Ashley's Perfect Lives proposed a new terrain for music
and television. It was not music video, yet its structure,
character development and narrative acknowledged the norms
of television programming, as if Ashley had taken a template
from everyday life as televised and converted it. Scene from
Episode Five "The Living Room" from Perfect LIves
an opera for television (1983).
Photo credit: Gwen Thomas.
June 25, 1992
After we talked
I started having second thoughts about my promise to write
something and I decided finally that I shouldnt try.
All because I seemed to have lost the vision. Its hard
to describe, but at the moment Im having a hard time
imagining anything I might wish for and especially anything
of mine being on TV. The situation seems so drab and desperate.
I mean second-hand violence, sports close-ups, people slumped
in chairs and talking. What are we doing? But a promise is
I believe that
just one channel in every city devoted to a different kind
of timeworld and to some form of meditation and spiritual
dignity and to imagery offered without reproach would change
everything. You would think that somebody would be able to
see that and make it happen. But what are the chances? Even
that idea would get a bad review. So I am not in a good mood.
Still, I wanted
the article to be positive in some way -- to make a contribution,
not just to nag, and I thought that one way to get something
readable into it might be to go back in time, hoping that
I might have been more optimistic then. It turns out that
quoting from letters and interviews makes them sort of impersonal.
In some cases I dont even recognize that I wrote them.
Thats nice. Because of Felix, I picked
things that were about TV or music-for-television.
for me to think in terms of television, even if I cant
work much as a composer of opera "in television."
Outside of television, nothing much will change as far as
my chances to have a work developed by an opera company apart
from my own. If anything my chances have gotten worse because
the motives in the opera world are more or less the same ones
we see in TV. As far as my own "company" goes, it
gets better all the time, but it is definitely a low budget
operation as "opera" is defined in our expectations.
So I keep on making the work in a form for television and
hoping that things will change eventually (and in my lifetime.)
The reason I havent
worked with opera-for-motion pictures is mainly a technical
one. Motion picture production stops every minute or so and
repeats what has just been done in order to "improve"
it. The idea of movies is that there is really only one version,
and your job is to find it. The idea of movies is to create
time captured. Like memory. I would like something more timeless,
like music. I would like the audience to feel that what they
are seeing would have taken place whether or not the camera
The way I work
on developing a new piece is exactly the way its always
been done in music. By the time I got PERFECT LIVES
on tape we had performed it hundreds of times. There were
thousands of hours of history in the piece, so the recorded
version is only one version of the opera. Its not meant
to be the version. The idea is to be able to
feel that quality in hearing and seeing the television broadcast.
This quality is hard to get when you have to commit to a tape,
but I think John Sanborn did a good job. I had imagined that
we could actually do the television assembly (or assemblies)
live from seven isotapes, with as many different versions
as there were directors who wanted to make one, as is the
reason for different performance versions of a piece of music.l
But I couldnt persuade anybody of the wisdom of that
idea, so finally we had to go to the "definitive"
version. Now more than ever, nine years later, I wish I had
the piece on seven isotapes.
I use things that
have happened to me and that seem important now because I
havent been able to forget them. I have a problem of
thinking that what has happened to me is the only thing I
can really understand. PERFECT LIVES, for instance,
is mostly a collection of ideas I got from things that were
said in my presence, either said to me or that I merely overheard.
Many of those sayings are verbatim in the text. At one level
the opera is a collection of dozens of short portraits of
real people, all of whom are more or less "invoked"
by the characters in the plot.
I worked on ATALANTA
(ACTS OF GOD) in performance for five years. There were
about forty performances. Maybe more. I composed new musical
materials and new scenes for every performance so that no
two would be the same. So that no two audiences would see
the same piece. In order to make every performance have a
"mythical" reputation. In order that the opera would
have the form of a myth. In honor of the subject, which is
about where we come from as Americans. Finally, for the last
performances in London in 1987 the opera lasted more that
nine hours over three performances. I stopped doing it then.
The myth was as complete as it could be. Then I edited it
to four and a half hours of libretto and score for television.
Now I dont know what to do. It is, so far, too huge
to be produced. One lesson is dont work too big.
Remember that a
long time ago there was the ideal of wanting to know every
thing in order to be wise. That was a long time ago (1000
years, I read this), so we assume that then everything was
not too much to want. Even when I was much younger there were
moments when I was sad that I had wasted my life, because
it seemed that with more devotion I could have known everything
and been wise. I think that wish would be impossible now.
Now all information is just exemplary, because there is so
much of it. I think TV has taught us that.
In one kind of
music the ideal is to create the image of music in general
so that the listener is caused to "compose" when
listening. The listener has opinions. This might actually
be happening in TV. I cant tell. Certainly it happens
for me, but I cant tell how general it is in the population
of TV watchers. Usually, though, what happens for me happens
for everybody eventually.
In music the ideal
of reading the music at sight has been made obsolete by sample
software. What we require now is authority of interpretation.
This has been absent from the avant garde for at least a generation.
Same thing for TV, except it translates into access to technical
ideas. I cant forgive TV anymore if it doesnt
I dont think
my music is much different in the matter of self-consciousness
than most other serious music. The question of what "entertains"
you is complicated. I dont know why anybody goes to
anything. I know the reasons I go, but I dont know about
anybody else. I am perfectly happy listening to music even
while Im self-conscious. In fact, I think thats
supposed to be the idea. Why else would we need music? When
I go to a concert I dont forget about the suffering
outside. I am listening to the music and thinking at the same
time. In some way I am "comparing" the musical experience
to the thought. I would expect everybody else to do that too.
Its the civilized thing to do.