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Four Episodes from Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas

Intrepid visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2014 Biennial came across Vidas Perfectas, tucked away in a second-floor Film and Video Gallery, where its seven installments were presented in varying configurations over four days, as a kind of sidebar to the Biennial. This context, what one might call the modesty of the work’s presentation, seemed to give Vidas Perfectas an almost literally marginal status—which only heightened its intrinsic interest. Sealed off from the clamor of a major New York art event, a viewer who sat through successive episodes was rewarded with the sense of a parallel world unfolding inside a space the size of a storage closet.

Directed by Alex Waterman, Vidas Perfectas is a Spanish-language adaptation of the late Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, a seven-part “television opera” that has stealthily gained a cult-like following since it first aired on the UK’s Channel Four, and a handful of U.S. cable channels, in the early 1980s. As much spoken and recited as sung, Perfect Lives centers on a handful of eccentric individuals whose destinies intertwine in a small Midwestern town. The shaggy plot, which includes an elopement, and a bank robbery that is also a conceptual stunt (the money will be returned the next day), is effectively a framework for widening meditations on such themes as chance, cosmic enlightenment, and reincarnation.

As this summary suggests, it’s very much an open-ended work, and for that reason probably ripe for re-examination and reconfiguration. Vidas Perfectas meets that challenge not just with the translation (by Javier Sainz de Robles, a Spaniard, more than 20 years ago), but also by mongrelizing the original work still further, transposing it to a Southwestern milieu and finding Tex-Mex equivalents for everything from the music’s stylistic variations to the characters’ clothes and the everyday, almost humdrum locations they inhabit.

In keeping with the air of cultural hybridity, the music playing over the speakers before and between the day’s four segments was a mash-up that included Willie Nelson, brass-heavy banda, and Snoop Dogg, all combining to suggest an ideal Southwestern pirate radio station of the mind. By late afternoon an excerpt from The Rite of Spring even made it into the mix, as if in winking affirmation of Ashley’s place in the great chain of musical innovators.

Waterman was aided immeasurably by four charismatic performers: the dominant presence was Ned Sublette as Raoul de Noget, the storyteller who functions as our guide to Ashley’s universe, but critical contributions came from Elio Villafranca in the non-singing role of Buddy, “The World’s Greatest Piano Player” (based on Bud Powell), and Elisa Santiago and Raul de Nieves as the Chorus, their two voices representing the various supporting characters.

Vidas Perfectas kicked off with “El Supermercado,” and I’ll admit I was initially all lost. The segment is largely a monologue for the Raoul character, recited in an unstoppable stream-of-consciousness torrent, and with my rusty Spanish I had to content myself with absorbing occasional phrases from the flow of palabras while letting the sense take care of itself. That turned out to be all to the good, because by midway through the segment Sublette’s consistently lucid delivery took on a kind of incantatory quality, and I could appreciate that his recurring reversion to English for the single word “succotash” functioned like a paragraph break, preparing the listener for the next peroration. In an interview Waterman conducted with Ashley for BOMB magazine in 2011, the composer declared, “An American who doesn’t know Spanish is sort of out of it,” and Sublette’s performance, here and elsewhere, became stirring proof of that proposition.

(Later research revealed that Sublette was born in Lubbock and has been bilingual since childhood; among many other accomplishments, he is a scholar of Cuban music and flipped cue cards for Robert Ashley in some of Perfect Lives’ earliest staged performances in New York back in the late ‘70s.)

The dramatic crux of the entire saga, “El Banco,” encompasses both the bank robbery and the elopement, and here the bouts of narrative were broken up by club-music interludes complete with flashing disco lights, with Sublette working the mic like a border-town DJ. Elisa Santiago brought a sly sense of fun to these segments, her body language managing to suggest dance moves while she remained rooted in place, and the contrast between her and de Nieves’s imperturbable deadpan made for subtle comedy. Later on, the same good humor enlivened Santiago’s characterizations of the bank employees; in a nice touch, Villafranca switched from his keyboard to a manual typewriter to accompany the women’s testimonials.

Musically, "El Bar" was the most accessible installment of the four I saw, and would make an ideal introduction for anyone deterred by categories like television—or multimedia—opera. “Boogie-woogie” was one of the English words that leapt out of Sublette’s recital, a signal of the direction the music was going to take this time around: As a multilayered percussion track maintained a churning beat, Villafranca’s piano-playing ventured deep into jazz and R & B grooves, with a lot of nifty left-hand vamping. Over the course of nearly half an hour, the cumulative effect was hypnotic. (A tip of the sombrero is also due to Adam Bach's meticulous sound design, which kept all the elements in balance.)

With “El Patio de Atrás” (“The Backyard”), we were back in a more rarefied realm reminiscent of “El Supermercado,” lending an interesting symmetry to the day’s arrangement of the four chapters. As a handful of characters gathered to socialize and watch the sun go down, an unmistakably liturgical cast came into the music, underscored by the preacher-man affect Sublette adopted for his narration. At the same time, repeated invocations of Giordano Bruno, the freethinking theologian and philosopher burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1600, opened up new layers of speculative possibility. More than any other, this was the detail that made me want to spend time with Ashley’s original English-language text.

Is it heretical to suggest that the new, latinized Perfect Lives might one day be seen as the equal of its predecessor? At the very least Waterman and his gifted ensemble gave vivid evidence of why Ashley’s work inspires such devotion among the relatively few people who know it. The program notes claimed that all seven episodes of Vidas Perfectas will be assembled and edited for TV in the fall of this year. Where do I tune in?


Jeff Tompkins

JEFF TOMPKINS is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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