By Drew Daniel
April 27, 2021 1:53pm
Back cover of Laurie Anderson’s album Big Science, 1982.COURTESY CANAL STREET COMMUNICATIONS. PHOTO JAMES HAMILTON
“DO NOT LET YOUR THOUGHTS WANDER,” says a woman’s familiar voice. She is speaking into a microphone in an isolation booth, her mouth pressed so close to the sensitive diaphragm that we seem to feel more than hear the mutual caress of her lips as they savor each distinct syllable of an English translation of a fourteenth-century theological text on the Buddhist afterlife. This voice wants to guide us past fearful passions and worldly attachments and into an ecstatic beyond. In defiance of a simultaneously cramped and hyperstimulating mediascape, we are enjoined to “enter undistracted into clear awareness.”
This is a passage from Songs from the Bardo, an album by Laurie Anderson, Tenzing Choegyal, and Jesse Paris Smith that adapts the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The nomination of this album for a Grammy in 2020 might not be surprising or, let’s be honest, even interesting. In the words of Public Enemy, “who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?” Anderson already has one, for Landfall (2018), her collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. That melancholy suite, occasioned by Hurricane Sandy, reflects on loss, memory, and extinction. Landfall won for Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance, but the category in which Songs from the Bardo is nominated startles: Best New Age Album. Genre categories are always up for debate; even Justin Bieber felt aggrieved and misunderstood when he received a Pop nomination, despite what he sees as his R&B bona fides. But the work Anderson has produced over the past four decades is typified by wry humor, sidelong seduction, and fugitive unease—the very “wandering thoughts” that this new recording cautions against. There is something both curious and revealing, something wonderfully right in the album’s very counterintuitive wrongness, about Anderson’s metamorphosis into a New Age artist. As soothing as it can be, Songs from the Bardo also recapitulates the artist’s longtime themes of temporal and emotional displacement.
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Though she is best known for her musical recordings and performances—including a chart-topping single (“O Superman,” in 1981), a symphony for car horns, and several concerts for canine audiences—Anderson has also created a video game (Puppet Motel, 1994), two feature-length documentaries (Home of the Brave in 1986, Heart of a Dog in 2015), as well as installations, books, and VR films. She has collaborated with artist Nam June Paik, choreographer Trisha Brown, writer William S. Burroughs, and such musicians as Peter Gordon, Brian Eno, Colin Stetson, and, most significant, her late husband, Lou Reed. From jobs at a McDonald’s and on an Amish farm, to her yearlong stint as the first artist in residence at NASA, there’s an essential restlessness to Anderson. Her drive to capture place through precise observation is shot through with a skittish awareness that locations and their casts of characters are always shifting.
In 1977, Arch Recordings released New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media. The compilation compresses decades of avant-garde trends in composition, with an all-female roster to refute the patriarchy of the canon. Side A begins with Johanna Beyer, an unsung pioneer of the 1930s, then moves on to luminaries of the ’70s—Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel—before Side B ends with something altogether different: “New York Social Life” by Laurie Anderson. While starkly abstract landscapes of oscillator keenings and knotty tangles of modular synthesis prevail in the rest of the compilation, “New York Social Life” hits the ground running with a ludicrous twanging on tamboura in sync to a relentless patter of speech that I will take the liberty of reproducing at some length in the breathless manner of its delivery:
well I was lying in bed one morning trying to think of a really good reason to get up and the phone rang and it was Gary and she said hey hi how are you what’s going on how’s your work going oh fine you know just waking up but its fine going okay how’s yours oh a lot of work you know trying to make some money too listen I gotta get back to it I just thought I’d call and see how you are and I said yeah we really should get together next week and have lunch and talk you know and she said yeah I’ll be in touch ok ok take care take it easy bye bye and I get up and the phone rings again and it’s a man from Cleveland and he says oh hi how are you listen I’m doing a performance series and I’d like you to do something in it you know you could make a little money I don’t know how I feel about your work you know its not really my style kind of trite but listen it’s just my opinion don’t take it personally so listen I’ll be in town next week I’ll give you a call we can discuss a few things and I hang up and it rings again and I don’t answer it and I go for a walk and drop in at the gallery and I say hey hi how are you fine how’s your work going ok you know it’s just not like it was in the sixties those were the days there’s just no money around now survive produce it’s a jungle out there but just keep working . . .
