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Positive Feedback ISSUE 41
january/february 2009


Psychedelic Opera
by Albert Grantowski


Perfect Lives: An Opera for Television, CD 4917 (3 CDs). Lovely Music

I was going to review one of Robert Ashley's latest releases, Now Eleanor's Idea. But, on the assumption that few PF readers know Ashley, I must, to give him the honor he is due, first introduce his masterpiece, Perfect Lives. Forgive a simple outpouring of adjectives about this work: miraculous, hypnotic, transcendent, life-changing. The last is indeed true: This work changed my life, stirring in me rumblings of poetry and appreciation of the music of everyday speech. Not everyone will respond as I did, but all for whom I have played parts of this opera at least respected it.

If operas have story, characters, voices, and instruments, this is an opera. But don't expect any operatic conventions, not even singing (only some sing-songing). Ashley (The Narrator) speaks, almost deadpan, earnestly, sweetly, in a slightly husky voice—echoed, interrupted, anticipated, and glossed by Jill Kroesen (Isolde) and David Van Tieghem (the Captain of the Football Team). "Blue" Gene Tyranny "plays" the World's Greatest Piano Player.

The star of the piece is Ashley's voice—sui generis, a phenomenon, existing, to all appearance, in itself, divorced from corporeality. (In the video of the opera, Ashley is a platinum blond, 30ish man, bedecked in shiny MC clothes, glitter glistening his hair.)

The rhythms of his speech are the rhythms of our speech. I realized this recently while reading my daughter's early reader chapter book. You can hear it for yourself here. Ashley's text is filled with evocative images, word play, fragments of hermetic wisdom, opaque metaphysics, and hints of paranormal understanding. Tenderness and longing and sadness for some obscure loss suffuse much of the work. Weird beauty pervades it all.

The Park, the first of seven 25 minutes parts, opens with a thumping pulse and dreamy synthesizer. Tyranny's supple, improvised piano enters. Then Ashley begins:

He takes himself seriously. Motel rooms have lost their punch for him. The feeling is expressed in bags. There are two and inside those two are two more. It's not an easy situation, but there is something like abandon in the air. There is something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.

And you enter a new world, moving and mesmerizing. The liner notes describe a plot involving a perfect crime committed by Isolde and the Captain of the Football Team, but even with the libretto, ambiguities and digressions—elopement, an old couple in a supermarket, a bartender's wife's boogie woogie piano lessons, time travel—swallow the plot. It doesn't matter.

One listens for the voice, the language, the mood, and the cosmic, uber-lounge piano noodling of Tyranny. This is true psychedelic music. Most psychedelic music expresses altered states of consciousness or simulacra thereof, too often in stale conventions. Perfect Lives induces altered states.

This music will not show off your system. It will show off your eccentric and sophisticated taste. It may show you a new way.

N.B. If the price of a three CD set seems a large venture for an eccentric musical experience recommended by a reviewer of doubtful discrimination, consider the single CD Private Parts: The Record, which consists of versions of the first and last (and best) parts of the complete opera. The stripped down orchestration—"Kris" on tabla and Tyranny on keyboards—and Ashley's more somber tone create a sad, sublime, and utterly compelling listening experience. You feel as if you have experienced a great truth, but you don't know what it is.