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Musings that defy gravity

Times Staff Writer

From its early days, NASA figured that scientists might be able to get us into space, might be able to collect vast quantities of data, might be able to tell us a million valuable things about what’s up there, about how we got to be the way we are on Earth and all the rest. But it also realized that the scientists and astronauts might not be the best equipped to tell us what it’s like up there, what it all means to us on Earth.

So NASA has also commissioned artists to interpret space, if with little publicity -- at least until Terry Riley’s magnificent “Sun Rings” for the Kronos Quartet came along.

That led to the agency, two years ago, approaching Laurie Anderson to be NASA’s first artist in residence. Her first question, she has said, was, “Can I go up?” NASA said no. But she said yes and went up anyway. In her own way. “The End of the Moon,” her latest performance piece, which she presented at UCLA’s Royce Hall over the weekend, is the going up.

Anderson spent her residency visiting NASA facilities, observing, musing, asking questions. The new work is a bardic recounting of where all this has led her. On a darkened stage, with a wing chair, a podium and a small screen on which is projected the surface of the moon, Anderson let her mind flow. Between tales, thoughts, anecdotes, she played short melodic phrases on her electric violin.

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There was no singing, there were no songs, but the whole 90-minute performance Saturday felt like an uninterrupted melody. Her studied speech and violin playing were like currents upon which she could gracefully catch a ride anytime she wanted.

It is an irony that the NASA residency, and her immersion in its world of super-high technology, came just as Anderson was moving away from her infatuation with high-tech multimedia. She hasn’t given it up completely. Her violin is still a bag of electronic tricks. But early in her performance she got over using it to create a wall of lush sound and turned to more subtle explorations, such as using electronic delay to play canonic duets with herself.

But mainly she spoke and mused. And the other irony was that her time spent at NASA did not produce many of those cute, cutting, small observations for which she is famous. Rather it set her asking the really big questions. What is beauty? What is time?

She asks, but she also knows better than to answer. Instead she lets A lead to B to C. What does beauty have to do with anything? In high school, do we hate the rich, beautiful, smart cheerleader because she is beautiful? No, we hate her because she is a jerk. Can life be beautiful when it is such bad art, with troubled narrative structure, with people dying for no reason?

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And what about life? Anderson calls it a big clock. But time, in Einstein’s universe, is not something with a beginning, middle or end. Why then do we have so much trouble starting? Did you ever notice that stutterers stutter at the beginning of words, not the end?

But what about endings? There is no such thing as falling, because Einstein also gave us a gravity that is a trick of the eye. And when the end of time comes, look out, it’s going to be nasty. Scientists are theorizing about a new kind of inexplicable energy -- dark energy -- that could eventually wreak unbelievable havoc with the universe.

The strangeness of space and time, however, keeps bringing Anderson back to Earth. “There are such vast amounts of space and time,” she noted at one point, “that we are not going to run out of them anytime soon. Not like air and heat and oil.”

There is sadness at the end of the moon. Anderson finds that she can no longer bear symmetry. She wants one thing, not things in unrealistically neat pairs. Time flies. She suggests that when we write, we replace periods at the end of sentences with small clocks that tell you how long it took to write that sentence.

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Senses become altered. “Sometimes I think I can smell light,” she concludes.

One leaves “The End of the Moon” knowing less, not more, about the mysteries of space, about NASA, about the world we live in, about the world we don’t live in, about Laurie Anderson. That is, of course, the beauty of beauty, and of time.

It is not, alas, the beauty of NASA, however. Anderson tells us that she was not only its first artist in residence but also its last.


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