Iliad of the Midwest

I’ve loved Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives for 30 years, but I’d never gone through it line by line until this last couple of weeks. I frequently teach scenes 1 (“The Park”) and 4 (“The Bar”). But scene 6, “The Church,” is the climax of the piece in terms of word density and everything else, and while I had certain passages memorized, I’d never pieced the throughline together. It is absolutely astonishing. The scene is Ed and Gwyn’s elopement in Indiana, and the marriage sermon gives them the three rules, which represent three eons of human history: 

1. Don’t talk to yourself
2. Speak only when you’re spoken to
3. Make sense

“Don’t talk to yourself” is a reminder that talk isn’t a part of understanding, but a habit, an arrangement of sounds. The arrangement requires a partner, and thus, historically, marriage followed conversation. “Don’t talk to yourself” means to stop arranging things when you’re alone, and to not use for yourself what belongs to all of us: sounds. “Speak only when you’re spoken to” represents the dilemma of the second historical eon, in which humankind struggled to reconcile its arrangements of marriage and religion, leading to the third eon, in which we make sense: “we have accomplished ourselves, / (Or invented man, as The Philosopher says).” 

The background here is that Ashley was, at the time, immersed in a 1976 book that I also read when it was new, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’s theory was that the ancients, for example the ancient Greeks, had no communication between the hemispheres of their brain, and received messages from the right hemisphere that seemed to come from outside, and they interpreted those messages as the voice of gods. So, for instance, Agamemnon hearing the voice of Apollo was actually hearing an auditory hallucination from his own brain. Later man learned to integrate the two hemispheres, so the voices no longer sounded like they were coming from outside. The book was controversial at the time, but the nitwits at Wikipedia seem to suggest that it has withstood scrutiny. (All the cockeyed ideas I ingested about left brain/right brain theory started with that book.) At the other end, Ashley was convinced at the time that he had a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, in that he sometimes had to leave parties to let off an involuntary stream of words – and it was in recording those words that Perfect Lives began. So he’s actually tracing a presumed history of consciousness from when speech was involuntary and hallucinatory (the eon before “Don’t talk to yourself”) to its use in creating social connections to its reflexive function in a narrative that gives life meaning – the increasingly conscious employment of language. Ed and Gwyn’s wedding is thereby contextualized at that point in human evolution; on top of which, the vegetarian Theosophist Ed is modeled on a guy Ashley knew in high school who wanted to marry his sister, and who is further described in his opera Dust, and so on. The levels never end.

Also Ashley, let us not forget, was kept from getting a music doctorate by my book’s arch villain Ross Lee Finney, so instead he worked at the U. of Michigan Speech Research Lab, funded by Bell Laboratories, doing groundbreaking research on the causes of stuttering. And so Ashley’s given a lot of thought to the purpose and origins of speech for several decades, and the basic idea of his life’s work since 1978 is that language is music. Some people refuse to consider him a composer because they can’t understand this simple, crucial, and scientifically defensible point. His opera Foreign Experiences is full of profanity because profanity is how we slow speech down and attend to its sound rather than its sense; and one of my favorite Ashley lines is one I haven’t retraced to its source yet: “Who could speak if every word had meaning?” And threaded through his operas you find fragments of an epistemology and a philosophy of language, as in “The Church”:

Language has sense built in. It’s easy to 
Make sense. To make no sense is possible,
But hard. Language does not have truth built in.
It’s hard to make truth, which is to stop the search. 

So for Ashley language is an arrangement of sounds (“Sound is the only thing we can arrange”) that is really music, and its meaning is secondary to its interpersonal and aesthetic functions of binding us together and clarifying our arrangements. He says that Jacqueline Humbert (Linda in Improvement: Don Leaves Linda) and his son Sam pick up the intentions of his operas instantly because they’re both from southern Michigan and can catch his inflections: in other words, his operas are about the music of the way southern Michiganders speak.

