Robert Ashley’s Non-Human Arias

This was a talk I gave at the Rhetoric Society of America Conference a few years back. An audio version of the talk is here.

In summer 1989, couch-surfing cross country, I picked up this CD, knowing nothing about the composer or the composition, but noticing it was a long piece probably suitable for driving long stretches of road. This accident, and all the variables surrounding it, changed the way I heard music, the way I lived in and saw the world. 

Over the years, few of my room-mates, friends, girlfriends, or casual acquaintances I’d sometimes corner at parties, shared my enthusiasm for his work. Now, my wife doesn’t like it when I play him in the house, saying “I already have a voice inside my head that goes on like that. I don’t need another” and even some of my musicologist friends either dismiss him as ambient music or claim that I’m listening to him wrong: his is the kind of music you leave on while you’re doing other stuff around the house. It’s music to be heard, not listened to. 

(Note: this perception has changed somewhat, recently, after Robert Ashley’s death.)

 So on the release of Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric and this panel’s suggestion that we might put something together on sound, I thought I would take this opportunity to dig into whatever scholarly work had been done on Perfect Lives. The first piece I found, opened with the following: “of the many things that can be said about _Perfect Lives_, the most important one to consider is that it is a failure.”

So at least for the purpose of this presentation I am putting the music criticism aside and focusing instead on what I see as the generative potential of this opera for work in object oriented rhetoric, by describing a few of its key scenes, not on what they mean but how they make meaning. It is my hope that this description will carve out a space for the opera to be considered as a unique form of epideictic persuasion. 

To enter the world of Robert Ashley is to enter a world of oftentimes commonplace rhythms, spoken observations, vocals that do not attempt to distinguish themselves in vocal registers but simply blend into the musical landscapes surrounding them. Listening intentionally, though, one finds layers of unexpected complexity: musical and verbal cliches coupled with profound insights. 

Perfect Lives is an opera centered around four characters, who hatch a plan to steal all the money from a small town bank in Illinois, carry it over the border into Indiana, drive the money back to IL the following day, put it back in the bank vault surreptitiously, and then let the entire world know that it was once missing. With this high stakes, conceptual art project at its center, the opera weaves together discussions of teenage love, marriage, Tourette’s syndrome, and selfhood with diverse topics like Giordano Bruno, boogie woogie, immigration, language, and the end of human thought–all the while performing invented pop songs, self-help treatises, marriage ceremonies, and philosophical dialogues. 

But what is key is the way that the opera makes its meaning. Traditionally, opera works from a grand central narrative with high drama, elaborate sets, and a libretto meant to emphasize human subjectivity, emotions and decisions. Perfect Lives, by contrast, levels the human with its environment (has the environment become a character in its text). For example, in the episode “The Bar,” the character Buddy, a writer of teach yourself boogie-woogie books, and the character Rodney, a bartender whose daughter just happens to be more or less failing to learn boogie-woogie from Buddy’s books, meet up by accident. While traditional opera would set this as a conflict, this opera presents the encounter in an idiosyncratic way, by leveling human and nonhuman relations. That is to say the performers sing/speak the words of a standard boogie-woogie lick:


This boogie woogie lick, which represents for the character Rodney “Industry,” is an example of what Rodney believes separates us from the animals. Rodney’s view is challenged, though, by the composition of the piece, when Ashley juxtaposes the boogie-woogie lick with what he refers to as the “cowlick:”

Chew Crash Blink

Chew Crash Blink

Crash Left Foreleg Forward

Crash Left Foreleg Forward

Crash Rear Rightleg

Crash Rear Rightleg

Forward Crash Chew Crash

Forward Crash Chew Crash

Blink Crash

Blink Crash

Etcetera, Etcetera, (Phew!)

Etcetera, Etcetera, (Phew!)

But this leveling is not obvious to Rodney, who holds on to his subjectivity and his self throughout the narrative: “It does not occur to Rodney that he could lie down with animals. The bar is bad enough.” That is to say that Rodney’s character is haunted by his own lack of subjectivity, that he is always on the border of noticing his lack of it.  

[Following Rickert’s discussions of the relationship between theorists of language and human subjectivity it could be argued that Robert Ashley represents Heidegger’s sense of being in the world, while the character Rodney represents Kenneth Burke. While there is not time in this presentation to unpack this possibility, it is sufficient to say that this opera engages this kind of leveling.] 

There are numerous other examples, notably the discussions and performances of Tourette’s syndrome (a condition that Robert Ashley lived with and which he used to generate an entire opera “Automatic Writing”), but due to the relative weight of that topic, I want to focus on just one more example in the character of Dwayne, who throughout the opera struggles with the dilemma of not being understood. 

Like the imposition of the cowlick in the Bar, in this particular episode the Aria comes at what would normally be a moment of peak conflict, when a preacher asks if there is any man or woman in the congregation who knows for any reason why the couple he is marrying should not be joined. Duane uses this moment to say the following:

Duane’s Aria

Dwayne, my name is three sounds in one word or

Three hills or bumps, a kind of inter-something, where you can’t get  

Them apart. I keep saying to myself: Dquayne Djuayne  

Duwayne Dowayne Dewayne Dhwayne Dwayne. 

I can’t figure out how they got together. 

This attempt at stripping language of its signification through repetition is nothing new, as numerous examples can be found in literature, but what may be new and what is certainly a thread that runs through Ashley’s work is his figuring of this act in the position of aria

The open question, then, what does this have to tell us about rhetoric. My focus on these two details has led me to believe that despite what some music critics say to us Ashley should be listened to if for no other reason than to experience the performative effect of human’s being brought to the level of objects. As a genre, opera can perform what happens when characters and objects are leveled in a way that theory alone cannot. Of course, that’s essentially an argument that this opera should be studied. Enjoyment is another matter altogether, and perhaps it’s glib to want to articulate reasons for my own enjoyment of this work. But at least on the level of theory, even (maybe even especially) rhetoric will have to account for enjoyment in order to be complete. I suspect the path to this would be to artificially construct systems which illustrate to us what it means to be part (to use Rickert’s terminology) of a rhetorical lifeworld made up of “elements that lie beyond what humans can do or say” (213).


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