there is a "couple" that is (apparently) all pairs -- there is a kind of thought balloon or television set, depending on whatever.

Clearly, they are in a dream. (How embarrassing.) They think they are on television. They think that between them and the audience (?) there is the intervention of some form of electronic translation of intent that can reduce rhetoric to an almost molecular scale. They are not moving. They have forgotten something. They have forgotten distance. They have forgotten size. They think that they can think and it will be heard. They look at the camera and it looks at them. Singly. They don't look at each other. They look at the television monitor and it looks at them.

The thought balloons materialized as video tapes show us (the audience) the templates themselves, the graphic imagery and camera dynamics upon which the songs are modeled. We all dream in camera movements, now, inevitably. What did we do before the zoom, the pan, the tilt, the telephoto? In the pre-lens eras how were the pictures framed in our imaginations? ("giordano bruno comes to mind, whoever he is").

Three is always in collaboration the question of expertise, the question of the communication of shared experience. I am not a photographer. I am aggressively (with myself) not a photographer. Somewhere in the past, on a account of an almost uninterrupted series of collaborations with camera experts, I decide that I couldn't work the camera. (How Kodak strives to break the spell of imaginary seeing, to make it practical.) ("giordano bruno's shot.").

So there is the problem of the authority of the templates manifested in reality; specifically, the problem of substitution, or what to look at with the eyes, if the pictures that give rise to the music language are in the mind only; the problem of the aesthetics of illustration; the problem of the retreat from theater and its representationism (into illustrations of actualities); the problem of the television power of baseball or any other reality ("live from...") over sit-com without familiar faces: the problem of where to point the camera.

I decided that in this area (problem) it is wise not to put the problem on TV people. They are by definition on the very battle line between modernism (dreaming of the past) and what comes after, if anything. It's wise not to bother them. They have other problems.

I have, in fact, bothered artists who have no vested interest in television, but who watch TV. The problem of substitution, or what to look at with the eyes, is, for me, the problem of finding imagery (as in finding sounds in the recording studio, because they are nowhere else to be found) that does not mis-illustrate. In other words, at every point along the line of constructing an illustration of the source image (on tape) there have to be materials "around" that equal, in the variety of their usefulness and application, the materials one finds in the recording studio.

Visualizers have been slow, on the whole, to allow themselves this art. One hopes that electronics for pictures will pick up the pace somewhat. In the meantime, not electronically, I am working with Mary Ashley and Jackie Humbert, who are excellent in making things to look at where there were none.

Technique is no problem. Technology can satisfy the rules faster than they can be made. A famous television engineer said to me, "There is not picture I can't bring up to TV standards". Why, just last night I saw pictures from Iran that apparently were composed of every fifth scan at best. Boy, they were beautiful.

So, it's pure aesthetics, the question of substituting illustration, which is "evanescent" (i.e., timely) for representation, which is burdened with intent. I like the feeling of first decisions, unreconsidered, un"cut". Music has evolved (or not lost) this technique, reluctantly, and in music it is a "standard", however bizarrely applied, e.g. "He made the Beethoven come alive."

In television only the awesome power of our fascination with "sports" has held back the death grip of the film mentality. Still, every year we face a new round of British Drama or some other poisonous replacement for fun by dopes who are, I guess, too tired at night to see what they have put on TV for us. The argument is that "people watch". The fact is: what else is there to do? The fact is: real-time is more difficult (read: "money"). But the evidence is that real-time is the greatness of TV. Mythical slob drinking beer on Sunday afternoon is not watching baseball, he's watching television. Each and every decision is a pure thrill. Carson is King for a reason.

So the "problem" in Perfect Lives is to make something that is not finished, to make something that always has the form of a first decision, unreconsidered, un"cut".

The "vision", which is the template, is a dynamic one. Every time I look again the picture has changed. That's why the paragraphs are so short. That's why the image upon which the episode is based doesn't tell the story, or have eventfulness. It is, the image, an illustration only of some deeper image that has meaning that is (probably) inherited, or passed on.

So, almost any picture will do, as long as it fits the template, which is dynamic: the pan (or "seeking"), the aggressive zoom (or "domination"), the tile (or "wonder" or "detachment"), the zoom out (or "rhetoric"), the two-shot (or "study"), the telephoto (or "confusion of the senses" or "illusionism" in its pure form), the truck (or "daydream"). See what I mean?

I have two collaborators in this: Carlota Schoolman, technically the producer, and actually one of the founders of video art: and John Sanborn, director, cameraman and video artist, who is very generous with his imagination.

