So how does one label Laurie Anderson? The sprightly performer with the distinctive tousled hairdo first gained acclaim in the ’70s as a visual artist, exhibiting in New York City’s better galleries while honing her performance skills in the cities alternative clubs and performance spaces. In the late ’70s, Anderson began integrating spoken word, found sounds, tape manipulations, synthetic sounds, organic instrumentation and visual imagery into both her performances and her exhibitions (which became increasingly hard to tell apart), ultimately “crossing over” into the pop world with her unexpected 1982 hit “O Superman.” Since that time, Anderson has graced the world with an increasingly eclectic and challenging collection of musical recordings, films, videos, books, installations and CD-ROM’s, while continuing to develop her unique live performance style.
Ultimately, then, it would seem that Laurie Anderson is the human being for whom the phrase “performance artist” should most rightly have been coined. But during the performance of her original work, Speed of Darkness, at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall last week, Anderson explored the ramifications of a new label that has emerged as a buzz-word of these crazy digital times: she has found herself more frequently being dubbed a “content provider” than anything else these days. “I hated the phrase at first,” Anderson noted midway through her set. “But I’ve gotten used to it now as it just seems so functional and so . . . inevitable.”
Speed of Darkness is one of Anderson’s most low-tech creations, which is apt given her dissection of the contemporary computer cult and the unprecedented sundering of form from content that has been spawned by that cult’s zealous on-line devotees. Standing before two banks of keyboards with a pair of microphones, a guitar and a digital violin that produced sounds akin to a symphony orchestra playing traffic sounds, Anderson declaimed in her engaging, sing-song voice for nearly 90 minutes Tuesday night, sometimes even singing, sometimes even offering something that was almost a song.
Subject matter oscillated giddily around Speed of Darkness‘ basic technological core, with recipes for hotel hot dogs, beaver trapping instructions and stories about Dolly the sheep, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Thomas Aquinas and an old Cree Indian illuminating points through inference that would have been difficult to approach directly. Anderson’s language remains as rich as ever, her gift for stunning phrases seemingly never-ending. “When my father died, it was like a whole library burned down,” as an example. Or “Technology is taking the human race on a reckless ride to nowhere.” Or “What do you with something really big and powerful that you don’t understand? You worship it.” Or even “Current moves through bodies, then it doesn’t. That’s digital.”
Anderson’s most powerful music was made during a recurrent theme played on her violin-cum-orchestra-cum-highway-sound-generator, with the remnant of Speed of Darkness being soundtracked by gentle, Jean-Michel Jarre-like bubbly synthesizer noises. Taken alone, this music would have been quickly forgotten. Taken as part of a greater whole, however, where mood and nuance and thought and expression were as important as sound, Anderson’s mastery of the synthesizer was sublime, demonstrating just how truly evocative atmospheric music can be when crafted by a creative master. Let’s just hope the Muzak people don’t ever get a hold of someone like that.