Monday, January 23, 2006

First day of classes: hello, students! I'm excited to have a class of my own to mold and mangle (I kid, I kid) once again. We're beginning this "Introduction to Drama" with Beckett's Act Without Words—I think that's a nice way to get to fundamentals quickly, and to talk specifically about stagecraft rather than the film/television drama most of us are more used to.

This weekend as part of Ithaca's annual Light in Winter festival, I got to see Laurie Anderson performing the piece that derived from her being the first and only artist in residence at NASA, "The End of the Moon," to a packed house at the State Theater. Among other qualities, Anderson is a master storyteller: I'm fascinated by her use of conversational, sometimes banal language with pinpoint precision, allowing different strands of anecdote and narrative to resonate against each other, warp to the weft of the music she makes (electronically modified violin and some synthesizers), until it feels like you've been to the bottom of the world: the moon, the military-industrial complex, her dog's inability to subtract, a childhood of dark lawns, New Yorkers after 9/11, Buddhism, relationships. One of the most stunning moments came when she took a tiny camera and held it upside-down with the same hand that clutched her violin bow and projected the image on a screen where previously a moonscape had been projected: upside down we saw the violin surging toward and away from us while these enormous vibrations took hold of the theater: it recalled for me the sublimity of old science fiction movies where the awesome size of the space ship is conveyed by slowly panning across it while the engines rumble. Some of her text is quite beautiful and makes musical use of refrains, pauses, and crack comic timing. I'm interested in what she might have to teach me about poetry: the violin is an interesting emblem in that regard, because I think of the violin (thanks to Adorno) as the most lyrical instrument, closest to the sound of the human voice. There's something almost old fashioned and Romantic about the image of Anderson bowing her violin: but of course it's heavily modified in all kinds of ways, even physically: the "womanly" curves of the conventional instrument are narrowed and straightened, while her famous "tape bow" replaces horsehair or what have you with magnetic tape, which the violin "reads" producing a sound she can slow up or speed beyond recognition (in her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave the bow records the William S. Burroughs phrase, spoken by Burroughs himself, "Language is a virus"). In the most literal sense it's not her own voice at all, and the tape-bow, like the attenuated "I" of her violin, both foregrounds lyric subjectivity and puts it subtly into question. In a short interview published in the Light in Winter program, Anderson says that she's not interested in self-expression, but in collaboration with the audience. It's an attitude that I admire.

Anderson is one of the first nontraditional artists (that is, not just a painter or sculptor or working in any one particular genre) that I was ever aware of: one of my friends when I was a teenager was a huge fan and she had us listening to her albums and watching snippets of her masterwork United States and Home of the Brave (which Cornell Cinema presented on Friday night along with her latest film, a short called Hidden Inside Mountains that she did for the EXPO 2005 festival in Aichi, Japan—some of the spoken language toward the end of End of the Moon was also used as text in the film, appearing on the screen simultaneously in English and Japanese). I didn't really "get it" when I was a teenager, but I did get a sense of stranger possibilities for art than I had previously been aware of. She was also the first woman artist who wasn't a pop star that I was really conscious of—watching Home of the Brave again, though, I was struck by a surprising resemblance to Madonna in the 80s and 90s: strong personalities who managed nonetheless to be chameleons, to play with gender (Anderson wears a kind of suit and tie for most of the film and sometimes uses a special mike to make her voice low and masculine, but for one segment of the film she appears in an evening gown; the effect is startling), and who seem intent on offering their audience a kind of funhouse mirror image of themselves and their desires. Not the least part of Anderson's appeal as a performer is the variousness of her chops: she can dance, she can sing, she can create striking images, she writes interesting texts. I feel lucky to have seen her live and hope it's not for the last time.

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