On September 19, 2015, opera-maker/artist Joe Diebes and I met up in Jersey City, NJ to watch the site specific episodes of Robert Ashley’s opera ‘Perfect Lives’ as staged by the performance group ‘Varispeed.’ We watched the first episode ‘The Park’ performed at an outdoor stage that was part of a street festival. While the performers moved their gear to the next location, Joe and I dipped into a nearby restaurant to talk about the beginning of the daylong performance, Robert Ashley and our own work as theater-makers. (all photos by Joe Diebes)
AS: I guess one of the things that I have been thinking about is how much of Ashley’s work is monologue based?
AS: Which, as a writer of theatre is both highly problematic and kind of narrow in a certain way, and also it’s just a huge part of the history of this work. And I have been thinking about how much work changes when you have to accommodate multiple voices at the same time.
JD: Yeah. The Ashley experience that I’ve had, seeing and hearing seven or eight of them live over the years, has always been of a very interior space, like always feeling you’re in someone’s consciousness, or even in someone’s sub consciousness at times. Sort of like interior monologue.
JD: And I think that’s the television, too. It’s like when you’re watching TV, it’s always very close, a very intimate kind of speech. So it’s interesting to put that outside, you know? Put it out on a festival stage…
JD: … in the middle of a busy, like, I don’t know what to call this, but like a farmer’s market slash carnival …
AS: Yeah, it’s bizarre.
AS: I mean, you know, the whole idea of watching TV in general is basically a solitary activity, even if you’re watching it with other people.
AS: It’s only, like, three or four other people, whoever is sitting in your living room.
AS: And so to have that be a part of a public experience feels somewhat like a violation.
JD: Uh huh.
AS: Like, do we want this guy talking about waking up in the morning and masturbating, and is that really part of the public dialogue?
JD: Uh huh.
AS: It’s a little uncomfortable, because it’s so private.
JD: Right. Yeah, there is that aspect of it for sure. I could hear the words really well. Much better than I actually could in the original video, because of the way they mixed it, I think. And also the way … I can’t remember the narrator’s name, but…
AS: Brian McCorkle.
JD: … the way he was delivering it, it was much more full voiced actually. And sort of, it wasn’t that intimate.
AS: Yeah, it wasn’t that mumble thing of…
JD: It was actually a very public speech kind of a delivery. That’s cool, there’s no reason it can’t be interpreted in a lot of different ways.
AS: That’s the thing that has always been a little bit of a question mark for me, how to interpret his work without Bob’s way of delivering it.
JD: Yeah. It’s so idiosyncratic, the way he tells a story.
AS: It’s so connected to his voice. And I think they do a good job of honoring some of the phrasing and the emphasis, which I think is actually how he notates the work in general. But also then, not necessarily doing the kind of flat mimic or something, but actually trying to let the speaker use his voice and use his own interpretive direction.
JD: Right. I think the thing that seems the truest about what I know of Ashley’s work, the thing that seems most aligned with it, is this juxtaposition of the score with something completely unpredictable, and un…you know, unprogrammed, unplanned.
JD: So I think putting it in the middle of a town where you have no idea what’s going to happen. A car is going to drive through your performance.
AS: That was amazing.
JD: Or a bunch of kids are going to start singing some group song in the middle of it, and you’re like, yeah. It reminded me of the imagery he often uses, it seems really quite disconnected in a narrative way, but then it becomes connected just by being there. Like, he had Joan Jonas come and have a cameo in one of the operas he did at La MaMa several years ago.
AS: Well, she also did the visuals for Celestial Excursions, which was at the Kitchen.
JD: I didn’t see that, actually. I didn’t know that. When she came on in the La MaMa performance, she just, you know, at one point, for about fifteen or twenty minutes, she just did a Joan Jonas drawing performance thing, and drew a dog sort of form. And that was what was going on theatrically and visually during a score that was obviously written without that in mind whatsoever. But I think he was always into that idea of having…
AS: Do you think that’s like a Cageian thing? I mean, those guys see themselves as part of that tradition on some level.
JD: I think it’s just open score.
JD: You know, open score approach.
AS: And not necessarily a literal approach. It’s not that the actor isn’t referring to something that needs to be seen visually in order for it to make sense.
JD: Right. And I think his work with instrumentalists was like that too. I’m sure they had a lot of conversations about what, you know, feel they’re going for or whatever. But I think he really embraced what other people would bring to it without necessarily knowing or…
JD: …controlling too much…
AS: That’s interesting to me too. I think about the notion of a non sequitur. Something that doesn’t necessarily connect to the other things that are going on…as some kind of subconscious or you can put it in the framework of one person imagining these disparate elements in the same place.
