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Here are the program notes Laurie has written for

Songs and Stories from Moby Dick

Laurie Anderson ©1999

I began to work on this project because a multimedia producer was making a series for high school kids about books. He was worried that books are disappearing and he wanted to do something that would get kids interested in reading. So he asked several artists to pick their favorite books and write monologues about why they liked them.

I chose Moby Dick. Although pieces of Melville's text have cropped up in some of my songs and films over the years, I hadn't really read the whole book since high school. And I was a bit nervous. I had a dim recollection of being very bored by a lot of the whaling details and technical paraphernalia. I also remember thinking that the captain and his obsession with the whale was a bit over the top, too fantastic, too Shakespearean.

Then I read it again. And it was a complete revelation. Encyclopedic in scope, the book moved through ideas about history, philosophy, science, religion and the natural world towards Melville's complex and dark conclusions about the meaning of life, love, and obsession. Being a somewhat dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.

The project for high school kids never materialized but I read Moby Dick five more times in a row. I began to hear it as music. The rambling, rolling sentences, the lapses into iambic pentameter, the lyrical poems all mixed with the thee's and thou's of another time. And the stories? On one level, Moby Dick is a magnificent collection of essays and short stories about the night sky, the behavior of polar bears, theories about the origin of the universe, all entwined with countless bits of information about rope and weather and oars and the many objects of a lost nineteenth century world.

It's also a tour de force in narrative style. Melville tells his stories in hundreds of shifting voices, as botanist, lawyer, preacher, historian. These narrative styles and forms of address, from dry to dreamy, morph rapidly. And it's this daring approach to narrative voices that I've found most exciting and original about the book. Imagistic, concise and associative, Melville built his world and inhabited it with a cast of the living and the dead. Spinoza, Noah, Job and Jonah sailed on the doomed Pequod just as much as Ahab, Ishmael, Pip, Queequeg and the crazy cook.

Is Moby Dick a Tragedy?

Of course, from page one we know the ship will go down. Everything relentlessly moves to that vanishing point. But for me the Pequod is more like the Mayflower than the Titanic. When the Titanic sinks it's spectacular, it sinks expensive technology, money, power and savoir faire. It's a perversely satisfying experience, like blowing up the White House in "Independence Day". But when the Pequod sinks, it takes a whole universe down with it while somehow building a new one.

So what does Melville have to say to late twentieth century Americans? Obsessive, technological, voluble and in search of the transcendent, we're a lot like our nineteenth century forbears. Melville's search for meaning is alternately frustrating and illuminating, multilayered and elusive, like the great white whale he searches for. For me, a key question is asked, almost as an afterthought, at the end of Father Mapple's famous sermon, "So what is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?" Yes, really. What do you do when you no longer believe in the things that have driven you? How do you go on?

Translation and Invention

Translating a complex and classic literary text into a multimedia production is a completely new kind of project for me. I've attended enough meetings of the Melville Society and read enough of the newsletter over the years to know that whatever I did with the book would inevitably have many gaps. How could I catch the spirit of this book and represent what I loved the most?

Visually, I've tried to create several levels for the action by making a set where characters can emerge and then be reabsorbed into a more abstract place, a device I've used in pieces like "The Nerve Bible". The images themselves- words, water, paper, flowing textures, gritty machines fire and constellations- are meant not so much to conjure a place as to create a parallel dream world as well as to provide visual counterpoint to the sound.

So how much of this show is actually Melville's text?

According to my very fast computer, approximately ten per cent. Sometimes I picked my favorite passages and left them alone. ("Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn...") Other times I used only an idea or phrase to build a song. ("Because in all men there reside certain properties, occult and wondrous and hidden.") Other times, in the spirit of Melville's digressions, I just invented things and added whatever I felt like adding.

In writing lyrics and words that would be sayable, I've used several methods to shorten the words and make them resonate when spoken aloud. In addition to the discursive quality of the text, much of Melville's language rings very differently for us than for his contemporaries who knew their Bibles better. When Melville wrote "Consider the subtleness of the sea...and how its most dreaded creatures glide underwater carrying on eternal warfare since the world began" this no doubt alerted his readers that he was making a dark rhyme with "Consider the lilies of the field..." from the Sermon on the Mount.

The World of Sound

To start with, obviously Melville was unaware that whales can talk and sing. He compared them to the "tongueless crocodiles of the Nile" and most of his descriptions of them are visual or spiritual. In fact Moby Dick is a curiously silent book. For every description of sound there are hundreds of visual descriptions. Instead, the music is all in the words and the way they riff and trip, skip and lumber.

Because Melville's visual and mental world is so wide ranging, I wanted the music to reflect this. And besides, the realistic approach would have meant restricting myself to solo tambourine, the only instrument actually on the ship. "Songs and Stories..." begins with "Audite" an invocation in Latin inspired by Corsican singers who have developed a vocal style somewhere between Gregorian and Muslim chanting.

Audite o vos in terra habitantes

Hanc fabulam, audite de oceano.

Et quo modo petiverint. Id quod desiderant

Quoque modo eos tandem consumpserit.

Loquimini, o machinae, de libertate

Loquimini, o machinae, per aerem temporis nostri.

Listen, o people of the land.

To this story of the ocean.

And how they looked for what they wanted.

And how it ate them in the end.

Speak, machines, of liberty.

Speak through the air of our time.

In the world of sound I've tried to represent Melville's various voices through digital filters. Also, The Talking Stick, which I have been working on with a design team from Interval Research and Bob Bielecki, is a new wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound. Much of the book invokes disembodiment, phantom voices. The Talking Stick is a physical representation of the disembodied voice as well as being an extremely physical and digital descendant of turntables.

As for characters, the performers in tonight's piece shift through many roles and voices, sometimes they're readers, sometimes sailors sometimes commentators or critics. Of course there is no way to tell the whole story in an evening. My goal is to translate some of my favorite parts of the book into music and images that suggest the flavor and strangeness and beauty of Melville's world. And finally to make a world of my own where ideas and obsessions take a new sensual form.

Melville's Bible

When I told a friend I was working on a project based on Moby Dick he just about went crazy. He said, "Moby Dick?! Moby Dick?" He said he had something for me and a few days later he brought over a big box. Inside was Melville's Bible, which Melville bought just before he began writing Moby Dick. It was filled with pencil notes and markings, many of which his wife had apparently erased (their relationship being far from idyllic.)

My friend, who had gotten the Bible at Sotheby's, had checked through the Morgan Library and their contacts with the FBI, to see if it would be possible to reconstruct the passages that had been erased. The consensus was that this would have been possible if the marks had been erased thirty years ago, but not a hundred and fifty. So I went combing through the Bible with a magnifying glass, looking for little marks, signs, anything that might have something to do with a whale.

And then I found it. Isaiah 27:1. "In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea." Next to this verse was a check mark and a long squiggle. And I thought. That's it! The whale is his snake and the ocean is his garden, the place where he works out good and evil.

Songs and Stories from Moby Dick is in the end a kind of palimpsest, a piece of paper that is constantly being erased reinterpreted and re-shaped through many different lenses and filters. It has been a fascinating and wild journey for me, trying first to understand the book and then to bring it to life in a new way. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne whose approval he sought throughout the writing of the book. Disappointed by Hawthorne's reaction, Melville dedicated his next book to a mountain. "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" is dedicated to Herman Melville and to his search for the unknowable.

Back to HomePage of the Brave: Laurie Anderson by JimDavies (jim@jimdavies.org) Last modified: Mon May 3 18:21:16 EDT 1999