Laurie Anderson: The Dominion Theatre, London

IF YOU expected an overview of American civilization from the vantage point of a New York City loft, you would have got both more and less than you bargained for. Laurie Anderson makes her intentions clear in the programme notes: –

“When I began to write United States I thought of it as a portrait of a country. Gradually I realised it was really a description of any technological society and of people’s attempts to live in an electronic world.” A big claim. Can she justify it?

It all depends what you mean by “description”. Laurie Anderson doesn’t “describe” in any scientific sense – presenting you with the facts to incorporate into the unchanged structure of your assumptions and perceptions. What she does is suggest. She lays before your eyes and ears a profusion of images in carefully considered sequence and juxtaposition, which shed new light onto what you thought you knew already and draw unexpected connections between hitherto unrelated ideas. In short, she makes you feel and think in a new way. Unspecific, but resonant nonetheless. As she says later in the programme notes: –

“…I have tried to make a distinction between art and ideas. Because ideas have a direct line to the brain; but art sneaks in through the senses. It drifts in…”

United States is in four parts spread over two evenings and clocking up over six hours. The material has been accumulating for around ten years and much of it has already been presented in less grandiose settings, such as one the Big Science LP. However, the long-awaited culmination of her efforts mirrors the scope and scale of her subject matter. This almost leads to her undoing, because United States is about a third too long. But, unlike most over-extended projects, it peters out towards the beginning before building up to a really stunning opening climax.

Much of Parts I and II (tentatively titled Transport and Politics) recur more fully and strikingly realised in Parts III and IV (Money and Love). Not surprisingly the titles have been more or less dropped, because they impose headings which hinder rather than help understanding. To be sure, Part III (Money), for instance, has many images of exchange, corruption and exploitation, but these overlap and inter-connect with ideas throughout, giving new slants and meanings depending on the context.

Furthermore, clear-cut corporate divisions would disrupt the almost seamless flow necessary to maintain the spell. Laurie Anderson lowers the emotional temperature in order to stimulate and sensitise the mind. The audience has no involvement in the performance in a dramatic sense. We attune ourselves to the rhythms, shapes and textures of the medium, the better to understand the message.

“Let’s have a look around the stage at all this sophisticated state-of-the-art gadgetry with which I cast my spell,” she announces at one point.

A gigantic screen fills the back of the stage. Films, stills, cartoons, animations and shadow-play appear in an endless montage, superimposing, dissolving and reappearing. sometimes the screen images are the focus of one’s attention, accompanied and counterpointed by Laurie’s musical and verbal commentary. Other times the roles are reversed, but the relationship is fundamentally equal and complementary – a dialogue.

Percussion, voices, woodwind and saxes (that quintessentially New York instrument) provide a musical backdrop to Laurie’s keyboards, violin, telephones and even more exotic devices. The whole sound recalls fellow New Yorker, the systems-music composer Philip Glass. The deliberately repetitious, modular music (“aha a aha a aha a aha” in ‘O Superman’s is an obvious example) is both delightfully hypnotic and corresponds to much of the visual imagery. The screen will show a pattern of squares which transmogrify to the typically American urban grid-plan or else the criss-cross of windows in vertiginously photographed sky-scrapers.

And stepping from the imprisoning regularity of the man-made environment to the mass-production of technology, Laurie dwells on pioneers such as Edison and Tesla. But more importantly, one of her recurring themes is the increasing resemblance of man to the machines he has created which now condition him to their way of working.

Laurie herself loves gadgets. Her performance is an avant-garde variety show, complete with conjuring tricks which don’t just amaze but illuminate – literally, in the case of her violin. She uses vocoders wittily to summon forth a host of disembodied voices. But the most effective instrument is her own natural voice. It is calm, clear and perfectly modulated – its cadences soothe and caress the psyche. (Clad in silky but functional black her elfin frame is coolly assured in every movement and gesture.)

By the end, the culminative impact is deeply chilling and eerie. Feeling and meaning have been left behind by the methods of communication. Symbols and language acquire a sinister autonomy, unconnected with what is originally represented.

Uneven and overlong perhaps, but United States I-IV is a masterpiece. And this is the record of the time…

© Mat SnowNew Musical Express, 5 March 1983

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