Laurie Anderson has not pulled out all her plugs. But in her latest work, "Homeland," she's killed the multimedia. Wednesday night on a stage in Santa Barbara littered with candles, she stood, she sang, she spoke, she played a bit of electric violin. Three musicians were her moody, amplified, low-pitched backup.
But what seemed like a radical departure wasn't. For 100 minutes, Anderson told stories. She poked through small details about the way we live our lives. She's done this many times before. The United States, in general, has been her subject. Science is an interest. She's created shows about NASA and an opera that wasn't really an opera based on " Moby-Dick." And she's always tried to come up with dazzling ways to illustrate her points, to create an added dimension of visual irony.
"Homeland" is being billed as a major work. Last year, it toured Europe. It is about to make the North America festival round this spring and summer. Nonesuch will release a recording of it soon. UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures snagged its West Coast premiere. (She was to repeat it Thursday night at UCLA's Royce Hall.) The university's Campbell Hall was mostly full Wednesday, clearly of fans of all ages.
In interviews, Anderson has said that she has come to believe that the decline of many aspects of our nation is predicated on keeping people distracted, and she worries that she may have become a party to that with her own multimedia extravaganzas. There are now screens everywhere you look -- who needs more?
The real way to connect with people is the old-fashioned way, through stories. She observes that the Bush administration, for instance, tells its stories and gets its way. On the other hand, the press, diluted by the glitz of television and the Internet, has become ineffective. To help save society, she has given herself the task of taking back the narrative.
That happens to be something she is very good at. For all her ability to exploit visual symbolism, her real talent is as poet and performer. Wednesday night, she was a 21st century bard. She still has a few tricks up her sleeve, including that vocoder that gives her a man's voice when she needs to sound like a snake-oil salesman. But everything was meant to create images in the listener's imagination.
She began by evoking an empty world. Birds flew before the Earth existed, and the first bird's death was a dilemma. There was no place to bury the body but on the back of one of its offspring's heads. That was the invention of memory.
Anderson's world today is a bleak one of black Irish despair. We are bodies in motion, manipulated by advertising and politicians. It's a good time for bankers. It's a good time for experts, because only experts can deal with a problem, solve a problem, decide what is and is not a problem.
It's a good time for business if your business is war. Just keep calling up the kids. Whatever you need -- American soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, Palestinian suicide bombers -- it's a kids' war, and the supply is plentiful.
Anderson's performance style is well defined. She can create a catchy tune. She often speaks in a detached style over atmospheric harmonies. She is particularly effective when she operates somewhere in between; her version of Sprechstimme is unique.
Anderson's band is multinational. An Icelandic bassist (Skuli Sverrisson) plunks barren bass notes. A Swiss keyboardist (Peter Scherer) enforces an unobtrusive electronic wash. A terrific South Korean cellist (Okkyung Lee) is a rhapsodic presence. All were best at low volume.
While she's emptying sockets, though, she could conserve even more energy. An acoustic Anderson would probably be going too far, but the evening had more lighting and more stage fog than it needed for an artist concerned with removing veils and clearing the fog of war.
As the most important multimedia artist of our time, Anderson once led us to believe that story and song were not enough, however much they were at the center of her enterprise. Now, faced with the extinction of old media and what she describes as a future of empty streets because everyone is too fat to walk and glued to screens, she's reclaimed that territory with a rare, profound maturity.
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