Iconic American experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson once said, “I love to do things with language because it’s so imprecise. Most things we know as humans can’t be expressed as words.”
In her current tour-de-force work, The Language of the Future, Anderson interrogates the American narrative and how we consume language. “We are drowning in words,” she says. Last month, Anderson’s most recent realization of the 90-minute dramatic monologue triumphantly closed Ultima, Oslo’s vital contemporary-music festival. Anderson probed these themes and asked the question: “What is this computerese – a kind of high-tech lingo” where everything is “circuitry, electronics, switching?”
Who else could ask these questions? Anderson, the master storyteller of our time. Her multimedia performances rely on words: their colors, nuances, rhythms, intonations, lilts, and tones. Her theatrical recitations transform the vernacular, the banal, and the prosaic into the lyrical incantation of a hymn. In this reflective, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes acerbic work, Anderson leverages her virtuosic vocal techniques to question how our overloaded, questionable information networks are interfering with truth and reality, reminding us of what matters—or what should matter to us in the future.
One part manifesto, one part vaudeville, but always a sagacious musico-theatrical work, The Language of the Future is an ongoing exploration of contemporary culture and the art of living. It is a requiem for the great American Dream, one that asks us to recalibrate our dreaming to consider: What really is the language of the future? Can we find a new dream?
Interspersed with interludes from Anderson’s signature collection of violin, electronics, and keyboards, and presented with a backdrop of prophetic photographic images, the dramatic monologue is a series of non-sequential political commentaries, songs, parables, and personal anecdotes, interspersed with comedy and screwball antics. Anderson seems to plucks her tales from the air, as if the pages of her storybook are swirling all around, ever-ready for her to catch at any moment. She sashays from the past to the future, and from the absurd to the crucial, with mercurial ease, resting between chapters with segments of metronomic pulse, hypnotic melodies, or both.
Anderson begins The Language of the Future with the state of contemporary America and the proposed Mexican Border wall, sidelines to technology, and talks about the time John F. Kennedy sent her a dozen roses. She lovingly reminisces about her 21-year relationship with her husband, Lou Reed. Her elegiac personal/public obituary of her late partner cements her central but subdued message of human connection: “most things we know as humans can’t be expressed as words.”
And then there are the zany moments. Calling to our primal selves, the high priestess Anderson invites those present to scream for 30 seconds. The audience responds without hesitation. In another segment, she used a male voice filter to read an open letter to American politicians. (Trump?)
Anderson understands humor as a great connector. At one point she placed a pillow speaker (a contraption used to play relaxing music to fall asleep) in her mouth. She recounted a story about a time when, rehearsing in her hotel, she got a pillow speaker stuck the roof of her mouth and went to the pharmacist, who “popped” it out.
Interactive photography and film images are astutely used, with dramaturgical finesse. One of the most memorable images is a film-noir montage of letters of the alphabet falling from the sky. Symbolizing both rain and tears, the images served to suggest that our lives are drowning in stories. Poignantly and ironically, this evening of storytelling has been a transformative personal channel. “What are days for? To wake us up.”
Anderson’s messages remain, long after this vital artist of our time leaves the stage.
The Language of the Future is deliberately designed as an invitation to collaboration, and to allow new material to accrete naturally. The work is open to live Skype performances, virtual guests and collaborating musicians. At Ultima, Anderson collaborated with the nine-member music, sound, and lighting ensemble Zeitkratzer, known for its dexterous ability to shift from the high-art music of Xenakis, Cage, and Alvin Lucier to film and soundscapes. For this performance Zeitkratzer and Anderson created a dramatic overture: boisterous, rhythmic and pulsing with expectation.
Earlier in the evening Anderson and Zeitkratzer had given the world premiere of Global Concern. The 45-minute, five-movement music-theater work, with lyrical soliloquies written and performed by Anderson, addresses the ecological and environmental issues of our time. The titles of the five movements – “The Beginning of Memory,” “Groove,” “Alpenrose,” “Horror,” and “Metal Machine Music” (the last derived from Zeitkratzer’s arrangement of the notorious Lou Reed album) – offer audio and textual insights of the work. The music, though highly scored, transmitted as a set of improvised cinematic scenes. The dense, electronically manipulated score of primal grunge pulses, screaming brass, and piercing string figures was insistent, purposefully aggressive, and confronting. It was a high-octane experience.
The 27-year old festival, under the direction of Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen, this year took up the theme of “Migration: Music and People in Flux.” Not many festivals in the world are willing to program a Xenakis performance one day, a chamber-music concert of Mozart and Bent Sørensen care of Leif-Ove Andsnes on another, a presentation by the artist and director William Kentridge the next day, and an Oslo Philharmonic concert with Tan Dun after that. Ultima further embraces dance-music-electronic-theatrical world premieres by persuasive Norwegian voices such as Kari Slaatsveen, and German avant-garde futurists like Alexander Schubert. All told, the festival offers a textbook demonstration of how to take the here-and-now essence of contemporary music and embrace its diverse styles, contexts, forms, and interpreters, to create an experience of curiosity, open invitation and conversation.
As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). www.xeniahanusiak.com
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.