“Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon,” Robert Ashley

The piece is ten minutes long. Over some distorted, inconspicuous bells and static, Cynthia Liddell details the story of a rape from the victim’s point of view in mostly (but not totally) descriptive terms. Ashley describes his aims as follows:

My instructions [to friends] were simple: just describe a sequence of events, without any moral or psychological interpretation of those events, but include your sensory perceptual role in the events.

Ashley found all submissions unsatisfactory and subjective, and he wrote this one himself. He says:

The recording of this particular “description” got a lot of attention. Curiously, compared to some of the stories I heard, it has always seemed rather tame to me…It is the description that disturbs.

Well, no. Ashley certainly puts together an unsettling piece of music, but not for the reasons Ashley believes. The writing is unremarkable, but because of the subject matter, it’s memorable. Most people don’t want to read or hear ten minutes of this sort of thing:

His mouth was very wet. I remember he tried to touch his tongue as far down in my throat as he could reach. It choked me. I couldn’t swallow and I couldn’t breathe.

These are the same tactics used by horror writers: the intrusion of foreign forces, the narrator’s lack of control, the chance of rescue continually growing more distant. Ashley pulls a few tricks to extend the effect, which is to make the “description” entirely passive on the woman’s part. He even cheats at one point by having her say, “I felt hollow.”

Ashley’s words are part of an American literary tradition whose most famous exponent is John Updike, where vernacular and obviousness act as a pipeline to truth. The danger is that such concerns can be used indifferently simply to play on common experience and evoke bathos. It is the fate of someone who, in Robert Musil’s terms, “had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms.”

The words are, however, considerably more effective in the recording. The story is unpleasant, but the urge to stop reading isn’t as strong as the urge, when listening to Liddell, to get up and turn the thing off. It’s Liddell more than the description. It is her hesitant, vulnerable, nearly blank voice that is chilling. It invests the piece with all the emotion that Ashley claims to have removed from the text. It is not the voice of detachment; it is the voice of dissociation and vulnerability. It is the voice of a victim, of someone in a psychological state so fragile and private that you feel uncomfortable listening to her. Ashley has dealt with the notion of societally unacceptable speech in other works, and it’s hard to believe he’s not aware that it’s the voice rather than the words that has the dominant effect here. When there is a gasp towards the end, it gives away the game: Liddell has been pulling you along emotionally by the nose. The relation of facts, opinions, emotions, or anything in this style of speaking would sound dissociated and creepy.

If it sounds like I have a problem with “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon”…I do. I find it cheap. Liddell is not subtle, but she is effective, and she is at such odds with Ashley’s stated intention that it drags it down to the level of shock. A good chunk of the history of music (not just pop music) is singers giving weight to uninspired texts. “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” is notable for the failure of its atypical literary pretenses and the arrogance in its manipulation.

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