Ideally, we will assemble seven isotapes for each episode, which for the decision maker, the Television Director, should present the same opportunities (for glory and for mistakes) as the average home game. Actually, (depending on the budget) four isotapes and three cameras would be best, but I will settle for the seven isotapes: three that are "illustrations" of the various domains of the characters in performance (e.g., The Narrator, "R"; The Piano Player, "Buddy"; and "The Couple", sung by Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem, that changes by episode) -- that is, "illustrations" of the locales of the story, some inhabited and some not, in a variety of detail. And a fourth tape that simply illustrates the text itself, in case things musical get too thick and the words are hard to understand. The other three inputs, whether cameras or tapes, are of the characters themselves, playing and singing, i.e., the action, live from the Perfect Lives Lounge.

I suppose that, eventually, the decisions in cases like this will be left to the TV audience itself. It seems to be moving in that direction. But for now a television version of Perfect Lives (Private Parts) will be a "performance" for the person, the TV Director, who has the ingredients of the story at his/her fingertips, so to speak.

If the audience is not at home, with its seven television sets and matching transponders or its effects-switcher and wall-size monitor, then, ideally, in "live" performance there should be a comparable distancing of the action from the observer(s). "Blue" Gene, Jill and David and the Narrator are playing to the cameras and their monitors. It is purposeful to me to present an audience with the same amplification of apparent distance between the "image", filtered through the template, and the source of the manifestation of that image (the monitor) as I experienced in allowing the "image" to be amplified, in time, in the text; that is, in the manifestations of the text in sound.

This is my idea of opera or television, depending.

Postscript to and So It Goes, Depending Postscript to "... Depending March, 1986 [excerpts]

It didn't turn out that way of course. Money was the problem. Even though the opera project was fully prepared and ready for production through (1) funding from state and federal agencies and (2) four years of extensive touring in performance (and in this way subsidized in large part by the participating artists themselves, because the touring constitutes a kind of continuous rehearsal and development, not well paid and physically agonizing), no American television system was even vaguely responsive to the proposal.

Initial contacts with PBS (The Petroleum Broadcasting System) came to nothing and in fact got to be so embarrassing (with the specific PBS affiliate increasingly trying to exploit the reputation of the project for its own fundraising purposes) that I finally stopped answering the phone. A Vice-President (in charge of "special projects") for a major network told me (verbatim), "I wouldn't try to put opera on (this network), if I had God playing the lead..." and then, "My job is to make dreck for Middle-America." When I suggested that I was from "middle-America" (whatever that is!) and that it was my impression that middle-America might be less than happy with the "dreck" (in spite of what we are led to believe from the "surveys," I know dozens of ordinary people who have virtually stopped watching TV, except for sports and news, and quite a few families who no longer own a television set: this is no exaggeration!), our conversation moved toward a quick conclusion.

So, the production and postproduction funding for Perfect Lives came from Channel Four in Great Britain, for which I have to be amazed and grateful....

For me, then, the irony of this postscript report on Perfect Lives is that, while I have produced (outside of the "industry") two opera-for-television projects (Music With Roots in the Aether, 1976, and Perfect Lives, 1983, the first of which has been played for tens of thousands of persons in closed-circuit and on minor, cable broadcasts, and the second of which has been broadcast in "Prime Time" twice in Great Britain and once on Austrian Television, with rather flattering reviews), the prospects of either of them being seen by American audiences are still virtually minimal;....

= 3 = ROBERT ASHLEY was born in 1930 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. he is known as a pioneer in the development of large-scale, collaborative performance works and new forms of opera. His recordings, such as She Was a Visitor and In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women and Automatic Writing, have pointed the way to new uses of language in a musical setting. His current trilogy of narrative works ("operas"), Atalanta (Acts of God), Perfect Lives, and Now Eleanor's Idea (quartet in progress), are continuations of his long-time interest in and use of visual media in conjunction with musical ideas.

Ashley was educated at the University of Michigan and the Manhattan School of Music. Later, he worked at the Speech Research Laboratories (psychoacoustics and cultural speech patterns) at the University of Michigan. During the 1960s, he was a co-organizer of the ONCE Festival, the annual Ann Arbor festival of contemporary performing arts. He organized and toured with the ONCE Group, later the Sonic Arts Union, and directed the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College (1969 to 1981).

During 1975 and 1976 he produced and directed his first TV opera, Music with Roots in the Aether (video portraits of composers and their music), which documented the work and ideas of seven major American Composers. The Kitchen in New York City commissioned Perfect Lives, an opera for TV, in 1978. It was purchased by The Fourth Channel (Great Britain) and completed in August, 1983.

Ashley is presently working on a 35-mm film entitled Odalisque, and writing a quartet of operas for stage and television. Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), the first of the quartet, was part of the National Institute for Music Theater's Workshop program in 1985 and is in final development.

Typed by Cheryl Vega 7-23-95