New York

Laurie Anderson

Brooklyn Academy Of Music

One could claim that Laurie Anderson is a second-generation, card-carrying conceptualist by simply sketching the outline of her United States Parts I–IV, a six-hour anthology of 78 performance bits from her last seven years of performing. “Numbers count,” this double-talking allusionist might say, and in this epic case they add up to both more and less than their large sums.

Since her first significant performance, As: If, 1974, Anderson’s work has been remarkably consistent. Like all major artists she repeatedly, obsessively treats a handful of themes: technology, urban daily life, alienation, apocalypse, dogs, foreign places, politics. Her style seems to have been set early; in United States it is refined and blown up to epic proportions rather than developed. Telling autobiographical anecdotes and reciting aphoristic wordplay in her flat, evenly modulated voice, Anderson stands at the center of a visual and aural technological complex—slides, film, animated drawings, electric and electronic-sound instruments—which counterpoints, comments on, and sometimes just illustrates her pictogramlike language. Like other “romantic” conceptualists (Philip Glass, for example) she erects an armature of clear, simple structure, on which she hangs her quirky, personal, almost always ironic epiphanies. Anderson evokes rather than analyzes or prescribes—she’s a lyric ironist, not a savage critic—and while her twists are oblique, they’re no less pointed for their deceptively understated flatness. Her quizzical, knowing, but idealistic mindset speaks clearly for a generation that graduated from college in the activist ’60s, studied itself in the ’70s, and now stares blankly at the start of the ’80s—what to do?

United States summed up two dramatic changes from Anderson’s earlier work, both of which have played a major part in her sudden mass popularity. Her performance persona has mutated from that of a long-haired, white-gowned, hippie waif from the ’60s to that of a late-’70s spike-haired, black-suited punkette. (Her attitude, however, remains the same “Gee whiz, I saw/heard/felt/thought this strange thing” figure.) The second change is the now almost total musicalization of Anderson’s performances. Americans on the Move, 1979, was the first of them to reverse the ratio of music to chatter; presented like a live-concert version of a concept album, its dozen-plus cuts—songs “about transportation”—were connected by spoken and visual segues. This piece, eventually renamed United States Part I, gave Anderson a flexible model for anthologizing her mini-bits into larger works. It also gave her a performance that adapted easily into a record format.

So United States I–IV unfolded like four back-to-back double albums of performance music. Par for that extended format, it displayed an impressive number of stunning highlights along with some negligible filler. Part I suffered the most from the blown-up length and scale; a miscellany even in its original form, its mini-pleasures and mini-insights seemed a bit mini on the huge opera-house stage. A larger problem, one that bedeviled all four parts to some degree, was the stop-and-start dynamic built into the mosaic design—any momentum was fitful, moment-to-moment. Things picked up in Part II when sections with Laurie and her electronic doodads—voice-altering Vocoders, neon violins with recording-tape bows—were intercut with more all-out pieces for a full, amplified band (Bill Obrecht and Chuck Fisher on horns, Ann DeMarinis on synclavier, and David Van Tiegham on drums). Filled out and pushed along by this driving ensemble, these longer works—“O Superman,” “Let X = X”(which first appeared in Artforum, February 1982), “Language is a Virus,” “City Song”—were spectacular songs showing a minimalist/conceptualist heritage in their aphoristic lyrics and simple, repeated riffs. They were accompanied by similarly systematic visual imagery—clocks, maps, grids, video-game displays.

Parts III and IV displayed Anderson’s growing confidence and increased dexterity within her narrowly defined vocabulary. The wit was sharper (“I dreamed I took a test in a Dairy Queen . . . on another planet”), and the set pieces were even more hypnotic and riveting; Blue Lagoon’s cartoonlike animation of waves curling up on a beach with a slide overlay of a sunset, lulling synthesizer riffs, and quotes from The Tempest for lyrics could have been a show in itself. Other sections of these parts also exhibited excellent visuals (projectionist: Perry Doberman) and elaborate musical arrangements (producer: Roma Baran).

Anderson easily held the large stage throughout the entire opus, although for much of it she was its only occupant. Her luminously meditative presence, a kind of selfless egoism, gave off the same kind of generous performer glow that has always given her shows an intimate emotional edge. United States was literate—few performers are as inventive with language as Anderson—and authoritative; its complex technology worked flawlessly, courtesy of Anderson’s longtime systems designer, Bob Bielecki. Overall, however, it was not transcendent, as many other Anderson performances have been. Blame that on its swollen length, its piecemeal structure, its sameness of tone, but don’t pin it on Anderson’s art itself—she’s been moving before and she will be again.

John Howell