JD: Uh huh.
AS: But the way you’re describing it, it’s like, I’m sure he didn’t necessarily give Joan Jonas direction about what he wanted to happen.
AS: It’s like, saying, “Do what you want to do.” [Laughing].
AS: The collaborative element kind of brings that non sequitur element to the performance.
JD: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I like the idea of, you know, taking….
Waitress: You guys still need a little bit more time?
AS: No, I think we’re ready to order now.
Waitress: Okay, great. What would you like?
JD: I think we’re going to do the Filipino pork fried rice.
Waitress: Okay. The Filipino pork fried rice.
JD: And what was the other one?
AS: And the lemongrass chicken.
Waitress: All right. Lemongrass chicken.
Waitress: Okay, great. You guys want all of it coming out as it’s ready?
AS: Sure. Yeah, sure.
Waitress: Okay, great. I’ll take these for you.
Waitress: You’re good on your water?
JD: I’m good on the water. Yeah, thank you. I’m into the idea of thinking about it as an opera for television, because that’s such a fundamental part of what Perfect Lives is …
JD: …is an opera for television. I think there’s actually some pretty deep ramifications of that, if you look around here at the actual people and kids eating softees and, you know, whatever else is going on here, as television or something. I don’t know, like television has expanded into walking around on the streets.
AS: So you’re thinking about it in terms of, more the casual observer, like someone who is attending to the performance, our frame of reference, in terms of how we see things, has changed?
JD: Uh, I don’t know, or, I think I need to go through and do more of these episodes before I can really put my finger on it. But I feel like there’s something to be said for all the iPhones, you know that are…
JD: …there. And iPhones are kind of like television cameras. There’s some kind of television aspect to it. I don’t know what it is yet. I gotta figure it out. But of course television is also an anachronism now…
JD: …because it’s like, a very seventies and eighties concern or obsession, to think about TV.
AS: How do you think about describing the experience of watching things in that way? Without using the word ‘television’? I think about the word, like, “screen”.
AS: Like, my wife and I always talk about “screen time”.
JD: Uh huh.
AS: As though, it’s not about television. It’s about looking at pixels. Like, light…
AS: …being emitted through and at us, and the images that it creates.
JD: I never heard him talk about how television opera…
JD: …relates to the Internet, you know, or what he thought about it.
AS: Well, it’s telling to me that Bob didn’t do that again.
AS: Like, that was it.
JD: Yeah, I wonder if it was a partly budgetary or logistical thing. You know?
AS: Cause I know that that was paid for by a pretty big…
AS: Like a television grant that he got through someone.
JD: My understanding is that it was produced by the Almeida Festival, I think…
JD: …in London. And then The Kitchen. But also that was at, I think that was at a time when it was really pretty expensive to produce a video like that, you know? Wasn’t it like the early eighties? Was that…
AS: Yeah, early eighties.
JD: Yeah. So they had to have like, full on TV studio equipment …
AS: And probably huge cameras, and [laughing].
JD: Yeah. Like video mixers and there was a lot of post-production on the the actual video. A whole bunch of video effects and things.
AS: And the Chyron. I love the text that they put on the screen and stuff.
JD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AS: It wasn’t as easy as just putting it into iMovie and putting some, you know, some words on the screen.
JD: No. And there were these awesome, like, radial wipes and video transitions that, I mean, they would be pretty easy to do today but I think it probably required some…
AS: Oh, yeah. Huge…
JD: …like specialized studio to do it. But I think he continued to think about it in terms of television, right?
AS: I don’t know. I mean, it’s interesting to me, getting back to what we were saying before about monologues, I was thinking about how a lot of the later works have multiple voices and singers and performers, but they’re never talking to each other.
AS: And they’re never responding to each other, necessarily.
AS: They’re all just saying what’s on their mind.
AS: And they’re doing it in sequence.
JD: Right. It reminded me a little bit of like, Run DMC, you know how the main rapper is going, and then there’s these punctuations…
AS: Yeah, yeah.
JD: …just like, these…
JD: …moments of reinforcement.
AS: The chorus.
AS: There’s, some…
JD: Very contemporary with each other actually, Run DMC and Perfect Lives.
AS: Yeah. Well, you think about all the early MTV videos and stuff, like Laurie Anderson was doing those videos back then…
AS: And, you know, she was certainly more of a contemporary of Robert Ashley than she was of like Michael Jackson in that regard.
