Friday, October 17, 2008

Laurie Anderson and the state of things

It was a treat last night to see Laurie Anderson at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, performing all new material from her upcoming album "Homeland." (Thanks to Michelle for scoring us the tickets.) As always, Anderson was topical, political, philosophical, provocative, challenging and almost intimidatingly artistic and intelligent. When was the last time you were at a concert where Kierkegaard was not only a topic but the setup for a joke?

I find it best not to think too hard on any one aspect of her music but to let it all wash over me and then sift what I'm left with. At one point last night, in one of her spoken/sung essays, Anderson sighed, "Ah, the state of things," and that struck me as a pretty good distillation of her "Homeland" themes.

In that respect her central message hasn't changed much from the breakthrough success of "O Superman" and "Big Science" more than 25 years ago: a slightly sad, homesick review of present-day popular culture and politics, infused with unexpected moments of humor and hopefulness. Last night there were dreamy musical meditations opposing the Iraq war, torture, economic disparity and more -- all delivered with just enough imprecision of detail that they're likely to sound relevant in another 25 years -- along with funny observations about the ubiquity of TV/computer screens and advertising ("Underwear Gods") and our reliance on talking heads ("Only an expert can deal with a problem," unusually catchy).

The content certainly wouldn't be for everybody. I don't think Anderson will need to worry about John McCain illegally sampling her music for campaign ads. We saw several people get up and walk out, and I've read that the same happened in Europe where Anderson was playing near a military base and some in the audience objected to the Iraq message.

Also, with the exception of "Only an Expert" these aren't songs you're likely to walk out of the theater humming to yourself.

If you don't know her music Anderson can be hard to describe. She came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a performance artist, although that term, which I've never liked, feels like it shorts both her art and her performance. She doesn't sing her songs so much as speaks them melodically, using an incredibly expressive and elastic voice, sometimes supported by electronic tricks including looping, doubling, echoes, reverb or digital alteration. She performed last night behind a small keyboard or digital console of some kind, with a laptop (a MacBook Pro, I think) to her left, and accompanied by a woman playing cello and three men on violin, bass and keyboards. Anderson herself, who is known for inventing electronic instruments, occasionally played what looked to be a miniature electric violin or ukulele, and she pulled out a microphone contraption that turned her head into a booming percussive instrument. Trippy.

The stage was minimalist groovy, with a dozen naked bulbs hanging from above almost to the floor, perfectly matching the tone and brightness of a sea of candles surrounding the musicians. A large, lit backdrop bathed the stage in mood-setting colors.

Musically, with the strings and the psychedelic wash, the pulsing rhythms and vaguely techno feel, the overall effect was something like David Byrne meets the Moody Blues or Kronos Quartet by way of the Eurythmics. Philip Glass would dig it.

I know Michelle and I did.

Before the show we ran into P-I art critic Regina Hacket in the lobby. I was happy to see she quickly posted a review on her blog, by about 1:30 this morning. (Note to P-I: Why not pull that out and promote it from the home page?)

For more Laurie Anderson background, here is her official site and Wikipedia entry. Also, check out the video of her signature piece, "O Superman":


kateco said...

Put on "mister heartbreak" and took a break to sit with the cool-at-last breeze blowing through the house and read your review. What a pleasure. Thank you for such a good art moment in my day.

Saw her in the early eighties. Completely agree that the term "performance art" falls short; just "art" is closer to the truth. When I saw her, there was no doubt that i was experiencing the work of a virtuoso artist, delivered with great technique and authority. She sang, played, recited lines, danced, created an installation of light and sound ... So much sound from such a lean stage set-up; so many voices from one ... Artist.

Even listening now, the music has the timelessness of a good painting or a play. I am so glad to read that she is still doing her cool and powerful thing. And -- if I couldn't be there in happening Seattle to see her for myself -- that you were there to write about it, giving me these perect few minutes in my day. Thanks!

Now, to the kitchen to make Chinese-style braised beef shanks.

Babs said...

One of the best compliments I got was that I looked like Laurie Anderson. That was mid-eighties and my hair was way short and I was working hard on being urbane.

Feels a little silly now but I really grooved on that. Guess I still do. . .