New York

Robert Ashley

Music Word Fire And I Would Do It Again (Coo-Coo): The Lessons is a 30-minute TV program by Robert Ashley that was broadcast on WNET-TV Channel 13’s “Video/Film Review” on June 28, 1981, and stereo simulcast on WNYC 93.9 FM. Designed and edited by John Sanborn (video director in collaboration with Ashley)—Kit Fitzgerald, and Carlota Schoolman, with music production by Peter Gordon, The Lessons is part of Ashley’s Perfect Lives (Private Parts), an opera for television commissioned and produced by the Kitchen.

The program consists of four seven-minute segments, all of them variations on the theme song from episode three of the opera. This song—which is narrated by Ashley, sung by Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem, and played by pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny—tells the tale of a love affair gone sour and provides the story line of The Lessons. It also holds together a collaged sequence of visual images that place the “private lives” of the two main characters in the context of what the press release calls “a post-modern version of the mythology of small-town middle America.”

Juxtaposing motifs, scenes, and artifacts from rural and urban contexts, The Lessons explores the small-town mythologies and life styles that persist in contemporary technological culture. Lovers Marie Isolde (“Form ly [sic] a Cheerleader”) and The Captain of the Football Team (“His Parents Call Him Donnie”), played by Kroesen and Van Tieghem, represent the American dream couple. Throughout the tape the lovers are shown strolling in grassy fields, sitting on park benches, posing quaintly under parasols, and frolicking on swings in the midst of farmlands. These nostalgic images are paradoxical, for the old-fashioned lovers dress in futuristic high fashion and assume distinctly contemporary postures. They seem to be acting out a hybrid role, borrowing props, costumes, and gestures from plays written in two different eras. And it soon becomes apparent that the harmony of their idealized love affair cannot survive the quick tempo and restlessness of the “post-modern” world that Ashley describes.

The romantic visions of the lovers are like the eye of a hurricane. Each time they appear, they are either broken up by video special effects or supplanted by floods of images that never stop moving and changing, dissolving and metamorphosing. These kaleidoscopic sequences of moving pictures are spectacular, and their continuously shifting colors, scales, and spaces successfully create the feeling of sensory overload that characterizes city life now. Still-life images of ornate crystal glassware are intercut with close-ups of large machinery; peaceful farms disappear as visions of urban streets take their place; fields of grasses dissolve into neon grids as printed words and phrases and media images flash across the screen. Tyranny’s fingers, repeatedly shown flying across the piano keys, set the pace.

A recurring image is that of the road—the metaphoric road that will lead these lovers onward and that effectively spells the death of their romanticism. Ashley’s is neither a new nor an original view of American culture; but out of commonplace themes and motifs he has created a videotape that is an extraordinary tour de force.

Shelley Rice