Perhaps You Are Made of Glass? Laurie Anderson, Zellerbach
It’s been 26 years since I last watched Laurie Anderson perform (“Big Science”). I was much younger, and so was she. The audience at the time was composed mostly of new wave/punkers with a literary bent – young adults into Fripp and Eno and William S. Burroughs. I remember a raft of white violins descending from the ceiling – with tape heads installed where the bridges should have been – followed by a dozen or so white violin bows lowered into place, strung with reel-to-reel tape instead of horse hair. Each bow harnessed a different sound clip or spoken word recording, and she “played” each one back- and forwards, at any speed or in any staccato word rhythm.
Fast forward to 2012, Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley. Now 65, Anderson has dispensed with most of her avante-garde gimmicks and boiled it mostly down to pure storytelling , ensconced in more “traditional” violin playing backed by sequencers playing strange loops (a porch swing creaking, compressed air escaping in a repeating cycle with one timing mark off just enough to make you feel vaguely uncomfortable). The stage atmosphere a sea of votive candles peeking out through mellow fog machine vapors, a giant screen filled with solid colors, a smaller one reserved for displaying the paw-scratch “paintings” of her dog (and a few entertaining clips of same dog playing piano – who doesn’t love animals on keyboards?)
She still pulls out a few of the old tricks – her digital vocal octave dropper completely changes the tone of her amazing poem/stories (a technique she calls “audio drag”), and she did take time to pop a pillow speaker into her mouth and play a short wah-wah improv, the shape of her mouth and breath conditioning the sound source. But for the most part, her presence is more minimal, more grounded now. At one stretch, she just sat in a big black comfy chair and talked. But the maturation of the performance seemed completely tasteful, appropriate.
Langue d’Amour, from Mister Heartbreak (1984)
Her poem/stories are still bizarre, but in a more grounded way – she weaves political observations about Battleground America into meditations on why the coloration of the peacock’s tail drove Darwin batshit crazy. And throughout, little zen zingers like:
“Of all the things that ever could have happened… most of them didn’t.”
She has the ability to deliver lines like this with such matter-of-fact precision that you feel like she’s pierced the veil of evening fog into something deeper. She takes you beyond without even trying.
Perhaps you are made of glass /
Should a dog strive for Buddha Heart?
(I’m paraphrasing from memory here). In fact there were many Buddhist references peppered into the performance – she’s been practicing, and that practice is reflected in the relative minimalism of the vibe. Laurie is aging like a good cheese, not like Jagger.
Performance art, by definition, always has the immediate potential for pretentiousness. But Anderson avoids it like the plague, mostly by being funny. Not comedienne funny, but “Isn’t life weird?” funny.
Via Wikipedia: In “The Cultural Ambassador”, a piece on her album The Ugly One with the Jewels, Anderson explained some of her perspective on the character [“Bergamot” – with the lowered voice]: (Anderson:) I was carrying a lot of electronics so I had to keep unpacking everything and plugging it in and demonstrating how it all worked, and I guess I did seem a little fishy — a lot of this stuff wakes up displaying LED program readouts that have names like Atom Smasher, and so it took a while to convince them that they weren’t some kind of espionage system. So I’ve done quite a few of these sort of impromptu new music concerts for small groups of detectives and customs agents and I’d have to keep setting all this stuff up and they’d listen for a while and they’d say: So uh, what’s this? And I’d pull out something like (Bergamot:) this filter, and say, now this is what I like to think of as the voice of authority. And it would take me a while to tell them how I used it for songs that were, you know, about various forms of control, and they would say, now why would you want to talk like that? And I’d look around at the SWAT teams, and the undercover agents, and the dogs, and the radio in the corner, tuned to the Super Bowl coverage of the war. And I’d say, take a wild guess.
I keep waiting for news about some upcoming collaboration between Anderson and her husband Lou Reed (file under “The most unlikely pairing ever that makes perfect sense”) but it never happens.