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Reviews of Laurie Anderson's Moby Dick

The professional reviews come first and the fan reviews come after.


from http://www.laweekly.com/ink/99/52/reverb-hirshberg.shtml

Waiting for Moby: Laurie Anderson, Standing alone. by Glen Hirshberg

"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.

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 ground/When 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 home/he's been away . . . yeah, this is your country station/And 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 expresses/Days 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.�


From Yahoo! news

Friday October 22 3:37 AM ET

Laurie Anderson takes on Moby Dick

Laurie Anderson: Songs And Stories From Moby Dick (Avant garde music-theater; Royce Hall, UCLA; 1,838 seats, $40 top)

By Richard S. Ginell

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - There is a telling vignette toward the beginning of Laurie Anderson's hugely ambitious 98-minute techno opera on the theme of Herman Melville's whale of a book, ``Moby Dick.''

After she plays a brooding threnody on her violin, electronically blown up to sound like a string orchestra, and summarizes the book's opening meditation on the landscape of lower Manhattan, she turns around to face the daunting projection of Melville's text on the screen. She appears awed,worshipful, perhaps even intimidated. For the first time, Anderson's performance art is focusing upon something other than her own wry, irreverent world view -- a high-powered departure from her past tours.

No longer a one-woman show, Anderson populates her high-tech stage with a supporting cast -- a bass player (Skuli Sverrisson) and four male singing actors who take on several roles of shipboard characters (one of them, Miles Green, sang one number with a delivery a lot like that of Anderson's companion, Lou Reed). Yet at the same time, her multiple-threat talents have never been so thoroughly exploited -- as a composer, violinist, keyboardist, qrhythm guitarist, singer, speaker in several timbres, and manipulator of a tube-shaped, sampler-like instrument called the Talking Stick that produced masses of richly textured sound.

After the brilliantly evocative opening images of the sea and text, the Anderson that the avant garde has come to relish finally emerges on a huge, white easy chair, spinning her trademark archly funny parallel takes on ``Moby Dick.'' Yet contrary to some of the advance reports, there is surprisingly little of this commentary throughout the piece -- and as a result, she doesn't connect with her audience as directly or as endearingly as she has in previous shows.

But there is musical invention, energy and visually arresting razzle-dazzle aplenty in this piece, the sounds often coming from a contemporary pop base. Tom Nelis' histrionic opening rants as Ahab are offset by a hilariously funky acid-jazz groove, though his long, dark soliloquy later on looked and felt more like something from a Disneyland ride.

A good deal of the work was underscored by various drones, effectively evoking the meditative qualities of a sea voyage -- and the piece has an archlike shape, veering off like Melville into various whaling arcana, coming to a neat, subdued conclusion.

For all of its diversity and occasionally baffling passages, it is a more smoothly integrated package than many a contemporary theater piece or opera. And despite the overwhelming monumentality and mystery of her subject, Anderson's unique personality manages to stay just above the waves.

Presented by UCLA Performing Arts. Performers: Laurie Anderson, Skuli Sverrisson, Tom Nelis, Price Waldman, Anthony Turner, Miles Green. Reviewed Oct. 20, 1999. Closes Oct. 23.

Reuters/Variety


Songs and Stories From Moby Dick by Laurie Anderson. The Dallas Morning News, April 1999.

As a poet, pop singer and performance artist, Laurie Anderson has collaborated with such visionary peers as Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, Brian Eno and Wim Wenders. Yet, she never imagined that the inspiration for the most ambitious multimedia production of her 25-year career would be Herman Melville's ''Moby Dick.''

''It's the hardest thing I've tried to do,'' Ms. Anderson says by phone from New York, ''to try and understand the book and interpret it in my own way and not try to see the vision of him rolling in his grave too often. Every single person who reads Moby Dick has a different slant on it and mine is based on trying to look at Melville's transcendentalism in a funny kind of way. ... There are so many ways to tell the story, and 'guys go fishing' is not what I'm after.''

The world premiere of ''Songs and Stories From Moby Dick by Laurie Anderson'' will be staged Thursday, April 29, through Saturday, May 1, at Southern Methodist University's McFarlin Auditorium as part of the TITAS season. Using high-speed computers to program the lighting, sound and visual projections, and mixing live instrumentation and voices with digitally processed loops and samples, the show promises to be faithful and futuristic, humorous and provocative, dazzling and engaging dichotomies that have marked such acclaimed projects as 1985's playful ''Home of the Brave'' and 1990's haunting ''Empty Places.''

Although most of Ms. Anderson's previous productions have been one-woman shows, ''Songs and Stories From Moby Dick'' features a supporting cast of four actor-singers: Tom Nelis, Anthony Turner, Price Waldman and Skuli Sverisson. Like Ms. Anderson, who will portray cabin boy Pip and the whale, they will weave in and out as narrators and multiple characters including Queequeg, Ishmael and Fleece, the crazy cook.

''This is a much broader retelling of the story,'' she says. ''It kind of follows the narrative, but not really. Melville himself did that, too: There are countless asides in the book. He mentions a character, and that character doesn't pop up for 300 more pages. We're changing from being characters to stepping outside of the book and looking and commenting on it. Straight Melville text is about 10 percent of the show. Sometimes I would just use a word or a phrase to build a whole song, but I've tried to just do it in the spirit of the book.''

