New York

Laurie Anderson

Holly Solomon Gallery

Laurie Anderson’s 24 tunes in the jukebox were available for 25 cents a play except for Thursdays, when they were free. Ten plaques on the wall represented lyrics, musical notations, photographs, and stories about the genesis of some of the music—but they were no substitute for the music itself, which, I’m told, is due to be released by the gallery as an LP.

Despite the jukebox and the polished sound-studio work behind the songs, this was not another rock-in-art’s-clothing effort. Anderson translates personal sensibility into layers of technique independent of the 45-rpm market and, indeed, often independent of anything to do with audio. If the plaques added anything, they served notice that some of the music was arrived at through film, or video, or performance art. Lyrics, when there were lyrics, extrapolated a stoical wit from life as we know it in the art world and the seven o’clock news.

Speak Softly, But Carry A Big Stick, subtitled “A Film-Song in 24/24 Time,” was organized on the sound film speed of 24 frames per second. Frames of Anderson’s mouth speaking lyrics were coordinated with audio also divided into 24 bits of information per second; as the film flickered blank frames one of the sound tracks was accordingly “stuttered” through a phase shifter. Of course in this installation only the sound part was apparent. Other layers of organ and voices were slowed down and speeded up; their eeriness, however, was not half as strange as the unaltered monody of the song’s lyrics spoken through a Jew’s harp.

Other songs ranged from a stereo representation of Steven Weed’s discomfort with FBI interviewers on both his right and left, to Fast Food Blues’ advice on how to dispose of your art, to Unlike Van Gogh, based on Anderson’s editorial tribulations when she reviewed gallery exhibitions for a certain “large glossy, square magazine, known for its intellectual, one could say, hermeneutical, approach to art.” Some songs are fast, some bluesy, some studied, some glossy, many funny—mostly tightly constructed and tonally lean.

In his seminal essay “Input-Time and Output-Time,” Nam June Paik pointed out that “video art imitates time structure.” The essay extended into a visual medium Cage’s long walk through a nature of music based on durations of sound and silence. Based on time, all mediums and techniques are co-equal, and because so many artists have demonstrated this stridently, Anderson can work on this assumption implicitly. Time-honored values such as anecdote and entertainment are admitted to the mix.

The jukebox’s hidden counter revealed that catchy titles and tunes were most popular: It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You (For Chris Burden); New York Social Life; and If You Can’t Talk About It, Point to It (For Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Ludwig Wittgenstein). Least played, and one of Anderson’s favorites, was the more severe Video Double Rock. It has gone through several metamorphoses in presentation. In the film of the same name a monitor placed On a moving rocking chair was filmed from a swinging hammock. In the audio piece two violins slithered through scales in parallel and contrary motion.

The violin grounds many of Anderson’s pieces as a source of personal anecdote and a marker both of rhythm in time and harmony in space—the violin bow as metronome and as arch. In her performance piece Songs & Stories for the Insomniac Anderson projected a film of a windshield wiper in motion over a slide of a causeway arch. In White on White she played the violin in the light of two projectors; for a score the bow followed the patterns of a cursive script, and as her arm-and-bow’s shadow blocked the blank light of one projector, the shadow revealed the writing on the wall of the other projector’s slide.

Text is even more instrumental to Anderson’s work than the violin: she conducts an ongoing dialogue with her monologue. This has often been expressed as autobiography: she filled her violin with water and played some leaky Tchaikovsky as she told a tale sad but somewhat true. More recently an accumulated technical vocabulary (backed by the technical proficiency of Bob Bielecki) has partially replaced autobiographical accumulation. A case in point is her recent invention of the viophonograph, a battery-powered turntable mounted on a violin, to be played by the violinist using a bow with a phonograph needle attached; a specially made 45-rpm record of eight bands, one note per band, is the source of all music. (Perhaps unknown to Anderson—and just about everyone else—is the invention in 1740 by J. Wilde of the nail violin, in which nails driven around a semicircular sound board are made to vibrate by violin bow. There exists, notes my solemn music dictionary, a quartet by F.W. Rust for nail violin, two violins, and cello.) This strange quirky clarity, a humor with antecedents both profound and bizarre, is cousin to Dennis Oppenheim’s contraptions and projections; but the subtle chains of metaphor are distinctly Anderson’s.

Barbara Baracks