I am a city of habits / I am completely knowable in every way
Context can both strengthen and alter, sometimes radically so, our experience of a work of art. It can be so powerful that artists often edit themselves with which actual bits get included in our conversation around a work (for a particularly vivid example, think of how careful David Bowie was to have ★ be perceived, for as long as he could manage, not as the last David Bowie album but just a new David Bowie album). But sometimes an absence of context can have the same effect if the work is potent enough. These days that lack of context is rarer, or at least more easily removed, thanks to the reach of the internet, and while that’s often a good thing, it does have the small, sad side effect of removing mystery from places where it has its own kind of power.
All of which is to say, if you have never heard of American composer Robert Ashley’s 1978 album Private Parts, newly reissued on LP, it is both worthwhile and unrepeatable experience to go into your first listen as cold as possible. The record is both bewitching and not quite like anything else out there, then or now, and while the context is fascinating in its own right this is also the kind of work that rewards being encountered on its own singular terms.
The genesis of the work, when you dig around, is simple enough (an excellent, brief account can be found in Kyle Gann’sAmerican Composers volume on Ashley; it can be read here). Working on what would eventually become the seven-part TV opera Perfect Lives, Ashley recruited composer and pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny to play keyboards and the slightly pseudonymous Kris to play tablas as Ashley recited his libretto. The two sides of Private Parts, clocking in just under 22 and 24 minutes respectively, would wind up becoming the first and last parts of the larger opera (which then again unfolded into a larger context with some of Ashley’s other works), with “The Park” depicting the inner narration or experience of a man who comes to town, and “The Backyard” doing the same for a local woman.
The central incident of Perfect Lives is only alluded to in the most oblique of ways, and while the opera as a whole would cover a much more dynamic range of performance than Private Parts (for example), and in fact many performances of the opera renders their versions of these parts differently, here in the original release Ashley and his collaborators stick to a deceptively minimal, quasi-hypnotic pulse.
The music of Private Parts alone would make for an excellent album, somewhere out in the realm where new age music and more ‘respectable’ ambient start to blur together; with the addition of Ashley’s soft, measured, rhythmic, inimitable delivery, the record turns into something else entirely. Originally the intent was to find someone else to recite the libretto, but nobody else could quite convey the effect the composer did; with his performance sometimes seeming to be part trickster figure and part proto-ASMR, it can hard not to feel like Ashley is getting away with something here, as if your listening experience is somehow both mid-swindle and mid-mystical experience.
The characters (and/or the ineffable narrator, it’s sometimes unclear how much of the words comes from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ these peoples’ perceptions or consciousness) dwell on the ridiculous and the profound, formulating things as cliches and idiosyncratic understandings so personal they may never be understood, dwelling on things and flitting from thought to thought, and throughout the narrative tries to follow them as exhaustively as possible. The effect is something between a tabloid and phenomenology, between the omniscience of a god and the hopelessly paralyzing, enthralling trap of perfect memory found in Borges’ “Funes the Memorious”. It can sometimes feel like something that must have just occurred spontaneously, the opposite of Paley’s watchmaker on the heath, as natural a phenomena as the weather, or indeed your own thoughts. In the right frame of mind, it can be immensely calming, even serving as a kind of meditative focus; in another, the constant flow of consciousness(es) can seem almost maddening.
However, this sui generis quality that Private Parts has runs the risk of obscuring the many very human qualities of the work. For one thing, it’s at least as funny and memorable as it is profound, and despite the surface impression being affectless, maybe even artless, the care and consideration (and, yes, composition) in both words and music becomes clear on repeated listens. Like many of the very greatest works of its kind, these narratives and this music look both monolithic and near-infinitely layered depending on how they’re approached. As much an earworm as a philosophical koan, as deeply individual as it is universal, there is maybe only one simple truth about Private Parts: it’s never a bad time to listen to it and contemplate its strange, eternal beauty.
I’m not the same person that I used to be.