By Carter B. Horsley
Laurie Anderson is without question the high-tech priestess of the late 20th Century, the worlds best performance artist whose multi-media events are cerebral but entertaining, severe but sexy.
It is something of a mystery why this delightful, spiky-haired pixie did not emerge as a superstar after her 8-minute single, "O Superman" become the second most popular music single in England in 1981, especially since her work has always been in the vanguard of music videos, well before the onslaught of MTV in the early 1980s.
Unlike the other great vamp of the period, Madonna, however, she has not periodically revamped herself and her style. Indeed, Madonnas blatant sexiness most likely detracted a lot of attention away from Anderson, who also happens to be a bit older, a distinct disadvantage in the MTV era.
(Interestingly, although MTV continues to exist, it has lost much of its amazing vibrancy that flourished so wildly in its first five years or so when it was probably the most exciting cultural phenomenon in history with remarkable creativity from scores of different performers. In recent years, however, most of those performers are no longer higher visible or productive, and MTVs fare has switched to an unstimulating diet of hip-hop and over-produced pop singers of modest talents.)
Andersons talents are formidable. She possesses a lovely voice, a very lively mind, a fine poetic sensibility and a mastery of multimedia technology and especially electronic music instruments. Despite their widespread use, there are very few widely known, great synthesizer virtuosi: Josef Zawinul, formerly of the group, Weather Report; Vangelis; the group Tangerine Dream; Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays of the Pat Metheny Group; and Anderson and she has really been the only one to be continually on the cutting edge.
In this performance, which opened the 1999 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example, she made extensive and dramatic use of the "Talking Stick." About six feet in length, this super-baton is played, apparently, by changing its position and by rubbing ones hand up and down its shaft. In her program notes, Anderson described the instrument:
"The Talking Stick is a new instrument that I designed in collaboration with a team from Interval Research and Bob Bielecki. It is a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound. It works on the principle of granular synthesis. This is the technique of breaking sound into tiny segments, called grains, and then playing them back in different ways. The computer rearranges the sound fragments into continuous strings or random clusters which are played back in overlapping sequences to create new textures. The grains are very short, a few hundredths of a second. Granular synthesis can sound smooth or choppy depending on the size of the grain and the rate at which theyre played. The grains are like film frames. If you slow them down enough you begin to hear them separately."
The instrument, whose size and shape made it an ideal representation of a whaling harpoon, was used to create a variety of very interesting sounds that responded to different movements, postures and handling and did not appear to have any movable, or pressable, parts. (Electronic music, of course, has had a long history of unusual applications going back to the Theremin, an instrument that consisted of two short poles attached to a box and that responded to a performings hand movements changing its magnetic field. It was played to great effect of Clara Rockmore and its rather eerie but beautiful sounds were used in the movie, "Spellbound." In more recent years, one performed wired his hands so that his wrist, palm and fingers could act as different controllers, or triggers, for off-stage music synthesizers and another performer wired his tap shoes to similar effect. While electronic music has usually been associated with keyboards and guitars, there are also very good wind and percussive controllers available.)
This performance began with Anderson playing a very modern, violin-like controller that triggered awesome, deafening sounds that conjured the cavernous lung power of whales. Ms. Anderson has long dazzled and wowed audiences with her "electronic" violin playing and has also used electronic "pitch harmonizers" to change her very mellifluous and feminine voice into a deep, resonant and rather pompously elderly masculine voice, an effect that she also employed at times in this performance. The pitch changing is something of a gimmick, but no one uses it more effective than Ms. Anderson, who is not without a great deal of humor. Her bag of tricks also includes the effective use of props and here she brings on stage a gargantuans upholstered chair in which she demurely sat, a la Lily Tomlin of "Saturday Night Live" fame, but she later brings on the same styled chair shrunk to diminutive size into which she barely fit. She actually rarely uses conventional props as she is a master of projected images.
In this production, theatrical values are indeed very high. Although it opens with images of a rolling sea projected on a large screen at the back of the stage above a long platform, it changes frequently to include moving constellations, moving text, sometimes scrolling horizontally and sometimes scrolling in many directions, close-up images of some of the performers holding small video cameras in front of themselves, and sometimes of libraries or simply strong colors. Andersons visual sense has always been superb. Sometimes the pace is gentle and sometimes the overlays are frenetic, but they are rarely distracting or bothersome and most were very effective and stunning.
