It has become meaningless to talk about multimedia, Laurie Anderson said as she began her performance at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night. “Everyone in the world is doing it,” she said.
True enough. Everyone in classical music is either doing multimedia or thinks it better be.
And sure enough, Anderson was doing it big-time. A supreme multimedia artist who has had considerable responsibility for the mania, she happened to be reinventing the book tour. That is to say, she was not reading from her newly published “All the Things I Lost in the Flood.” Nor was she, maybe more expectedly, giving a performance of the material.
Hers, instead, was an imaginative performance of talking about the book, which is a reflection on her career, on the essence of performance and mainly on impermanence. What she’s lost lately are the people closest to her in her life — including her husband (Lou Reed) and her mother (she’s made performances on that), her dog (she made a movie about Lolabelle) and the archives of her life’s work, which were destroyed when Hurricane Sandy flooded the basement of her lower Manhattan building.
All of this has caused her to rethink what she needs and what she doesn’t. Those questions have engendered an existential crisis among musical institutions fearful that the age of the screen means you cannot have sound without some sort of fancy imagery. On top of that, they think they need narrative where narrative doesn’t belong because everything is supposed to be reduced to a story.
Most of the time extraneous media doesn’t work, because it’s extraneous. More can be lost than gained when the listener’s imagination isn’t allowed to be free. In some realms of life, we call that Fascism.
But in an interesting intersection of performances over the past few days, there were examples of how multimedia can and does work.
The night after Anderson’s performance, the composer and pianist David Rosenboom put on a program of his works at REDCAT that included experimental films by Lewis Klahr. Images didn’t have anything to do with the music. Nothing was synchronized. Nothing was narrative-ized. Instead what was shared was an artistic sensibility. The audience was not told how to feel or think. It was given examples, possibilities. The room opened up.
Again at REDCAT Monday night, the French cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton presented “Chantal? A performance by a cello player,” which was based on the work of the noted filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Wieder-Atherton was Akerman’s life partner and said to have been a significant influence on the importance of music in Akerman’s work.
In this performance, which appears to be a reflection on Akerman’s suicide three years ago, Wieder-Atherton plays along to “Saute ma Ville” (Blow up the Town), a 12-minute short that Akerman made when she was 18. After goofing around her kitchen, the filmmaker blows herself up. The cellist accompanies the film during three viewings, each with different solo pieces, each trying to capture a different aspect of her companion.
The lesson to be taken away from all three performances is that the multi matters more than the media. Anderson, Rosenboom and Wieder-Atherton each had different needs, and different ideas and means to suit those needs. The media was integral, but also acknowledged for its limitations.
Anderson reminded her fans that her hit song, “O Superman,” is really about how technology won’t save you. Nor can we save technology. Anderson no longer has the materials of her works. What she has is her ideas and her imagination. “Between thought and expression,” she explained, “lies a lifetime.”
Machines still serve her. She used beautiful projections. She played her electric violin. Thanks to old-school electronic tomfoolery, she spoke like a man and walked like a woman. She was amplified gorgeously. But she also went beyond her devices, which she had so often used to distance herself from a world askew. What her personal loss has translated to is an artistic loss of her reliance on artifice. Wonderful (and illuminating) as that once was, she no longer depends on it. She read from a script yet sounded free.
Wieder-Atherton was also confronting loss, and it was clear that technology wasn’t going to save her either. Although her early childhood was spent in Berkeley and New York, she moved as a 7-year-old to Paris in 1968, the year Akerman made “Saute ma Ville.”
Sitting directly under the screen, the cellist becomes like a small figure in the film, a hidden part of the action. The soundtrack is composed of sound effects and Akerman’s incessant singing/humming, what the French call the little song that makes life go on. She is slightly clownish, slightly slapstick (she’s been called a feminist Chaplin). Everything about her and the film is slightly off — be it the sync of sound and image, or a teenager’s psyche.
Akerman surprises no one when she blows herself up. The French New Wave almost expected as much, and one interpretation is that Akerman’s stove here is somehow related to the fact that she was the Belgian child of Holocaust survivors.
Wieder-Atherton maybe tries out that notion when she accompanies Akerman with a Jewish prayer. The cellist lays the vibrato on thick, and the effect proves maudlin. She plays two movements from Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin, in a quirky transcription for cello that seems to propel Akerman's equally quirky mopping up her kitchen. The tension is almost unbearable. Only with the cadenza from Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for cello does it feel like Wieder-Atherton has reached into Akerman’s soul.
Rosenboom’s music is not easily classified. He has been a dean at CalArts for years and not out in the public as much as he should be. He uses technology and media in all sorts of ways to explore all sorts of things. The program covered pieces from 1979 to the present, with a strong political emphasis.
One new piece, “Battle Hymn for Insurgent Arts,” was a setting for an “electrified” singer, brass quintet and electric rhythm section of Mark Twain’s shocking 1900 rewrite of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “In a sordid slime harmonious, Greed was born in yonder ditch,” one stanza begins. “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!”
On the screen above the stage, Rosenboom projected texts by French philosophers and others here and there:“Nothing is constant in the world.” The composer described a frightful “Summary of humans in the world,” in which we don’t come out looking so good.
Klahr’s film “Out of Truth (Don’t Motto),” with live music by Rosenboom, showed fast cuts of street scenes and the like, while Rosenboom attacked a piano with a Cecil Taylor level of verve and played around with computers. An electric guitar added its wails. A tabla player kept them grounded.
Here multimedia had a time-honored role of mounting the cause for insurgency. It indicated that the music was telling us to do something, but not precisely what. Like Anderson sifting through the ruins of her career and Wieder-Atherton confronting filmic remnants of Akerman, Rosenboom employed bells and whistles less to enhance reality than artistically distort it ever so slightly, all the better for us to understand what matters and, in best possible scenario, point us in the right direction to find it in ourselves.