Laurie Anderson tells Rob Young how a great white whale lured her towards her latest revelations
ONE OF MY first epiphanies involves the Tchaikovsky violin concertos, and how an instrument can really go wild in the cadenza. It was the first time I was aware that improvising was something, it didn’t seem like those notes were written on the page. I heard them at music camp when I was 12, 13 … I guess it was because of cadenzas that I decided that I didn’t want to do any classical music any more: it was too much of a trap.
I have had a realisation about the jumpcut. When you’re playing in a show, people don’t know how weird it’s going to be, so you have to establish the width of the jumpcut very early. In other words, you let them know right away: “This is not going to be one of those logical evenings,” then they don’t get pulled along the garden path of logic. You let them know right away, “You’re going to have to jump from here to there, and let’s go, and if you don’t wanna go, then knock yourself out.” I realised that people needed to know what it was going to be, and then they would play — or not. But at least it didn’t creep up on them. Ever since I realised that, I’ve been putting in something that does that in the first five minutes, and it mustn’t be later than that. It’s like the way you make an opinion of somebody when you first meet them, and it’s hard to get over that.
Creating Songs And Stones From Moby Dick is by far the most important thing I’ve ever tried to do. It took a big bite out of me! Because it was so intimidating. And also because I was afraid Herman Melville was about to come and get me: “What right do you have to do a multimedia show with my book?” I was genuinely scared of that, because he doesn’t seem too dead. We live in his neighbourhood. I had an epiphany when reading his Bible. Somebody loaned it to me — his own copy of the Bible that he had gotten two weeks before he started writing Moby Dick. And it was full of these notes in pencil. His wife had erased most of them. My friend took it to the FBI and said, “Can you tell me what’s been written here?” They said, “Maybe if it was 30 years ago, but not after 150.” So I was going through the Bible with my magnifying glass, looking for any mention of whales, leviathans, whatever. And there it is, suddenly, in Isaiah chapter 27: “And the Lord shall smite Leviathan… that piercing serpent that lives in the sea.” I’m like: Wait a second! I realised that the whale was the snake, and the ocean was his garden.
The whale is not evil. It’s not like a monster movie, where the monster eats a few people, and people say, “Oh, he’s not too bad, the monster’s kind of sweet,” and then he comes back and kills them all. In the end they kill the monster in most of those movies. But in Moby Dick the monster gets away, and he kills them all. It’s really pretty dark. I thought, Wow, is that really what he meant? The monster gets away, and the ship goes down, and that’s it. And there’s one guy who survives to write down the story, like the guy travelling with the rock ‘n’ roll band, the nerd sitting in the back of the bus taking notes on the tour, and then he writes this tour expose. In the end, what Melville did was write a novel that’s full of such beauty: the night sky, polar bears, incredible images. So what his book is about is beauty — staggering beauty. The storyline is great, but it’s not everything: all those cardboard characters cutting up blubber, boiling it up, having their fights … Did you know his first draft didn’t have Ahab in it? Imagine him giving it to his editor, and his editor reads it: “Hmm, those guys go fishing, look around, come back, that’s it. Where’s the engine here, Herman? What’s moving this thing?”
Some of the characters are looking for revenge, and some of them are looking for meaning, rather than not-meaning, where they’re just floating around in a big bathtub and thinking, ‘Isn’t it nice to be alive?’ I think that search is particularly American — we’re very naive, we want to know why we’re here.
I realised I was going to have to get rid of all these characters, because they were in the way, and I wasn’t going to go through the book and act it out — that would be crazy. The film version with Patrick Stewart did that, and it was quite hilarious. They took the Lear point of view, so there’s Patrick Stewart doing all the famous Melville monologues — “Strike through the mast!” — in this elegant Shakespearean accent, and the camera pans round to these guys on the ship, and they’re going, “Huh? How’d this British guy-get on the ship — what’s with the accent?” It was creepy. I have to find out what the story’s going to be, what they are looking for. Forget the psychological dark side of the captain … people only have a certain amount of time and mental space for this. The book is also very much about guys working, which was a very 19th century preoccupation, defining what that meant. I think the two key books of that period were The Communist Manifesto and Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener — you can read it in about ten minutes, and it’s the polar opposite. I just got The Communist Manifesto 150th anniversary edition. What a book! “A spectre is haunting Europe …” What a great story, ending with “Workers of the world unite” … There is nothing in our century that’s like that; nothing that has that grandeur. The other book is this little short story about Bartleby, the scrivener, which was a 19th century nerd: he copies legal documents by hand, he would never leave the office and was always there working. One day the boss comes in and goes, “Hey, Bartleby, I want you to do this thing …” And Bartleby says, “I would prefer not to.” And with those words rang in a whole new era of what work is.
© Rob Young, The Wire, May 2000