She cycles through several of these conversations about making work and trying to get paid for it, with the interlocutors’ voices made tinny, to simulate their travel through the phone lines. Reaching back to the run-on prattle of Nichols and May comedy routines and Warhol’s speed freak transcriptions, “New York Social Life” is forward-looking, too. One could also imagine this spiel delivered in deadpan voice with constant stare into a smartphone camera becoming a viral hit on TikTok. Barbed, funny, and relentlessly self-aware, Anderson’s monologue captures a familiar artistic persona: the self-obsessed motormouth. But the identity of the speaker is up for grabs. Is she a composer? A writer? A performance artist? A comic? Who cares? The spicy stew of careerism, anxiety, honesty, and self-deprecating humor that Anderson serves up on “New York Social Life” seethes with bratty impatience at the nostalgia of older avantgardes. Anderson saying “it’s just not like it was in the sixties” sideswipes much of what precedes her on the compilation, skipping sisterhood and artistic solidarity for the cooler pleasures of satire.
Time moves on, and now we can say that “it’s just not like the late seventies anymore” with similar aplomb. Still, Anderson’s vision of New York as a hot zone of manic self-promoters has held up. If anything, the drop in real wages and rise in rent have made this portrait of artistic precarity only more painfully apt. But the real interest of this piece for me is not the mirror-play multiplication of a one-woman show through technology, but the geographical and cultural force field it generates between New York and Cleveland, when the caller from the latter city tells the speaker her work is “trite” but he wants to put it in a performance series anyway. If New York sneers at Cleveland’s tastes, Cleveland holds its bullshit detector up to New York. That tension between downtown cool and its antithesis in Midwestern America—which we can also see inspiring two comparable figures making similar work at the same, Robert Ashley and David Byrne—would drive much of Anderson’s most compelling subsequent work.
“New York Social Life” usefully allows us to examine Anderson’s art at a revealing flashpoint before she became, for better or worse, that overfamiliar and unknowable thing called a star. The piece came before the living artist was overlaid by hindsight’s patina of inevitability. “New York Social Life” captures the lean, tense crouch before the spring forward. That spring forward was 1982’s Big Science, an album born of a multimedia live performance piece, whose sparse, haunting arrangements have a curious staying power. On its opening track, “From the Air,” Anderson is already experiencing déjà vu, along with a sense of nonspecific yet imminent crisis. Over layered loops of saxophone and drums, a plane’s captain gives a firsthand account of a crash as it happens, but his in medias res narration already imagines its own replay as a black box recording: “This is the time, and this is the record of the time.” Nonlinear narrative pervades the album, which draws density from mixing references to disparate places and periods: Indigenous American drumming and singing techniques and reworked nineteenth-century European opera tilt against the state-of-the-art computing, vocal processing, and sampling technology of the early 1980s.
The centerpiece of Big Science is “O Superman.” First released in 1981 as a seven-inch on One Ten Records, the song is a hypnotic eight-minute mini-opera for vocoder, electronics, brass, and wind instruments that foregrounds the slinky elasticity of Anderson’s speaking voice as musical instrument and dramatic resource. The bright, repetitious ostinatos that enter in the third minute suggest the absorption of Terry Riley and Philip Glass’s Minimalism, but it’s an influence that is worn lightly and dropped after a few cycles. There are older bones beneath the surface. Anderson’s composition is in fact an adaption of Jules Massenet’s “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père,” an aria from his 1885 opera Le Cid. This kind of Oedipal gesture toward European high culture has long been a pushing off point for the downtown New York City avant-garde; Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique (1967) began with Moorman playing Massenet’s “Elegy” on the cello while wearing a blinking bra. Anderson stacks Massenet’s chords like cargo on the puttering motorboat of a looping vocal sample: “ha ha ha.” The rhythm speeds ahead beneath the harmony’s weight, as the Massenet libretto meets the Tao Te Ching in a meditation on power and gender in freefall: “when love is gone, there’s always justice / and when justice is gone, there’s always force / and when force is gone, there’s always Mom / hi Mom.”
