What is it? Laurie Anderson is the violinist and performance artist best known for her 1982 record Big Science. Spoleto audiences, however, know her as the artist reminding everyone that she virtually invented "multimedia art" with her 1999 composition Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick, in which she performed with an instrument that came to be called a "talking stick." She's also provocative. During a performance of Homeland in Boston earlier this year, a section about bombs and Baghdad caused a walk-out, a move that for Anderson must have felt heartwarming.
Why see it? Homeland is a reversal of Anderson's past experiments in electronic enhancements, poetic license, and visual extravagance. It was written on the road, so it was intended as a music venue piece, not a composition formulated in a recording studio to be recreated on stage. Now that multimedia is de rigeur, Anderson told a British newspaper last month, she was aiming with Homeland for something "dreamy and musical and multimedia-free."
Who should go? Hard-core Laurie Anderson fans won't want to miss this, as it appears to be another turn in the many artistic turns Anderson has made in her decades-long career. Even if you're not into Anderson's lyrical brand of aleatory, you might like her ideological side. Homeland was inspired by the failures of mainstream media: "Why don't entertainers become journalists?" she has asked.
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $25, $45 • 1 hour 30 min. • June 4, 5 at 8 p.m.; June 6 at 9 p.m. • Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St. • (843) 579-3100
Be Kind Rewind: Queen of multimedia performance art turns back time
The death of the CD has affected more than record labels. Recording artists can't make much money from album sales anymore (most now consider them a kind of marketing device), so they have to find other ways to remain viable.
One of those ways is getting songs on TV — in prime-time programming or on commercials for cars, mobile phones, and erectile dysfunction medicine. Even songwriters long dead have benefited from this approach. Few of a certain age had heard of Nick Drake before Volkswagen used his "Pink Moon."
It doesn't stop there. Musicians are licensing their creations to movies and anything else in order to evoke a certain mood, however preposterous. A 21st-century mall is a cacophony of pop music. The airport and grocery store are awash in folk and soft rock. Even McDonald's has hip-hop artists spitting chill-out rhymes.
So pop music is everywhere.
That's good for musicians. Bad for music lovers. We need artists whose brilliance isn't ground to dust by the sheer, mindless force of repetition, says novelist Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity. He asked in Songbook, an essay collection about his obsession with popular music, "How is it possible to love or connect to music that is as omnipresent as carbon monoxide?"
That pop music is everywhere might explain why teenagers like crap, Hornby says. "The simplest retort to this ubiquity is to listen to and learn to like music that is essentially dislikable, stuff that would bring the Starbucks compilation people to their knees begging for mercy," Hornby writes. "You can't sell peppermint foot lotion with death metal and obscene gangsta rap; you can't use electronic hard-core to entertain passengers waiting for a plane to take off."
Laurie Anderson knows how this feels. Probably best known for her 1982 synth-pop record, Big Science, which featured the hit song, "O Superman," Anderson understands the tyranny of ubiquity. How do you remain a vibrant artist when everyone's emulating a style of performance that you pioneered?
Almost single-handedly, Anderson invented multimedia performance art, blending sights and sounds into a provocative stew seasoned with an idiosyncratic political point of view that's at times razor sharp and obtuse.
But after 30 years of raising hackles, both aesthetic and political, the novelty of multimedia performance has worn off. It's not because multimedia is passé. On the contrary, it's de rigueur. Virtually every major music production contains some kind of visual element, to enhance the good music or to obscure the bad.
At the time, Anderson was on the fringe. But now the fringe has moved to the center.
"The world is filled with screens," she says from a hotel room in Moscow, prior to a performance there. "Every musical performance uses multimedia now. But they are an ugly distraction most of the time with the wrong tempos."
The trend may be nearing a tipping point. At Spoleto Festival USA, where Anderson performs her new work, Homeland, in a series starting June 4, multimedia is a constant presence. It's even found in some unexpected places.
The circus opera Monkey: Journey to the West uses video and animation created by Gorillaz cartoonist Jamie Hewlett. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a work of "theatrical cabaret" by a group called 1927, attempts to parody the film vernacular of silent movies. Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a turntablist, poet, and dancer, uses live video feeds and documentary footage for his show, the break/s. And the classic opera, Rossini's La Cenerentola, prominently features video.
So, like pop music, multimedia is everywhere, too.
Like Hornby trying to find that special band that he can have all to himself, Anderson followers, who likely discovered her the way Hornby discovered Led Zepplin ("I was therefore able to foster the notion that Zepplin was something special, a secret between me and my friends"), want her performances to feel unlike every other musical experience they have had.
Again, what's a multimedia performance art pioneer to do?
One solution: rewind.
That's where Homeland comes in. Calling to mind her earlier work, United States I-IV, it speaks to the attrition of individual liberty in a liberal democracy that itches for conflict. It deals with the Iraq war, the Pentagon's stop-loss policy, and torture.
But it's also a reversal of Anderson's past experiments in visual extravagance. Written on the road, it's an evolving piece of music born of live performance, she says, not a composition formulated in a recording studio to be recreated on stage.
Anderson told a British newspaper last month that she was aiming for something "dreamy and musical and multimedia-free."
"Images don't work with the music," she says. "It's a word-heavy piece that uses logic and illogic. It uses a different kind of language that destabilizes the audience. Using a lot of images would have stabilized that effect more than I would like."
Homeland, Anderson says, is a third politics, a third strange dreams, and a third pure music (you can see part of it on YouTube; look for the "Only an Expert"). These stages move around each other in complex ways, she says. So words need to be simple. Images would overly complicated that.
In the piece, Anderson speaks, sings, and plays "a hopped up" violin backed by a quartet of bass, percussion, and keyboards. She remains true to her history by using a vast array of electronics to complement her word sketches. It's a sophisticated set-up, but she says the visual aesthetic of the set-up is simple, suggesting another level of interest in returning to a simpler, non-visual, time.
"Technology can get very distracting," she says.
In case you're wondering if Anderson is shrinking back from her role as an agent provocateur, fear not. She continues in that role, though perhaps unintentionally.
During a recent performance of Homeland in Boston, The Guardian newspaper reported that some in the audience voiced their discontent. Others, forming a "conspicuous and well-heeled contingent," walked out in protest.
"I was literally shocked," she told the paper. "This is not at all controversial."