Last night, Laurie Anderson reopened her pop mart at the Warner Theatre and completed her epic "United States" cycle.
Looking through a glass brightly, she was again the black-clad magician, pulling cultural anecdotes out of the air, exciting the eye and ear with multidimensional textures of sight and sound and misdirecting the intellect with a heady mix of humor, pathos and irony.
"Let's take a look at the state of art gadgetry with which I cast my spell," Anderson grinned at one point. While she has technical mastery to match technological imagination; her gift is that she refuses to abandon the child-innocence that transforms tools into toys.
Even as she charts the uneasy dimensions of modern communication, Anderson acts unafraid of technology. She builds artistic grids only to unlock them. She'll bring out the human element, stretching a magnetic tape fragment across a violin bow. First it makes gurgling sounds, then it reveals the words recorded on it, a ghostly but coherent statement titled, "I Dreamed I Had to Take a Test in a Dairy Queen on Another Planet." Telephones, planes and clocks invade her space, circuitry charts are her wallpaper.
Oh "Hey Ah" Anderson suggests an ancient Indian chanting over a haunting synthesizer riff and rhythm tape while a ghostly buffalo image waves on the giant screen behind her. Of course, Anderson takes it a step further, with flashing titles that tell yet another story: "I never knew the words/I never sang the songs/I never went hunting/I am singing for this movie/I am doing this for money." So much for cultural anthropology. What you see is not what you hear -- what your gut tells you may be something entirely different. You figure it out.
Much of Anderson's work is reportorial. "New York Social Life (1977)" weaves a vacuous fabric of "I'll see you/I'll call you/Okay/Goodbye," showing these words as the clues with which we beat ourselves over the head every day. Her storytelling rings with pan cultural echoes even as her stores read like filler for the late news. The newsmakers are vaguely familiar. You know them. Or somebody like them.
Last night, live music loomed larger in the soundscape than it did the night before, particularly the stark percussion of David Van Thiegham and the joyfully cacophonous sax work of Chuck Fisher and Bill Obrecht. The problems (some pieces went on too long, some were a bit mundane) seemed smaller though, perhaps because so much of the material was new to Washington. Much of Anderson's work is rooted in 10 years of performance pieces by herself and other explorers. What makes it special, though, is not the flash, the synthesis of styles or even the technology. It's the united state-of-the-heart that beats so boldly in this woman's compelling vision.