Meditations on Music: Laurie Anderson

“How do we begin again?”

These were the words that ended Laurie Anderson’s concert this past Friday at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison, WI. Coming from the 2010 song “Another Day in America,” off of her album “Homeland,” the lyrics still resonate within today’s climate, a subject of Anderson’s spoken word throughout the night that she approached explicitly, yet tactfully and originally. With this project, titled “The Language of the Future,” Anderson weaved personal stories and the like into the bigger picture of today—the shifts in power, war, turmoil and so much more. But even with little to no background on Anderson prior to the performance, aside from hearing several of her albums, I was quickly submerged into the dreamy, mysterious yet familiar world she brought forth with her idiosyncratic use of multimedia.

The first few minutes of the concert went like this: Anderson stepped onto the dark, smoky stage and played contemplative, swooping electric violin with an electronic backing of ominous percussion; told one of two jokes she knows and explained why sometimes she wishes she did stand-up comedy; and had everyone—nearly 1,000 people —screaming at their loudest for about twenty seconds. No matter how well anyone there knew her work, I am sure no one could have predicted that opening—but that is Anderson for you. The screaming was inspired by Yoko Ono’s response to the election this past year. Having experienced many manners in which artists unify their audiences—through words, actions, music or other tactics—I would say yelling out our frustrations in a primal way worked pretty damn well. (On a side note, if you want to hear her joke, just flag me down when you see me— my delivery will not come close to hers, but the joke itself holds up.)

Despite all that happened in the beginning, the performance did not hesitate to find its footing in a more somber, reflective and subdued atmosphere. With this atmosphere, Anderson was able to go anywhere, and it was this fluidity and freedom that had me in awe and inspired me the most out of all of the aspects of “Language of the Future.” One moment, she would be telling a story about her childhood, and instantaneously—but not without conviction—she would switch to commenting on today’s politics, then turn it on its head yet again to experiment with lush, raw textures on violin and keep on going, creating a flow that felt anything but quilted together but rather spun from a single piece of yarn. Anderson’s art cannot simply be boiled down to just painting, just music or just spoken word (the list does go on), and I knew that going into the show, but to witness its non-linear and unpredictable culmination live was simultaneously exhilarating and calming with tinges of unfathomable.

While Anderson has certainly has a distinct voice as a multimedia storyteller, innovation and invention also play a large role in her artistry. Two new techniques were shown at this performance, and their drastic contrasts with each other proved that she is not even close to running out of new ways of interaction and expression within her worlds. Desiring to “sing like a violin,” Anderson repurposed a pillow speaker by placing it in her mouth and using it like a talk box, shaping her mouth to get a thin tone with vibrato. Following that, she told a story about accidentally gluing it to the roof of her mouth due to leaked battery acid, and despite the alarming nature of what happened, this was one of her stories where she effortlessly dipped into a more comedic delivery. The other invention, a software that projected randomly generated written words in an identical cadence to her spoken words, allowed Anderson to discuss the futility of small talk and how we have begun to evolve to multi-task, albeit insignificantly. Running software in the middle of the performance may seem out of place, but I assure you it was not; she tied everything together with purpose.

From the expansive yet intimate visuals, to the soundscapes that reverberated throughout, shaking the concert hall, to the stories upon stories—unsettling, humorous, poetic—Anderson fabricated a world where it was possible to think about the world and ourselves in a productive, insightful and even entertaining way. I am convinced that few understand themselves as well as Laurie Anderson understands herself, and for her to share that was something special.