Laurie Anderson's Whizbang Techno-Vaudeville Mirrors Life in These United States
If poet/photographer/comedienne/electronic musician Laurie Anderson wanted to describe herself, this is how she might do it. But Anderson, 35, is making a bigger noise than the sound of her own name. On March 10, she began an eight-city U.S. concert tour performing excerpts or the full two-night version of her six-hour multimedia "opera," United States: Parts I-IV. Four complete performances of the work premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month, drawing more than 85,000 people. They won Anderson rave reviews in nearly every major publication. "She has forged a new kind of musical theater, and pointed a way for the opera of the future," said New York Times critic John Rockwell.
Three years ago few outside the avant-garde had seen Laurie Anderson's "performance art," which included an outdoor symphony of Vermont car horns. But Laurie's audience expanded in 1980 when the song O Superman, about an answering machine that receives a threat of doom, soared to No. 2 on the British pop charts. Warner Bros. Records grossed well over $1 million on the record that Laurie cut for $400. The company later released Big Science, an album of her songs from United States, which sold more than 150,000 copies.
So what exactly does Laurie Anderson do onstage for those six hours? Well, she projects some 1,200 cartoons, photos and films onto a gargantuan 30-by-40-foot screen, sings accompanied by synthesizers, tapes, electric violins, saxophones, drums, a jazz bagpiper, a telephone and a toy hammer, shoots a jet of fire from a violin bow, talks about her dreams, quotes Shakespeare and Laurel and Hardy, tells jokes that have been tuned to music, and wires her head to a microphone so her chattering teeth crunch the hall with sound. Combine elements like these into 78 bits, group them loosely into four topics—transportation, politics, money and love—and you have the united states of Laurie Anderson.
Laurie began her opera in the mid-'70s in order to explain America's hotwired life-style to Europeans. Though the performance stresses the darker side of modern life—a recitative on MX missiles, photos of concrete cities and bland, endless suburbs—Laurie's onstage antics show technology's creative side as well. Some of her most dazzling feats come from surprises like a violin bow strung with a prerecorded tape instead of horsehair and drawn through a tape player mounted on her stringless violin. In other pieces, she creates eerie music on recording studio keyboards such as her Vocoder, which distorts her voice into a chord, and a synclavier, which records a sentence and plays it back as a series of tiny interchangeable pitches. "They let you hear things you only half hear normally, like a shifting window frame as it moves through a different part of the sound wave," she says.
During Laurie's concerts, a black box sits center stage, enclosing equipment that transforms her calm, clear tones into Mickey Mouse squeaks or the drawl of a traveling salesman. Looking like a spiky-haired dead-end kid, Laurie kneels before the box as if it were an altar, but she's not praying, she's prying at jammed parts with a screwdriver. "Instruments fail all the time," she says. "I kind of like those moments. It really forces me to act. I did one piece in which absolutely everything was perfect and it was automatic. I didn't like that feeling much."
Growing up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., 23 miles west of Chicago, Laurie started violin lessons at 5. Encouraged by her father, who ran a lucrative paint business, and her mother, a housewife, Laurie and her seven siblings played original music in a family band. Though she first thought she'd become a librarian, Laurie earned a B.A. from Barnard College and a master's degree in sculpture from Columbia University. Then she taught art history, wrote art criticism, and in the early '70s expanded from sculpture to photography and electronic arts. One work, a "talking table," included a hidden tape recorder that sent vibrations through the arms of viewers who leaned on it. Slowly, Laurie collected electronic odds and ends for her multimedia performances. She previewed early segments of United States at Lower Manhattan's Kitchen in 1979 and finally completed the work only hours before her premiere.
These days Laurie's downtown Manhattan loft, where she lives alone, stands nearly empty except for an icon: a full-color map of the world. After performing in French, German and Italian across Europe last month, she continues her nonstop 8 a.m.-to-4 a.m. schedule of concerts and rehearsals across the U.S. As she travels, she carries her vision of lost Americans seeking direction in an electronic landscape. "Hey, pal! How do I get to town from here?" Laurie asks audiences. Her answer: "Just take a right where they're going to build that new shopping mall, go straight past where they're going to put the freeway, take a left at what's going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they're thinking of building that drive-in bank." If you follow those directions, you'll find the true Laurie Anderson, on the road where opera meets video games.