JD: Yeah. Yeah, it seems like there could be more of a forum for that. There should be more of that. Music-film, film-opera.
AS: So, Experiments in Opera is doing a program this year of six video operas.
JD: Oh, cool.
AS: Yeah. And we’re screening them at a theatre. At Anthology Film Archives.
AS: In April. Because we’re kind of interested in that as an activity.
JD: Oh, cool. Yeah, Actually I’m working on a project right now along those lines. Who’s doing it?
AS: So it’s me, Jason Cady, and Matthew Welch, are doing one and then Emily Manzo and Anna Mikhailhova.
JD: Yeah. I’m looking forward to seeing that. That’s great.
AS: But it’s interesting, just like, my piece is definitely coming out as a monologue, mostly because of, you know, production limitations and realizing if you’re going to do a shoot with someone and have it be, kind of high production values but low costs, you have to think about how you’re going to get everyone, you know, on tape in strong ways and not so many people involved, so you don’t have to pay too many salaries, and…
AS: It sort of suits itself naturally.
JD: Well, you know, video production is on par with stage production in terms of cost. It costs the same. The money you save from not having people do the same thing over and over again, you can spend on technical things and post-production…
AS: So what’s the project that you’re working on that has video?
JD: I have a couple projects, actually. One has to do with the news, from the Middle East. And how, how western news media spins or represents the Middle East in general. It’s a fairly open beginning. But the set up is a news broadcast studio, and so I’m building a set, and the idea is that it runs all day, you know, as a news gathering place … it’s kind of like a production system.
AS: Uh huh.
JD: So the, the audience would walk in, and people are processing the news. Just kind of taking off from BOTCH. This idea of real time streaming information and processing it…
JD: So it’s actually processing the newswire from Reuters and Associated Press or whatever …
JD: … and they’re vocally processing it, kind of in a similar style to BOTCH, actually…
AS: Using a lot of the same language type stuff, or…?
JD: A lot of the same kind of language, although…
Waitress: All right. Filipino pork fried rice?
JD: Yeah, thank you.
Waitress: And your lemongrass chicken with your lettuce wraps.
AS: Thank you.
JD: I’m moving towards using a more of an electronic sound bed. BOTCH was very austere in that sense.
JD: But similar vocal language. But also using the, a more recognizable frame of news anchors…
JD: … and sportscaster, and…
AS: As opposed to this abstract, like, voices in…
AS: You know, a white room kind of thing.
JD: yeah, I feel like having the news … it’s such an established frame.
AS: People bring a lot to that.
JD: Yeah, I mean, it’s actually vehemently unoriginal in the sense that it’s everywhere. Like Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live. I mean, the idea of using a newscast as a…
AS: Theatrical frame…
JD: Yeah. But I think I’d want that, because the sound is actually quite difficult to take in at first for many people, for me even sometimes. So having something … a way in, you know?
AS: Yeah, totally.
Waitress: You guys okay? You just…?
AS: Yeah, we’re fine.
Waitress: Okay, great.
JD: It’s kind of appropriate that it’s this rollicking sort of R&B like bluesy number going.
AS: This is good. I like this.
JD: What’s that? The Philippine rice?
AS: The other thing that I’m working on right now, which I’m kind of coming to grips with, is this piece that is probably going to resemble more of like sort of an epic family drama.
AS: Or like some kind of farce-like, family, four-generation kind of thing. But told in these snippet conversations.
JD: Uh huh.
AS: And told kind of continuously. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how I might try to get the actors basically to all inhabit all of the characters.
JD: So are you thinking about this like a multi part massive …
AS: No, I’m thinking about just like a longer, evening piece. Like a two hour piece…
AS: …that would be not durational, but just have a little bit more heft than like an hour or an hour and a half piece.
JD: Right. Right. Like a historical kind of family saga?
AS: Just a little, but not with like a capital “s”…
JD: Makes me think about Tolstoy or…
AS: Yeah, exactly.
JD: … it makes me think about that TV show Dallas.
AS: You know, the thing is, some of the work that’s had the most visceral impact on me as a consumer of storytelling and art, is work like that. I’m a huge Tolstoy fan, and there’s some Italian films that I saw. This one that’s called The Best of Youth, which is an incredibly moving account of this family’s basically history from the mid-twentieth century to the modern day.
JD: Oh, okay.
AS: And the politics, and drama, and some of the funny and moving, like, familial relationships as well.
AS: I just have a really big family, and they’re such a big part of my life, whether I like it or not, and…
AS: …I find myself always kind of putting things in the frame of the family dynamic or like relational history.
