Following Perfect Lives

The past two days have been among the most remarkable I’ve had in years. John Luther Adams and his wife Cindy came up from the city to visit, composers Robert Carl and Ken Steen came from Hartford to attend some of the Bard festival, and we all spent part of yesterday attending the performances of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives by the New York group Varispeed, which took place in various spots west of Woodstock. Here are Robert, Ken, Cindy, and John (wearing my new hat) on my deck:


(You can click on these photos and they’ll open in better focus.) The Perfect Lives performances, which I missed when Varispeed did them in New York two years ago, were quite remarkable, uncannily true to the spirit of Ashley’s work though somewhat altered in format. A new movement was performed every two hours, each one in a different space corresponding to the setting of that scene in the opera. We arrived in time for the “Supermarket” episode, which took place in the IGA store in Boiceville (Ashley can be seen in a light blue shirt sitting in the back on the right):

Here’s Bob and John:


For each scene a different performer played the Ashley/narrator role, and at the IGA Paul Pinto (seen here a little in the back left with a microphone) did a stunning job of channeling Ashley through the store’s PA system:


With instrumentalists in pursuit they threaded up and down the isles of the supermarket, followed by a staunch Ashley crowd of about 75 who were there all day, plus dozens of shoppers who were just trying to buy groceries; one man, John told me, got disgusted and stormed out without his purchases, and I replied, “Just like a regular concert.” Ashley, meanwhile, looking pleased as punch, stood around using a grocery cart as a walker; here he’s joined by John and my wife Nancy:


The fun of having an opera meander through a grocery store, around real customers, was too fun to be believed. Ken asked me “Is this the future of opera?” I said, “I think you’re being optimistic.”

Before heading to Phoenecia for the “Church” scene, we made a slight detour to see the Maverick Concert Hall, where 4’33” was premiered, and which the others had never seen before. Though the hall was closed, they assembled in the outdoor seating as though they thought they could get a lecture out of me about it:


Singer Aliza Simons did a beautiful job in Ashley’s role presiding over the opera’s wedding scene at Phoenicia United Methodist Church, her voice at the end starting to sing more in the inflection style of Ashley regular Jacqueline Humbert:


“The Backyard” (the scenes were played out of order for logistical reasons that will be obvious if you think about it) took place in the vegetable garden of Mount Tremper Arts, the organization that bravely sponsored the marathon. As Ray Spiegel did a ripping job on tablas, Gelsey Bell sang the role of Isolde, standing in the doorway to her mother’s house, and Aliza Simons walked around the perimeter barefoot playing the occasional accordion riff:


Ashley (here with his wife Mimi Johnson standing behind him, John Luther Adams in the background) was transfixed:


It was an incredibly moving, incredibly poetic event. Unfortunately we had to get John and Cindy to a train station, and missed the last two scenes, but a Pittsburgh performance is planned that I may try to make it to. Varispeed did a phenomenal job of taking Perfect Lives apart, putting it back together their own way, and keeping the spirit completely intact.

The previous evening we had all eaten at Mexican Radio in Hudson:


Ken, Robert, John, and I are, I suppose, as simpatico a group of four composers you could find anywhere. All being ardent Ivesians, we were discussing my Ives book, and John reminded us all why he’s John Luther Adams by asking a pointed question that I, with my habitual verbosity, would have never ventured, but which elicited his usual profound results. He challenged each one of us to come up with the one word that summed up Ives’s significance for us. Ken said “Freedom.” Robert said “Miscegenation” – and then explained that what he meant by it was “reconciling irreconcilables.” John, for himself, said “Space.” And I said “Oversoul” – maybe because I’m reading too much Emerson lately, but also because a close reading of the Essays has convinced me that what Ives most valued was the suprapersonal expression that came from beyond the artist’s individual ego, which has always been a concern of mine as well. I’m sure each of us said something deep about our own music in the process.

And then, because all four composers had brought bottles of expensive scotch, we went home to continue the discussion.



  1. Jean Rigg says

    Kyle – Thanks so much for giving those of us who weren’t there a glimpse! – Jean