Most of her other major productions have been solo affairs, but here she is joined on stage by a bass player, Skúli Sverrisson, and four male performers, The music they perform is often accompanied by sequenced and/or taped music. "Many of the basic tracks were recorded with a small ensemble of musicians - Joey Baron on drums, Skúli Sverrisson on bass and sampled sounds, myself on keyboards and samples, with additional touches from Peter Scherer and Bill Frisell," according to the program notes.
The performance gets off to a fine start with Andersons eerie violin-controlled sound shaking the theater. Soon thereafter came an absolutely sensational number featuring Tom Nelis as Captain Ahab in a very tall stovepipe hat and on crutches in a song and dance that is a truly memorable tour de force and showstopper. The choreography of this dance is very strong and original and Nelis has a wonderfully rich deep voice that shivers the timbers.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the production is not as thrilling. Much of the music here recalls some of the excellent, energetic rhythms of the Talking Heads but Sverrissons bass is too insistent and too loud, at least in this opening gala performance, which was attended by Philip Glass, William Dafoe and other celebrities. The other actors, Price Waldman, Anthony Turner and Miles Green perform with gusto but their routines are generally lackluster, whereas Andersons are consistently excellent although some of the monologues drift towards being more cosy than serendipitous.
Andersons approach to Herman Melvilles great book is unusual and unexpected as many of the major characters such as Queequeeg and Starbuck and Father Maple are not included. In one of her monologues, Anderson notes that a 1926 film version of "Moby Dick" had many characters not in the book as well as other discrepancies. She obviously did a lot of research and also comments at one point that some whale bones found in Alabama in 1842 were regarded by some as "the bones of a fallen angel."
Sometimes her commentary borders on the trite, but the production values are so well co-ordinated and stunning that the overall impact is strong. When she distorts her voice, she recalls the great comic, Lord Buckley, one of whose most famous routines in the 1950s was "Jonah and the Whale," an epic monologue that is not matched here.
In the program notes, Anderson explains that she started the project when "a multimedia producer was making a series for high schools about books" and was "worried that books are disappearing" and asked some artists to "pick their favorite books and write monologues about why they liked them."
"I had a vague recollection of being very bored by a lot of the whaling details and technical paraphernalia. I also remember thinking that the captain and his obsession with the whale was a bit over the top, too fantastic, too Shakespearian. Then I read it again. And it was a complete revelation. Encyclopedic in scope, the book moved through ideas about history, philosophy, science, religion, and the natural world towards Melvilles complex and dark conclusions about the meaning of life, fear, and obsession. Being a somewhat dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that the mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive....As the book unfolds, it becomes virtually impossible to find the author. Hes hundreds of people....These narrative styles and forms of address morph rapidly. And its this daring approach to narrative voices that Ive found most exciting and original about the book....Melvilles search for meaning is alternately frustrating and illuminating, multilayered and elusive, like the great while whale he searches for. For me, a key question is asked, almost as an afterthought, at the end of Father Mapples famous sermon, "So what is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?" Yes, really. What do you do when you no longer believe in the things that have driven you? How do you go on?....Eventually, I decided not to try to represent the characters but to try to catch the spirit of the book and some of Melvilles ideas that I find the most challenging," Anderson wrote in the program notes.
Only about 10 percent of the performances text comes directly from Melville.
Melvilles book is the greatest American novel, perhaps the greatest novel of all time. It is difficult and challenging but it has a blustery momentum that propels the reader into the poetry of life and death, riveting the reader into the abyss of uncertainty.
Although a bit disappointing and unsatisfying, this impressionistic work has some fine moments, but could use some trimming and some new material. Near the end, Anderson starts a quite beautiful violin solo, but it ends rather abruptly. If it were longer and if she got rid of all of the other performers except Nelis and wrote some more material and music perhaps focused on Father Mapple, Starbuck and Bulkington, the helmsman who is Melville's hero even though he is mentioned in only one brief chapter, she might have a masterpiece. She is certainly capable of producing them.
The performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music run from Oct. 6-9 and 12-16 and Nonesuch is planning to release a CD based on the production, which had its world premiere in April, 1999 in at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas.