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This is the book I’m most looking forward to this year

And it’s a reprint, and I already own the original:

It’s that good.

For those who don’t already know about him, Robert Ashley is one of the most intriguing and significant American composers of the past forty years. (Peter Greenaway devoted one fourth of his Four American Composers miniseries to him, along with John Cage, Philip Glass, and Meredith Month; you can watch all four parts at UbuWeb.) Ashley is also a talking artist, akin to David Antin, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson, and Spalding Gray. He also hosted a short-lived TV program entitled Music with Roots in the Aether (1975), which featured appearances by David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley. (And you can watch and listen to those episodes, and read more about them, at UbuWeb.)

Robert Ashley (date and photographer unknown).

Perfect Lives is the libretto of Ashley’s opera-for-television of the same name (you can order it on CD and DVD here), which he wrote and developed and premiered in the late 1970s / early 1980s in collaboration with several other artists—”Blue” Gene Tyranny, John Sanborn, and Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem (the couple on the cover of the Dalkey edition):

It’s one of my favorite artworks ever made. Indeed, despite my already owning the libretto, I take time to transcribe the opera’s final movement, “The Backyard,” once every year (usually around the summer solstice); it is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I’ve ever read. An excerpt (from my transcription, which I carry around on my thumb drive, and peek at often):

She thinks about her father’s age.
She does the calculations one more time.
She remembers sixty-two.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
She remembers forty-two.
“Remembers” is the wrong word.
She dwells on forty-two.
She turns and faces it.
She watches.
She studies it.
It is the key.
The mystery of the balances is there.
The masonic secret lies there.
The church forbids its angels entry there.
The gypsies camp there.
Blood is exchanged there.
Mothers weep there.
It is night there.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
That number translates now to then.
That number is the answer, in the way that numbers answer.
That simple notion, a coincidence among coincidences, is all one needs to know.
My mind turns to my breath.
My mind watches my breath.
My mind turns and watches my breath.
My mind turns and faces my breath.
My mind faces my breath.
My mind studies my breath.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself.
My mind sees every part of my breath.
My breath is not indifferent to itself.

(Now I have Robert Ashley’s voice reverberating in my head—a thoroughly pleasant experience! Once you’ve heard him perform this piece, it’s impossible to read it without echoing his cadence.)

A description of Perfect Lives from the Dalkey site:

Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as a crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it all the next day. With this story at its center, Robert Ashley’s inimitable Perfect Lives goes on to demolish every narrative convention in the book, taking in conflicting perspectives, texts, tones, narrators, formal constraints, and philosophies, roping in Midwestern ennui, theosophy, road trips, pop songs, self-help tapes, daytime television, heist movies, the lost city of Atlantis, preachers, dirty jokes, the history of American immigration, the preternatural flatness of Illinois, rhythms from the avant-garde to boogie-woogie, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, and, finally, an elegy for thought itself. Perfect Lives is as much a summation of American thought as All in the Family or Patterson, and is every bit as essential.

I simply can’t wait!

[Update: See also this.]

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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