In performance, Laurie Anderson anthologizes her many selves. A poet, she dispatches clusters of engaging words. A painter, she plays with light and shadow, with liquid and static forms. A musician, she curls hypnotic melodies around basic pulses, sound slipping into primordial echo. A comedian, she blisters familiar images with the discomfort of the spotlight. An actress, she flits between No One and Everyman, between shadow and substance.
Disparate guises come together on stage in spotlight, flashlight, strobe light, reflected light from giant screens dancing with suggestive imagery.
Anderson, who performed the first two segments of her gargantuan "United States" at a packed and attentive Warner Theatre last night, is both a borrower and an extender of the lively arts, a challenger of one's traditional senses. Because her vanguard vision embraces so much, there are plenty of fallow spots: She has a tendency to billboard her messages, to telegraph punch lines, to repeat good ideas with minimal expansion. Her failures, however, are more interesting than most artists' successes.
A tightrope walker, Anderson hedges her bets by working not with a safety net but with a surfeit of ropes under her; it makes for an exciting trip while also providing a safe landing.
Saying Anderson mixes media is like saying a great chef cooks. In fact, she controls it all, from writing and performing to making the films and slides to manipulating sound and lights (with projectionist Perry Hoberman). The ingredients may be disparate--she can move from elements as ancient as hand-shadow puppetry and the percussion of hand claps to projected graphics and texts that suggest a new age Sesame Street--but the result is less goulash than bracing broth. She also takes sound, of her voice especially, and turns it inside out: on "The Language of the Future," a Vocoder, a voice-transforming instrument, turns Anderson into a deep-voiced man; elsewhere, her voice altered, echoed, fractured, harmonically thickened, it allows her to become a dozen distinct personae.
One can trace connections without impugning their new uses. Despite its pop instincts, her music owes much to Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk and Steve Reich; it also has a debt to Walter Lantz cartoon tracks and '50s television. Anderson's sometimes mordant wit suggests Gahan Wilson, Paul Krassner and Charles Addams, but there's also the sharp gentility of James Thurber and Will Rogers. She is an adventurer, as well: Trained in the yesterday of classical violin, Anderson transports that instrument to tomorrow (via electronics and attack) so that it only vaguely reflects its past.
Anderson may be misunderstood in the sense that, like a billboard, it's up to the viewer-listener to buy the message or not. And the message is open-ended--meanings and interpretations tend to accumulate from the enthusiasm of the audience. The parts of "United States" performed last night dealt with transportation and communication-- essential predicaments enlivened by a fervent imagination.
It's a measure of her acceptance that Anderson has "hits." "O Superman," a genuine No. 1 in England, pulsates hypnotically, as does "Born, Never Asked," where Anderson plays the five notes of a toy saxophone in urgent counterpoint to thick, rhythmically spellbinding track. Other breakthrough songs included "Walk the Dog" and "Let X=X." There was so much more, of course: neon slight of hand, caustic travelogues, portraits of truly interesting characters, technology's tool and subject, and the playful exposition of words. We see hues in colors, but Anderson allows us to see the hues of words. She also makes us laugh--mostly at ourselves, the shock of recognition tempered by the sound of surprise. Which may be why Anderson reaches us so easily. The second half of "United States" will be performed tonight.