Laurie Anderson: An Instrument Unto Herself


Laurie Anderson
State Theatre (Ithaca, New York)
September 21, 2013
8:00 pm

Laurie Anderson has been called many things: raconteur of the mundane, pop culture critic, electronics wizard, musician and composer. Yet, do not be mistaken: She is not a performance artist, but an artist of performance. Having placed some of the most harrowing social turns of the past four decades under her microscope, Anderson proves that individuals are not the constants of historical change. Rather, history attains a cyclical consistency, the agents and subjects of which are anomalies. The twenty-first century stands before us like a divining pool into which she cannot help but cast her soothing critiques to see how our reflections change. Her crafting of words thus reveals a cinematic imagination in the truest sense. As she once confessed in an interview: “I try to make records that are cinematic, movies that are musical.” The seen and the heard come from the same place.

Anderson is no stranger to central/upstate New York. Her stage debut, following a string of formative gallery exhibitions and writings on art, took place a stone’s throw away in Rochester where, in 1972, she premiered her outdoor symphony for car horns in The Afternoon of Automotive Transmission. Since then, her interest in the relationships between matter and space — specifically violin and voice, self and projection, microphone and venue — has come to define her role as a darling of the underground. Press surrounding Anderson has been rife with such characterizations, all the while ignoring the fact that she has been working above ground from the start. Firmly embedded in the goings on of society at large, her instincts have borne idiosyncratic approaches to language, multimedia  and sampling. Despite these innovations, she boasts no avant-garde badge — she is content to wander nomadically, solitarily, dropping crumbs for the weary.

As the title of her seminal 1982 record Big Science suggests, Anderson is no stranger to her right brain, a point invoked before Saturday night’s performance of her recent multimedia work, Dirtday! at The State Theatre. In his introduction, Museum of the Earth director Warren D. Allmon stressed the interconnectedness of art and science and championed Anderson for skirting the boundary between the two and softening that boundary along the way. That said, as the opening washes of her electric violin filled the hall, clearly something bigger than science was happening — an overt awareness of, and engagement with, the broader contexts in which her data streams multiply. Concertgoers presumably saw bits of themselves in those streams, swimming against the current in an effort to stand out. In this way, Anderson’s work lacks a clear center and allows listeners to anchor its assembly differently every time, and to be involved in its eternal unfolding.

Fascinating though Anderson’s musical details may be, more so are the here and now of the messages in which she is enmeshed, and the futures bought and sold along her avenues of thought. For the latter image we can thank Fenway Bergamot, the male alter ego Anderson has long cultivated on stage and in the studio. To achieve the transformation to Bergamot, she bends the pitch of her voice by electronic means to that of a masculine register in a process she calls “audio drag.” It is not an adoption of a character for her, but a coming into being (the inflections and pauses of that voice are distinctly her own). Over the years, Mr. Bergamot has grown into a less confident observer, one who questions the self by questioning others. The chisel of time has chipped away at his resolve, leaving him world-weary and mistrustful. His memories are fuzzier, his dreams murkier than ever before. As an integral narrator of the evening, he was also a harbinger of memory, his voice creaking like the floorboards in a house of regret.

Fenway Bergamot, as depicted on the cover of Homeland

Topics covered in Saturday night’s show were even more diverse than the vocal registers Anderson utilized to articulate them. Everything from SIDS to New Jersey tent cities, from governmental scare tactics to reflections on Darwinian anxiety — even a video appearance by her artistically inclined Rat Terrier, Lolabelle, was fair game. Couched in a lush sound mix of distant thunders, beats and loops, the “everydayness” of her philosophies breathed earthiness into the most cosmic moments. Impossible childhood dreams shared the air with an array of electronic gadgetry, each unit a means to a beginning. Passages of analogue warmth butted up against sharper denouements, broken intermittently by her bow. The violin was at once her empty cup and an overflowing vessel, an omniscient presence that hovered at the edge of total integration with its performer’s body — a fantasy made reality when toward the end of the show Anderson placed a pillow speaker into her mouth and turned herself into a live instrument.

In her magnum opus United States, Anderson de-scribes a night drive, concluding, “Eventually it starts to get light and you look out and you realize you have absolutely no idea where you are.” It’s a haunting image, a quintessential moment of confusion in her archive. And yet, sitting there in Ithaca’s historic State Theatre in a sea of flesh, gray matter and mutual regard, it was difficult to imagine ever becoming lost in a world where true solitude has become a chimera. Bathed in soundscapes as affecting as they were constructed, we knew exactly where we were.

(See this article as it originally appeared in the Cornell Daily Sun.)

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