A Seamless Merger of Poetry and Sound: the Wonder of 'Perfect Lives'
“Dear George, what’s going on? I’m not the same person that I used to be."
Perfect Lives, released in 1984, is an avant-garde American television series consisting of seven 25-minute episodes, all written by Robert Ashley and directed by John Sanborn. It is also a seminal work of 20th-century music, literature, and video art. Perfect Lives combines mediums in a unique and radical way, resisting categorization and often comprehension. Perhaps it is too quirky or experimental to ever enjoy wide popularity, but for the curious few who engage, the experience is utterly entrancing.
Robert Ashley, the composer and author of Perfect Lives, described it and many of his other works as opera, mostly for the word's connotations of musical storytelling. Unlike almost all other operas, Perfect Lives has no singing and no score; the only element common to all versions is the text, which is read aloud by one or more performers with optional musical accompaniment. The television series is its most famous and canonical realization (and is the primary focus of this article), but thanks to its open-ended nature, it has been adapted and performed differently by several groups.
It is notoriously difficult to describe what Perfect Lives is about. The central event is a bizarre, philosophically motivated bank robbery, where all the money is stolen from the vault, unknowingly transported to Indiana and back, and returned in full the next day, causing ripples through time and space that impact every character. However, the plot is so veiled, and the drama so minimal, as to make following any particular thread of the story rather difficult even on repeat viewings.
The text poetically meanders between topics, modes of speech, and perspectives, mapping out a large and loosely connected web of ideas. Just as much as it's about the bank robbery, it's about reincarnation, boogie-woogie, agriculture, romance, Midwestern geography, American consciousness, and how people talk to each other.
The reincarnation aspect is perhaps the most prominent and moving layer of allegory in the text. Ashley was heavily inspired by the Bardo Thodol, more popularly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was meant to be read to the dying to help their soul navigate the liminal stage between death and rebirth (1). A lengthy meditation appears in the first episode, “The Park,” where a lounge singer ponders how one realizes that “the light has changed,” a reference to visions experienced during this transitory period. The final episode, “The Backyard,” acts as a counterpart, with a group of locals gathering to celebrate “the changing of the light” at sundown; a description of sky colors as sunset transforms to dusk doubles as a metaphor for a character’s spiritual ascension. It’s even possible to read the heist and return of the money in the bank as a reincarnation in an unordinary sense.
The text also contains explicit references to camera angles and motions, outlining a cinematic component even before it was adapted for the screen. “The Living Room” is framed as a “typical two-shot,” capturing the sheriff and his wife in the figurative frame as they quietly converse. A close-up of the bartender’s tattoo begins “The Bar,” before slowly zooming out to include two musicians who have just entered, much to his chagrin. Perhaps the neatest example comes in “The Park,” used as an extended metaphor for death:
“In this scene, there are two shots. The park and all its details, frozen in time, broken on the right edge, sometimes up to ⅔ across the frame, by the body of a person, very close, blurred, moving almost rhythmically; we have just begun and already we are stuck.”
John Sanborn, the director of the television version, uses these directions merely as a jumping-off point for a radical and irreplicable visual language which might be best described as public-access psychedelia. Ashley assigned a specific geometric template to each episode (e.g. a centered circle in “The Church,” or two upward-sloping lines in “The Supermarket”), which Sanborn would use to frame and align his shots (2). This establishes a subtle continuity as he superimposes scenes and captions onto each other and dissolves between them, at times creating a gentle form of sensory overload. The focus moves frequently between the "action" of the story, the narration and piano playing in the studio, and a charming variety of early computer graphics used to impressive effect.
In the television version, the text is read aloud by Robert Ashley, playing the narrator character "R,” and his iconic daydream-like vocal delivery brings out the text's subjective and surreal essence. Often, he articulates words and phrases in an unusual fashion, reflecting his interest in the sound of spoken language and all of its peculiarities. Ashley is joined frequently by performer-composers Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem, who act as a pseudo-Greek chorus, interjecting with idioms or comments on the competency of the narration. These three also represent several characters each on screen, creating frequent ambiguity about who is actually being represented.
The final member of Perfect Lives’ main cast is "Blue" Gene Tyranny, who portrays Buddy, a character with the title of "The World's Greatest Piano Player." Also a composer in his own right, Tyranny designed a syncretic mode of piano improvisation for the opera, seamlessly synthesizing jazz, rock, classical, and avant-garde influences. His stylish accompaniment and solos, bolstered by Peter Gordon's electronic backgrounds, often offer oblique commentary on the text and are critical to the sound of the opera. In fact, the harmonic structures and several pianistic gestures that Tyranny developed appear in almost all subsequent theatrical adaptations.
All of these efforts combine to make Perfect Lives greater than the sum of its parts. Without any genre conventions or linear narrative to hang onto, the best way to make sense of it all is free association, letting the words, images, and music slowly coalesce into a fuzzy whole. In fact, Ashley didn’t intend the viewing experience to be a primarily intellectual one, as the following quote reveals:
“[Ashley’s operas] are pure television. They are meant to be heard and seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work. They are meant to be seen many times. The details pile up, and finally there is a glimmer of the larger idea. This is my idea of opera.”(3)
While rewatching has merit for all great media, I’ve found great joy in gradually discovering the cosmology of Perfect Lives. I often find phrases bouncing around my head, each one a tiny jewel of insight wrapped up in equal parts poetry and Midwesternisms, and the casual way it transcends mediums still amazes me every time. I can’t recommend this enough to anyone with an open mind, an occasional 25 minutes to spare, or a penchant for weird and wonderful art.
Perfect Lives is available to watch at ubu.com/film/ashley_perfect.html.
(1 Gann, Kyle. Robert Ashley. University of Illinois Press, 2012. pp. 64-65.
(2 Hagen, Charles. “Breaking the Box: The Electronic Operas of Robert Ashley and Woody Vasulka.” Art Forum, Mar. 1985, pp. 55-59.
(3 Robert Ashley. “Speech as Music” from Outside of Time: Ideas about Music. Cologne, MusikTexte, 2009. pp. 76-78.