Now, there are three reactions you can have to all this, and I have all three at once: This is crazy; This is unbelievably profound; and, There’s some scientific or historical truth being presented in this oblique way, and I ought to be able to tease it out. But it’s all poetry, and so resists both paraphrase and explanation. Perfect Lives is, I’ve become convinced, one of the great epic poems in the English language, the Paradise Lost of postmodernism. Ashley is the perfect new composer for nonmusicians, because his operas deal with crucially essential stuff outside the music world. You have to read a lot of books to fully trace Ashley’s steps, and I’m going to have to write my own book and then read those books: otherwise I won’t know what I’m looking for. For instance, I read in Lama Anagarika Govinda’s introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead that the “illusoriness of
death comes from the identification of the individual with his temporal,
transitory form, whether physical, emotional, or mental”; and it hits me that, in “The Park,” Raoul de Noget muses, 

Everything in the transitory category turned out to be
the particulars of our existence,
and these were divided into physical, mental, and others
that were neither physical nor mental.

The more I read Ashley and listen to the details and try to thread it all together, the more awestruck I am. What some commenter here said of Charles Ives is true of Ashley too: he’s so incredible that people can’t believe someone can be that brilliant and insightful and prophetic, so they just assume there’s some hoax going on: the confederacy of dunces phenomenon. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a more profound figure in the history of music.


  1. says

    Thank you, Kyle for this. I’ve always felt Bob to be a great poet. In fact, when we read together two years ago at St. Marks, the poetry world was wowed by his words and, of course, by his delivery of them. When asked to blurb the forthcoming edition of Perfect Lives from Dalkey Archive, this is what I had to say:
    “Literature has always been at the heart of Robert Ashley’s practice; and Perfect Lives is a masterpiece of literature by our most important living composer. By isolating modes of normative speech patterns, he’s opened our eyes to the beauty and tragedy of the mundane. Perfect Lives is a long talk poem, one which extends an ongoing conversation — from Gertrude Stein to Jerry Springer — about what American talk can be; and by extension, what it means to be American.”
    KG replies: Thanks, it’s nice to hear from you.

  2. says

    A former boss who was an ex-Sociology-Prof used to say that the lexical meaning of the words is the least important content-carrier in spoken language, and that these three elements carry meaning more weightily to listeners (and I don’t remember what order they came in):
    1. Rate of speech.
    2. Volume.
    3. Tone of voice.
    In other words (not the former sociology prof’s words, but mine, a musician’s), the three most communicative elements of spoken language are:
    1. Tempo.
    2. Dynamics.
    3. Timbre.
    Language is music, not metaphorically, and not only sonicly, but functionally. Speech functions by means of music.
    I should track that ex-professor down and ask him his source. His spiel has always made deep intuitive sense to me, borne out by my own observation, but I’m curious now to know the actual research.
    I’ll try to track down Ashley’s librettos. Thanks.
    KG replies: Perfect.

  3. Eric Shanfield says

    This reminds me: I’ve always been curious – what does an Ashley score look like?
    KG replies: A text with beats and line counts marked off, and an occasional melodic idea scribbled into the margin; MIDI files; reference charts for the various technical assistants; maybe a chord chart for “Blue” Gene; and a recording.

  4. todd levin says

    I feel that Ashley’s “Atalanta – Acts of God” is an even clearer distillation of the salient points you make with regards to “Perfect Lives – Private Parts.” I did my thesis on “Atalanta…” in 1985/6, and recorded eight hours of interviews with Ashley speaking at length about “Atalanta…” and “Perfect Lives…,” as well as discussing “Now Eleanor’s Idea,” which became the final summation of that grand cycle.
    KG replies: Hi, Todd – wow, I didn’t know you did that. I’d love to read it.

  5. Todd Levin says

    Well, KG, the thesis is not as good as it should be. I was too young, and not intellectually prepared. The interviews, however (to me, at least), are pure gold dust. There’s no where else that RA holds forth at such length about his compositional history, approach, style and motivation/influences in such detail. It should really be published somewhere (in a redacted/edited form, of course) somewhere, just for the simple benefit of those who love RA’s work. Imean – it’s eight hours of him talking – and getting progressively more tipsy on bourbon!