There are obvious similarities between “New York Social Life” and “O Superman.” They both exploit the dramaturgical possibilities of the telephone conversation, and estrange that situation through selfconscious role-play in which Anderson speaks from various perspectives. Voice is at once intimate and unreliable, undeniably present to us as an immanent experience of sound but beguiling in its intention, source, and valence. Yet “O Superman” has an expanded range of musical, historical, and political references that exceeds that of its precursor. It doesn’t abandon satire, but takes a more panoramic, emotionally expansive perspective. It moves beyond satire while keeping it in view.
The target is wider. The subject is not New York and its fishbowl of patronage and hustle, but the Cold War United States as a built environment and distributed network of increasingly schizoid miscommunication and everyday needs in which the competitive slogan “every man for himself” from Big Science plays against the fearful awareness in “From the Air” that “we are all going down, together.” This tension at the level of language, between the fear of being controlled and the desire to stay connected, is reduplicated at the level of the sound of the record: “cold” electronics and “warm” voice keep changing places. When the slowed-down wolf howls on Big Science are juxtaposed with Anderson’s purring cyber-mom voice reminding us “don’t forget your mittens,” the record gestures somewhere beyond the suburban zones of freeways and sports centers and drive-through banks, the “golden cities, golden towns” of an imaginary Midwest. Born and raised in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago, Anderson seems both alienated and inspired by this Midwest of the mind.
If the Cleveland man from “New York Social Life” found Anderson’s work “trite,” Anderson could wield that same judgment against others. Anderson’s affectionate skewering of Dolly Parton on “Walk the Dog,” the B side to the “O Superman” single, offers an instructive case in point. It’s a moment of arch postmodernism, in which Anderson’s cool-kid irony sends up Parton as a dowdy and passé purveyor of homespun hokum. After hearing Parton singing about homesickness for her Tennessee mountain home on the radio, Anderson’s squeakily processed narrative voice slyly asks:
You know she’s not gonna go back home
and I know she’s not gonna go back home
and she knows she’s never gonna go back there
and I just wanna know who’s gonna go and walk her dog?
Time has a funny way of reorienting perspectives. Worshipped by vast swaths of a grateful public for her child-literacy work and her funding of Covid vaccination research, even as her skills as a songwriter are increasingly lionized by critics, Parton’s brand is stronger than ever. Now both women look, in their distinct generic spheres, weirdly similar: they are savvy show business survivors, hardy perennials, dispensers of what we might as well call wisdom.
OVER THE 77 MINUTES OF SONGS FROM THE BARDO, gongs, bells, and traditional Tibetan singing trade off with tense, modernist passagework for strings and piano as they circle around the constant presence of Anderson’s narration. The Tibetan Book of the Dead has long been a touchstone for experimental musicians, inspiring both the turbulent musique concrète of Pierre Henry’s Voyage (1962) and the glacially slow minimalism of Éliane Radigue’s Trilogie de la Mort (1993). The origin of Songs from the Bardo lies in a concert performed with Choegyal and Smith for Tibetan charity, which led to the group decision to make a more expansive and controlled recording. Studio conditions allow for a close mic, producing an effect that verges on ASMR’s tactile sonic intimacy. The specificity of the book’s address to a recently departed soul that must resist its own enmeshment in desire in order to successfully evade reincarnation produces in the listener the peaceful feeling of imagining that they are already dead.
