Over the course of several 1981 performances, Laurie Anderson proved to Washington audiences that she is a visionary in a world of recycled arts. She is all things at once--musician, poet, painter, dancer, photographer, inventor, a performance artist who breathes in all possibilities and exhales a witty and challenging distillation of the same. It's a brave new art that is thrilling in its wholeness, which makes Anderson's debut album, "Big Science" (Warner Bros. BSK 3674), something of a disappointment.
The initial problem is that a record is one-dimensional while Anderson's work is decidedly multi-dimensional; sound is but one spoke on the spinning wheels of her imagination. Compounding the problem is the fact that the songs on "Big Science" are culled from Anderson's major opus, "United States I-IV," portions of which she performed in Washington. The units chosen for the album do focus on Anderson's ongoing fascination with communication and memory, but there is little of the sense of connection that marks her overall work.
Several sections--"O Superman," "Let X=X/It Tango" and the title cut--do suggest why an audio company snapped up an artist so tied to visuals. "O Superman" was the song that catapulted Anderson from semi-obscurity to "major recording artist" status with Warner Bros. At 8 1/2 minutes, the normal length of three commercial singles, it managed to become a Top-5 hit in England, which has traditionally been receptive to off-beat, quirky ideas on vinyl. Stateside, the song has been a bust on the air, but a hit on critics' "best" lists.
"O Superman" exemplifies Anderson's distinctive qualities: a hypnotic, dream-state voice that vacillates between song and recitation; disquieting lyrics that belong in Stan Mack's "Real Life Funnies"; a surprising instinct for attractive pop melodies despite a minimalist esthetic; effective mood-setting by use of Farfisa organ and the OBXa keyboard; intelligent application of such electronic toys as the vocoder and rototoms. In an era of frenetic sounds, Anderson's spare, almost slight melodies, breeze on by.
"Let X=X," which segues into "It Tango," captures the ambiguities and anxieties of communicating, anticipating, connecting. It also confirms Anderson's deliciously dry wit: "I met this guy--and he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink/which in fact he turned out to be. And I said/Oh boy, right again." After six minutes of mantra-like Farfisa, hand claps and electronically treated vocals, Anderson finds herself in a one-sided, two-way conversation; no longer hearing anyone but herself, she sighs to a mate, "Your eyes. It's a day's work just looking into them."
On "Big Science," Anderson sounds like Pentangle's Jackie McShee lost in the stars. Her voice is wistful, floating through an Indian-like chant while a trance melody swirls underneath. There's a trance-like element to the instrumental body of "Born, Never Asked," as well, the only cut that showcases Anderson's violin work. The less compelling cuts--"From the Air," "Sweaters," "Walking and Falling"and "Example #22," have their moments, but don't seem fully realized on vinyl. Anderson is an artist whose work begs for the expansion of video. One thing's for sure: No one's doing anything like her on record or in performance.
Two other important figures in the New York avant-garde have new albums. Phillip Glass, the master of repetition and minimalism, has put out "Glassworks" (CBS FM37265), his first release on a major label. It's a surprisingly approachable collection of short pieces ranging from Michael Reisman's solo acoustic piano on "Opening" (with hints of "Blue Moon" doodling, Erik Satie and Keith Jarrett) to mellow orchestral colorations in which French horns exert themselves over organ, synthesizers and reeds ("Floe"). There's even a complement of strings and woodwinds on the elegiac "Facades" and an intriguing orchestration of the solo "Opening," titled, appropriately, "Closing." "Glassworks" celebrates the composer's diverse interests--Eastern and Indian rhythms, electronic manipulation, neo-classical themes, and, now, personable sound cycles.
Glass' work seems suited to modern dance; Brian Eno's makes perfect soundtrack music for "mind movies" imagined under the influence of headphones. "Ambient #4: On Land" (editions EG EGED20) is processed environmental music. Like the old Environments records ("forest at dusk," "beach at dawn"), the basic process is to tape existing sounds; Eno takes it a step farther, adding subtle and sensual layers of found or created sounds. This is essentially Muzak without the familiar melodies, a system that requires total passivity or total involvement on the part of the listener. It's really a high-tech version of leaving a telephone dangling from a booth in a quiet neighborhood; if you listen hard enough, you can hear suggestions of activity, sometimes near, sometimes far, often subsumed in a wash of other semi-sounds. Of course, it's all too easy to fall asleep, as well. With its wash of sound scapes, "On Land" is a perfect tranquilizer, which, oddly, it aims to be.