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Waiting for Moby 

Laurie Anderson, standing alone

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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“I’m on a total tirade against rectangles,” Laurie Anderson told me last month. She was talking about her qualms concerning the computer revolution, the way people‘s whole lives “are being sucked into a box,” and not Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, her latest and most ambitious performance piece. But the comment made the reasons for her attraction to Herman Melville’s novel more apparent.

At the close of the century of Ezra Pound, John Cage and Jackson Pollack, it is still possible that no American artist has produced as nonlinear, digressive and willfully contrary a work of art as Melville‘s Moby Dick. William Burroughs -- a former Anderson collaborator -- reportedly took pages from the manuscript for his seminal 1960s classic, Naked Lunch, cut them into pieces, shuffled, and published the book as the wild jumble that it is. It’s still, in some ways, a less forbidding read than Melville‘s behemoth, which roams a sea we’ve only begun to penetrate. A century and a half after its appearance, Moby Dick remains huge, hypnotic and alien, blowing gorgeous arcs of verbal spray in the air, sinking into incomprehensibility, hurtling through unexpected depths and caverns, surfacing again.

That‘s why Anderson likes it. “I try not to know what I’m doing,” she says about her own creative process. “I trust the things that arise out of the cracks.” Her art has always been wildly free-associative, incorporating dance, pop song, polyrhythms, storytelling, digital gimmickry and mesmerizing theatrical imagery into breathtaking and sometimes maddeningly elusive evenings that trace the meandering path people have taken through the blizzard of information we have created.

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So the choice of Melville for her first attempt at adapting a text seems natural enough. The irony is that in this essentially layered and murky source material, Anderson seems, after more than 25 years, to have located the sweet, solitary center of her own art at last.

Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, which received its West Coast premiere in October at UCLA‘s Royce Hall, is far from perfect. First of all, adding Anderson’s artistic restlessness to Melville‘s produces an evening of dizzying intellectual and emotional leaps and dips, and the overall effect can be exhausting. There are some fundamental technical problems as well, surprising given Anderson’s long-standing facility with technology of all kinds (her reservations concern not computers themselves, but the way computers and computer programs, in their current form, limit creativity). The volume is cranked to nearly uncomfortable levels throughout the show, and when actor Tom Nelis seizes the stage for his rampaging, furious, fascinating turns as Ahab, his speech is miked so loudly it‘s virtually incomprehensible. And despite the fact that the current Anderson Moby is a significantly trimmer, sleeker version of the nearly three-hour epic that debuted last spring, it’s still fraught with some clunky, easy observations that don‘t deserve the pregnant pauses Anderson creates for them.

The minimal stage set featured a movie screen, a railing suggesting a ship’s deck, and nothing else except a black rocklike bump in the downstage left corner. On the rock was a book lying open on its spine; the pages of the book lifted, fluttered and fell back like a sea gull‘s wings. “The most fun, for me,” Anderson says, “is making giant paintings,” and this first one cast an appropriately stark, romantic and lonely spell.

The show itself began as so many of Anderson’s pieces have, with her standing at the rear of the stage alone, back to the audience as she stares at a film of the sea, electronically enhanced violin in hand, spiked hair bristling like porcupine quills. This is the first work in which Anderson has employed other actors, but she appears in almost no scenes with them.

From this relatively serene, mournful opening, Songs and Stories quickly evolves into a maelstrom of stunning visuals, bass- and percussion-driven droning grooves, arresting and uncharacteristically athletic dance segments (Nelis‘ first whirl on and over and through his crutches as he stalks the stage is a spellbinder) and Anderson’s usual free-roaming chatter.

It had been several years since I saw an Anderson piece in person, and the first thing that struck me this time was her command of her various media. In terms of both visceral impact and poetic imagination, Anderson‘s computer-driven imagery makes Robert Wilson’s look like an “Intro to Paintshop™ ” tutorial. My favorite moment featured a man walking onstage reading aloud from an oversize book. A glassy white moon lowers from the rafters. Suddenly, the face of the reading man appears projected onto the moon, distorted but not ugly, mouthing the words. Every childhood dream I ever had about the Man in the Moon, but also about writing, somehow making a mark on the enormous, impenetrable world, and just walking at night with words in my head, came rushing back to me.

Anderson took voice lessons before her 1989 recording Strange Angels, so the skill and range of her singing is no surprise. And she has always been an urbane and very funny storyteller (there‘s a segment here about aging bull whales separating themselves from their pods and swimming in irregular circles talking to themselves “like the last man in a flooded world” that is particularly wondrous). She has become so comfortable using digitally altered voices (her old-man voice in particular) that she’s practically schizophrenic, drawing whole people we already know out of herself. Rarely, though, has this multifaceted artist seemed to be firing on so many cylinders at once, or shooting off in so many directions.

It was during that bull-whale story that I began to see the pattern that has sometimes seemed invisible or, to her detractors, nonexistent in Anderson‘s work. Of course Anderson spends almost as much time on the story of Pip the cabin boy who gets washed overboard as she does with Ahab. Of course she spends most of her stage time by herself. Of course she bases a long song around Ahab’s orders to the ship‘s carpenter to build him a new leg “so I can stand in the rain.” In the end, this new piece is at least as much Waiting for Godot as Moby Dick. Characters race across the stage, stare out the ends of it, stare into films of the sea, race back, sing, run into each other, separate. Like everything Anderson has ever done -- but more obviously and movingly -- this is about loneliness, the never-ending searching for meaning and, especially, company.

Looking back over past works and recordings later that night, I found dozens of such moments in Anderson’s oeuvre. There‘s “World Without End” from 1994’s Bright Red, where Anderson murmurs, “When my father died, we put him in the groundWhen my father died it was like a whole library just burned down.” The sense of people as not just fathers, friends and lovers but also unique compendiums of information and perspective is particularly Melvillean, but also infused by a very contemporary existential angst. Then there‘s the operator comforting a midnight caller on 1989’s “Hiawatha,” from Strange Angels, saying, “I know who you‘re tryin’ to call, darlin‘, and he’s not homehe‘s been away . . . yeah, this is your country stationAnd honey, this next one’s for you.” There‘s the pleading mother talking to a machine in “O Superman,” the song that first brought Anderson into the national public eye 20 or so years ago, and the one-armed man in 1986’s Home of the Brave who wanders into a flower shop and asks, “What flower expressesDays go by, and they keep going by endlessly?”

These characters are suffering from a sense of disconnection, but mostly, they‘re longing for companion travelers, a sense of permanent and unbreakable connection to fellow beings that 20th-century humans seem singularly incapable of retaining. When, at the haunting end of Songs and Stories, Anderson talks about the “phantoms that walk before us,” telling us that we “can walk on water,” she seems, finally, to be talking about our apparent inability to harpoon our fates to anyone else’s. The wonder and the seductive sadness of Melville‘s story, for her at least, is not the fate of Ahab, nor the glorious cruelty of the sea, but being left “alone to tell the tale.” For Anderson, we are not all Ahab, but Ishmael.

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