JD: That’s interesting. I have a very small family, but I can imagine. It’s also kind of the fundamental narrative storytelling impulse right? You know, how do you record the history of a probably very small community back in the day, like the Odyssey or…
AS: Yeah. I mean…
JD: … the family saga, house of Atreus and all that…
AS: I’m thinking about, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you know his work well?
JD: Oh, yeah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah.
AS: I like that kind of approach to storytelling, which thinks about, you know, people situated within a larger world and how to interact with…
JD: Is it something that you might actually bring to the stage?
AS: I don’t know. I’m going to try to do a workshop next spring, and see if there’s any substance there.
5 minutes later…
AS: I wanted to ask you about…
Waitress: You guys doing all right?
AS: I think we’re good.
Waitress: Okay. How was everything?
Waitress: Okay, great. So your check? Or did you want to just linger?
AS: Check is fine, yeah.
Waitress: Okay, great.
JD: Yeah, we’ll probably stay here for a little bit though.
Waitress: What’s that?
JD: I’m still eating a little bit. But yeah…
Waitress: Okay, sure.
JD: …check is fine though.
AS: Um, it’s quarter of one.
JD: Oh. Where is the…?
AS: The bank is about, let’s say about ten minutes walk away. Listening to you describe those new pieces…
Waitress: Whenever you’re ready. Have a good day. Whenever.
AS: …I was thinking about how much of your work seems like it’s connected to this idea of translation or transmission of meaning and language…
JD: Uh huh.
AS: Not necessarily direct face to face communication, like two people talking to each other about how they’re feeling or what’s going on, but more of an abstract meditation on the way that people or our society has created communication. Like on more of a societal level, or a cultural level, than it is on…
JD: Yeah, it’s a systems level.
AS: …a systems level, rather than on a personal level.
AS: I mean, that’s human. It’s human.
JD: It’s funny, because I think a little more of my sentimentality might be coming out in my next project.
AS: Is it really? [Laughing].
JD: I think a little bit. But no, I think I try to do a very direct experiment, really, with the human body and voice, putting the human body and voice in a very controlled theatrical version of what we’re in every day, but…
JD: …just isolate the variables. So it’s like the performer is in a situation where they need to process a shitload of information that’s streaming at them, that they may or may not have seen before, and they need to figure out what to do with it.
JD: Given like a few parameters, a few rules. So it’s like, structuring a little mini version of the world, I guess.
JD: Is what I’m always trying to do. Like not wanting to represent something so much as actually be an example of it, or be it…
JD: I was trying to do it with BOTCH. I don’t know if it totally came through, but we wrote all the text, all the text came from automatic writing that we did as a group…
JD: …after our rehearsal. We would have these sessions doing very difficult, often annoying tasks, and then we would just write, like free association with whatever we want. Some of us were more emotional in our output than others. Like, childhood memories…
JD: And sometimes, just like, being pissed off. [Laughing].
JD: And that was all unedited and put on the teleprompters.
JD: So sometimes there was the occasional, you know, thing that was very, like a tirade or something, or like a very sentimental memory, but then an awful lot of nonsense.
AS: But it’s interesting, thinking about systems. As a mode of expression on some level. It has sort of an idealized state. And I don’t mean ideal like as in good ideal, but just that it has a little bit more purity to it, or something like that, when you abstract a system, and you say: this is the language we’re going to use to process meaning, or…
AS: …these are the words that are going to come up, and how we respond to them and how we share them with other people is going to be based on a systematized…
JD: Uh huh.
JD: I think it’s a way of not expressing…
JD: …you know, not expressing myself. But also allowing for things to happen that are expressive, potentially.
End of Part I
Joe Diebes creates operas in which the human voice encounters algorithmic systems. Recent projects include WOW (in collaboration with Christian Hawkey and David Levine at BRIC 2014) that recombines measures from Wagner’s Meistersinger into an opera about Milli Vanilli, and BOTCH (2013 – present), a broken-word opera in which an ensemble of performers run code using only their voices. In addition to his performance work, he has also exhibited internationally his sound installations, video, and works on paper for art galleries, museums, and public spaces including Paul Rodgers/9W (New York), The ’06 Olympics (Torino, Italy), Yuanfen Gallery (Beijing), Prix Ars Electronica and the Liverpool Biennial. Currently he is working on a new opera, OYSTER, that will function as a shadow media outlet processing news feeds from the Middle East. His score for LEIMAY’s Borders can be heard at BAM in February 2016.