6 June 2009 (Lincoln Center, Ft Collins CO)
Laurie Anderson has gone through a number of phases. She's been a performance artist, a storyteller, a singer/musician, a visual artist, a writer, and an inventor. Listening to 1984's United States Live, she was focused on storytelling and creating a certain kind of mood that supported the deeper observations her stories were hinting at. Then she went through more of a musical interlude, with Mister Heartbreak, Strange Angels, and Bright Red. Recently, she seems to be moving back to more spoken word performances with backing music. This show was called "Burning Leaves: A Retrospective of Songs and Stories."
Before the show, they played a bit of new age music: some piano, then keyboard work with a whistling synthesizer melody. The stage was dark except for a few dozen candles, giving a sense of depth, but revealing little except for her podium/control center and the silhouette of an easy chair. This zen-like simplicity still managed to build some expectation.
The show began with some layered violin parts triggered by her violin controller. This built into a sort of Baba O'Riley fugue. Shortly after that, she drifted into her techno-primitive storytelling mode. She uses a fair amount of technology: synthesizers, computers, looping, and her own violin-based controller to create a certain kind of receptivity. But underlying this are the same kind of techniques any oral-history passing, aboriginal story teller would use: repetitive phrasing and rhythm, and fables whose moral and focus relate to issues we face today. With her sardonic delivery and ironic observations, it might be easy to dismiss these pieces as Seinfeld-esque riffs, but there's a deepness to all of this that adds relevance rather than strict humor.
The music part of this was mostly a matter of simple loops and triggered sounds. There were keyboard washes, pre-recorded parts, and simple riffs. She did play Maybe If I Fall, but this was more of an interlude than a full musical expression. The real focus was on the stories.
Some of these were familiar to me: The Ugly One With the Jewels, Aristophanes’s The Birds, and From the Air from Homeland. There were other quite odd observations, especially a few from her show Happiness. Whether it was about her time with a dysfunctional Amish family, her anti-Zen river trip, or working at McDonald's, these tales flirted with irony but the point was more about unreasonable expectations and how our minds (and lives) work. Or don't.
The most interesting of these related her experience of being in the children's ward of a hospital, recovering from a broken back. She told the whole story with a sense of exasperation at the doctor who seemed clueless and the frustrating volunteers. But the twist came with her own recognition that she's told this story often as a way of relating who she is and suddenly realizing that she had forgotten part of the story: the part of the story that included the other suffering children. This omission is part of what we do when we tell stories; part of how we wrap them up into a tidy package and make a point. But these stories are not the truth. They are a way we lie to ourselves. "Everytime you tell a story, you forget it more."
So what are we to make of a whole night of storytelling? It's the kind of question that lends itself to strong Irish coffee and stronger debate.