The Washington Post

Words on a String

In a world-premiere piece, Laurie Anderson and her crew translate subtle sounds into text

For nearly 40 years, musician, singer and performance artist Laurie Anderson has been hauling around truckfuls of equipment for her tours: keyboards, effects pedals, cumbersome computerized samplers. For her upcoming tour, much of her equipment can fit into her carry-on.

“The rig that I’m using is so cool — not to geek out,” she says. “Tiny keyboards, paper-thin foot pedals. It just folds up into nothing. Well, the violin doesn’t fold out yet.”

Anderson is a godmother of performance art, immersive narrative music and electronically manipulated instruments. She fashioned her own electric violin bow out of magnetic tape (instead of traditional horsehair) and built vocal-distortion boxes decades before the current electro-experimental movement in indie rock circles. Her most recent album, 2010’s “Homeland,” examined post-9/11 America through disjointed vignettes, soundscapes, and the manipulated voice of Anderson’s male alter-ego, Fenway Bergamot.

This time around, she’s collaborating with the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet on “Scenes From My New Novel,” a piece commissioned by the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center that will make its world premiere there Friday before heading to Australia, France and Italy.

“Doing shows, doing music, is really fun, but what I really like is making things,” Anderson says.

That’s where the custom-designed software ERSTE comes in.

The Kronos members were interested in designing something that would allow their instruments to generate a story — through real words in real time. Anderson was on board, but, “Then I realized, I don’t know how to do that.” She turned to Liubo Borissov, a robotics designer and expert in computerized music, who created ERSTE.

The instruments (she’s on viola) are plugged into the program, which amplifies the subtler sounds they give off as they’re played and translates the sounds into words and symbols projected onto a screen.

“The scraping, the harmonics, the overtones — they’re coming from the resins of the string, but they’re certainly sparklingly part of the fundamental note,” she says. “That’s the approach I have to strings, putting the sounds into hyperdrive.”

The result, Anderson says, is far from a typical words-over-music experience, such as supertitles at an opera. The software generates text at the speed the musicians are playing, so the audience is reading hundreds of words at a time.

“It’s a true multimedia experience,” she says. “Your eyes, your ears and your mind are switching roles really quickly, and you’re looking for how things relate. We, ourselves, are meaning machines. Do you trust your eyes or your ears?”

Working With Kronos
Laurie Anderson first met violinist David Harrington — founder of the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, which has been around since 1973 — at the Clarice Smith center about two years go. “Those guys are so fast and so incredibly professional,” Anderson says. “It’s kind of embarrassing: You can just kind of hum something to them, and they play it back completely orchestrated.”

Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m., $10-$50; 301-405-2787. (College Park)
Shauna Miller is managing editor at the Atlantic's CityLab. You can hit her up on Her.



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