Brooklyn Rail Interviews Alex Waterman
by Timothy Nassau, The Brooklyn Rail, December -January, 2011
Vidas Perfectas, a new Spanish-language production of Perfect Lives, Robert Ashley’s visionary television opera from 1983, will premiere December 15 through 17 at Brooklyn’s Irondale Theater, with performances of the first three episodes of seven. It will take three years to complete the adaptation, which will travel to Ballroom Marfa in Texas, where the next two episodes will be performed and filming for tv will begin. From there, its future is uncertain. Timothy Nassau discussed Vidas Perfectas via e-mail with its director, composer, and musicologist Alex Waterman.
Timothy Nassau (Rail): How didVidas Perfectas come into being?
Alex Waterman: Zach Layton, Robert Ashley, and I applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2009 to present a performance version ofPerfect Lives as part of the Essential Repertoire series that Layton produces. When we applied we had it in our minds that we would just perform the music in a chamber music setting with either Robert Ashley reading, or one of his band members.
There was some time between applying and hearing back from the N.E.A., and I think we all assumed that we wouldn’t hear back. When we got the notice that we had received a grant for $5,000, it was both a blessing and a burden. It was enough to pay for some rehearsals and an informal performance that would scratch the surface, but then I realized that I wanted to go deeper than that. I went to talk to Bob and he said, “Well, I think maybe you shouldn’t be selling a used car, maybe you should build a new one.” He pulled a copy of the Spanish translation of Perfect Lives off the shelves and said, “Why don’t you do this?”
When I took the copy of Vidas Perfectas from Bob Ashley, I immediately thought about the character of Raoul de Noget and how he is a “seedy old man,” and I thought that Juan Hidalgo (from Zaj), who is Bob’s age, would be a perfect choice for the part. It would connect those two worlds in such an amazing way.
Rail: But that didn’t end up happening.
Waterman: Bob had another idea, and that was to have my wife, Elisa Santiago, play the part. He had seen her perform in one of my radio plays at a loft downtown and was captivated with her presence. I asked Elisa, but she would only agree to be in the chorus. Then I found Ned Sublette and everything fell into place. Here was a gringo from Texas who was bilingual, had worked with Bob in the past, and was a scholar of Cuban and Latino music as well as Colonial American history in general. A perfect fit if there ever was one. I saw Ned perform at ISSUE Project Room, then months later Zach Layton suggested I contact him about finding the lead singer. All of a sudden it clicked. I wrote to Ned and asked him to be the lead. He wrote back and said that his jaw had dropped from amazement. Ned was a card flipper for the teleprompters in some of the early performances of Perfect Lives. He knew that text inside and out. He never thought that one day he would actually be singing the role of Raoul.
Rail: That made sense to you?
Waterman: The wheels started turning because I had been researching two artist collectives from the 1960s, the ONCE Group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Zaj Group from Madrid, Spain. These two groups were working without knowledge of one another but came up with some of the most brilliant and off-the-wall musical ideas, things that most people wouldn’t consider music. In the 1970s after the ONCE group had disbanded, John Cage asked his assistant at the time, Mimi Johnson, to ask Robert Ashley to program some concerts for the Zaj group in California.
When their worlds finally collided (Ashley and Zaj) it was like a wormhole opened up. Bob’s life was changed and I think his important works, from Automatic Writing onwards, came out of a feeling of reconnecting to the spirit of what had happened in the ONCE years, through seeing the Zaj group perform. In California he had stopped writing music for a while because everything he wanted to do seemed impossible. He was tired out from the intensity of the ONCE years and the turbulent ’60s in general. Zaj came and performed and I think it was one of the things that brought him out of a fairly dark period and got him back to work as a composer...