For the contemporary audience, the text’s frequent commands—listen closely, do not fear, do not be distracted—offer admonishment and an implicit rebuke to the endless, pointless, addictive glitter of the feed, the hypermediated life of the extremely online. To assess this record as if it were “the new Laurie Anderson” record would be a mistake. It is very much the work of a trio, and it is far closer to a kind of guided meditation exercise or a conspicuously lavish and precisely executed audiobook.
That said, there are moments when Anderson’s phrasing and cadence take prominence. These moments offer a revealing index of her enduring force as an artist. On “Dancing with the Crescent Knife,” one hears her lean into particular phrases and elongate certain syllables with the same mixture of arch self-awareness and insinuation that made the songs of Big Science crackle and sway. She activates the text’s frightening imagery of the “wrathful ones” in the afterlife. Here’s a representative passage:
From the west of the mandala he who is called the Great Symbol Vidyadhara will appear, red in color, with a radiant smiling face, embracing his consort the Red Dakini, dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.
As Anderson scrapes her bow in a wrenching passage, her voice offers counterpoint, elongating the “a” in “gazing,” making it languorous and faintly erotic. It’s a canny musical decision: the violin seems to illustrate the violence implicit in the text’s charnel imagery of skulls filled with blood, while the voice acknowledges the embrace of the consort, inviting us to hover between threat and invitation. It’s a moment of dialectical tension—voice going one way, instrument another—that suggests the boldness of this undertaking.
It is telling, too, that in the liner notes to this recording Anderson connects Songs from the Bardo to the very beginnings of her art career, when she was studying sculpture at Columbia University under Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. Discussing Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, Anderson emphasizes the intense scrutiny that sculptural training in the Minimalist tradition demanded, and the sensitivity to how a sculpture “displaces space.” With this insight in view, Anderson’s work over the long loop of her career—from “New York Social Life” to Big Science to Songs from the Bardo—appears to examine sound’s power to displace the listener, as well as the technologies by which sound itself is displaced, and how these techniques and effects are interconnected. Language captured in the non-place of the recording studio invokes locations that the listener is invited to virtually traverse, but not inhabit: an airplane about to crash, a shopping mall yet to be built, an imaginary grave. To use the locution of answering machine messages so frequently exploited in her early work, Anderson is always “not home right now.” She is always sonically pulling us elsewhere, slyly undercutting our security that we can trust what we are hearing, know who is speaking, or where they are taking us. Whether hustling into the gallery, lost en route to town, or crossing the “muddy swamp of desire” within the psyche, Anderson’s work remains always in transit, shot through with vagabond themes and a tense reckoning with damage. The scale of her vision varies. But Anderson’s imagined spaces are landscapes of change and loss.
The concerns of Songs from the Bardo do not need to reach for relevance to hit home, but it is undeniable that they gain force from their surrounding context at the present time. It has been a year in which losses, individual and collective, have only compounded. As of this writing, the death toll from Covid-19 continues to climb daily, and the pandemic’s shockwaves of unemployment and food insecurity impact the arts sector just as they have hit countless other economic sectors and forms of everyday life. Against such a backdrop of turbulence and confusion, it is understandable that people will turn to art for solace, reorientation, and repair. Against such a backdrop, a wealthy and successful art star encouraging us to let go of worldly attachments might well seem grating, since it ignores material questions of resource allocation above and beyond the attention economy. The Laurie Anderson of “New York Social Life” might have some tart remarks for the creator of Songs from the Bardo about who can bear exactly how much loss, and of what kind. And yet, the lessons of compassion and understanding offered by the Laurie Anderson of now seem equally valid and resonant.
Hearing the sound of a voice that we thought we already knew, we find ourselves changed again by Anderson’s endurance, which offers us a lesson in the vital skills of flexibility, humility, and collective participation, a voice that can express loss and still tells us “do not fear.” Feeling stuck, feeling trapped, or all too exposed, many of us could stand to learn how to dwell within a constant feeling of displacement. Some of us can choose such a condition, and others find ourselves thrust into it. If you can, from wherever you are standing, try to listen to Anderson without distraction.
This article appears in the March/April 2021 issue, pp. 50–55.