A coyote’s howl wells up in the dark of the Palladium theater in New York City. A synthesizer begins to billow and drone as a fat, full moon floats gently across an enormous projection screen. Laurie Anderson, a small, Chaplinesque figure in a plain black suit, stands poised center stage at an Oberheim keyboard, gazing up toward the balconies.
“You know,” she says, “I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?
“And what about stairs?” she asks, as the music shivers and shifts around her.
Laurie Anderson calls herself a performance artist, but she’s really a new kind of pop star, with a whole new way of – literally – looking at music. Her professional persona is so open-ended that any number of futures seems possible. The Palladium show, which climaxed her month-long U.S. tour, was unlike anything seen in this country since Pink Floyd mounted an elaborate stage version of The Wall, their multiplatinum concept album, in New York and Los Angeles in 1980.
For ninety minutes, Anderson sang, joked, punned, played and talk-talk-talked –— and she talks more eloquently than many singers sing. She sawed soulfully at a violin and squeezed strange, poignant tunes from a toy accordian. She donned a pair of custom-amplified spectacles and knuckled out a novelty beat on her spiky-blond noggin. She saluted the ecological engagement of Buckminster Fuller (“Have you ever thought about how much your buildings actually weigh?”) and sang a song derived from William Burroughs, called “Language Is a Virus.” (“Hearing your name,” she muttered, “is better than seeing your face.”) At one point, a black man in dreadlocks and a kilt marched out of the wings and blew a long, skirling jazz bagpipe solo. A quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein slid onto the screen: “If you can’t talk about it, point to it.”
What is going on here? It’s not rock, really – although the Burroughs tune, among others, could pass for the authentic item. It’s not jazz (despite the presence of veteran Philadelphia reedman Rufus Harley, the aforementioned Afro-Highlander). And it’s not exactly theater, either. What Laurie Anderson attempts is something rather new — – a conceptual circus of slides, films, tapes and parlor tricks that makes most big-bucks rock concerts seem constipated by comparison.
Those who missed Anderson on tour can contemplate the musical component of her complex message on Big Science, a brilliant debut album that also serves as a preview of United States I-IV, an eight-hour performance piece she plans to première next October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Although not outright rock or pop, Big Science offers some useful aesthetic strategies for more mainstream musicmakers. Consider the recording process: ninety-five percent of Big Science was done in the Lobby, a small, sixteen-track studio in Anderson’s big, busy loft in Manhattan’s Soho district. (The Lobby is where she recorded the eight-minute-plus “O Superman” last year – a single version of which became a smash hit in Europe, expediting Anderson’s subsequent signing by Warner Bros. Records to an eight-album deal.) Big Science also suggests ways in which ostensibly nonpop artists can connect with elements of the large pop-music audience (particularly those of the Captain Beefheart or Pink Floyd persuasion) without condescending. The record is a model of noncodified, nonelitist artistic communication. In short, good news all around.
This is important to Anderson, probably more so than the imminence of quasi-pop stardom. At thirty-five, she is an artist who has long been distressed by the American art establishment’s seeming disinclination to reach out to ordinary people, and its preoccupation, particularly in the postwar period, with cold, bloodless theory to the sometimes total exclusion of content. This is reflected in her work. Take “Duets on Ice,” one of her early performance pieces. Characteristically, its props were minimal: a pair of ice skates and a violin. The violin was rigged with a built-in speaker, which allowed playback of a previously recorded violin solo. The blades of the skates were embedded in blocks of ice. Standing on a corner, Anderson would lace on the skates and proceed to play a duet with herself until the ice melted, the blades clanked on the pavement and the concert came to a sudden, wobbly halt. “In between,” she said, “I talked about the parallels between skating and violin playing – — blades over a surface – and about balancing, and what it means to play a duet with yourself.”
Anderson felt that performance art –— which partakes of the belief that ideas develop interesting spins when you jostle them together – could be used to address questions that more academic artists didn’t seem interested in answering. Like: why do people make art? Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her studio one night, Anderson tried to explain.
“Maybe in the past, artists did work that incorporated certain social-political-religious ideas as a kind of propaganda, to convince other people. But when the need to convince other people in that way dropped off, there was still an enormous number of people left making art—kind of in the habit of making art. But . . . for what?” Anderson, who’s wearing a pair of black trousers and a nondescript sport shirt, blinks her big eyes and runs a hand through her trademark mop. She lights an unfiltered cigarette.
“That’s where aesthetics comes in and says, ‘Look at this white square. Look at the proportions of this square and look how very straight this line is.’ There can only be a small elite who understand why that line is straight and why that square is important. To everybody else, it looks like their bathroom tile. They don’t know why they’re looking at it.”
To demonstrate the cultural conundrum posed by ultra-abstraction, Anderson created one of her first pieces for tape-bow, a violin with a tape-playback head installed at the bridge and a bow adapted to accommodate a length of prerecorded tape instead of horsehair. For this piece, she taped a quote from Lenin – “Ethics is the aesthetics of the future,” which sounded like a typical art-party clichè – strung it onto her tape-bow and drew it almost all the way across the violin’s playback head. The result: “Ethics is the aesthetics of the fu . . . the fu . . . the fu . . . .”