The idea for this production came two years ago, when Ms. Anderson was one of several artists asked to compose a monologue about their favorite books for a proposed television show aimed at teenagers.

''I had so little time in high school that I rushed through the book just to find out what happened in the end, and I wound up skipping a lot of the stuff or not absorbing a lot of things I found pretty boring,'' she recalls. ''Now I find those parts completely fascinating. Melville's ideas about the origin of the universe, polar bears, the stars, human nature. It's also a strangely silent book. There are very few descriptions of sound and many more visual pictures. So when a character speaks, it sticks out. But all of the music is so inherent in the language itself that it feels like a musical book. It also sounds terrific just read aloud. The musicality of the language is really beautiful.''

Each actor will be carrying the Anderson-designed Talking Stick, a touch-sensitive, harpoon-length instrument that can retrieve digitally sampled sounds and manipulate speech to help bring Melville's myriad voices to life.

''The switches between voices, the way Melville can do that from sentence to sentence, we can now do really quickly,'' she says. ''There is a fair amount of vocal processing throughout that I wasn't able to do before. To me, it's about representing his many different voices as a scientist, a naturalist, a lawyer, a preacher, all the characters he himself is.'' DAVID OKAMOTO


Found at sea Anderson turns 'Moby Dick' into all-encompassing quest 04/30/99

By Teresa Gubbins/ The Dallas Morning News

If you haven't read your Moby Dick lately, you'll have difficulty resisting the urge to pull out the Herman Melville classic after feasting on the pleasures of Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, which had its world premiere Thursday at Southern Methodist University's McFarlin Auditorium.

Ms. Anderson, the New York singer-performance artist, was inspired to do a stage interpretation after her involvement in a program to promote literacy in high schools. But her multimedia rendition was so lush with action, colors, words and sound, she'd sate even the most craven video addict. The production was potent in that it could be appreciated on many levels, from strictly sensory to the most profoundly contemplative sentiments. "When you want something, bits of it start to appear in everything you see," Ms. Anderson said. Backed by a supporting cast of actor-singers that included Tom Nelis, Anthony Turner, Price Waldman and Skuli Sverisson, Ms. Anderson knifed through the Melville tale using a variety of storytelling devices: narrative, spoken word, poetry and song. She has a fun new gimmick - a remarkable instrument creation called the "talking stick," that was as pleasurable to watch as it was to hear. As narrow as a flagpole and running about 6 feet long, it responded to physical touch, emitting different pre-recorded sounds. A stroke would prompt first a monklike chant, then a chirp. Ms. Anderson would often dance as she played it.

The book provided the framework, and the basic story line - the search for that great white whale - emerged. But that doesn't even begin to explain the mind-blowing brain candy, visual and aural, that Ms. Anderson served. This is the kind of show that would benefit from repeated viewings, with too many sights and sounds to catalog or recall.

But the greater strength of those images were the feelings they evoked. Take your pick: Humor such as the droll meditation Ms. Anderson offered on whales, including the story of how sperm whales got their name. Or the aching for peace and comfort prompted when a series of words describing white objects - marbles, pearl, White Mountains of New Hampshire - were superimposed over photos of fluffy white pillows that begged for you to rest your head down. Or the island vibe spirited by a Warhol-like series of palm trees in lurid colors blowing in the breeze, accompanied by the sound of sea gulls.

Thanks to the nonstop, highly stimulating projection of backdrops and lights, the show had a dreamy, filmlike, nearly transcendent quality. When it was over, it was as if the audience had been on a ship - for a very long time.


http://www.phillynews.com/daily_news/99/May/14/features/FLAN14.htm Laurie Anderson's whale of a project

LAURIE ANDERSON'S 'SONGS AND STORIES FROM MOBY DICK,' 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through May 23. Meet-the-artist Q&As follow performances May 19 and 21. Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Tickets: $30-$36. Charge: 215-569-9700.

by Jonathan Takiff Daily News Staff Writer

Big themes and major creative challenges are nothing new to mixed-media performance artist Laurie Anderson. Juggling her skills as a visual artist, composer, vocalist, filmmaker, electronic instrument inventor and even ventriloquist, Anderson has spun the art and pop worlds out of their predictable orbits with staged and recorded epics like "United States Live," "Home of the Brave" and "The Nerve Bible" - the last of which debuted here for the American Music Theater Festival.

Now Anderson turns her eclectic talents and wry insights about the human psyche to nothing less than Herman Melville's epic tale of the whale (and much more), with "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick," opening tonight at the Prince Music Theater.

Venturing into an electronic world of "glistening images, unusual vocal styles and daring staging," Anderson and an ensemble of three other actors take us riding on the doomed Pequod, with the creator performing the roles of the Whale, Pip and a reader. She also performs on the violin, keyboards, guitar and her newest invention, the Talking Stick.

We recently grabbed some insights on the production from the author, director, composer, filmmaker and lead performer, though there was just one voice on the other end of the line.

What sparked your interest in Moby Dick?

It started with this guy wanting to do a kind of show for high school kids about books, to get them interested in reading. He asked different artists to do monologues about their favorites - Spaulding Gray doing "The Catcher in the Rye," Robin Williams talking about Dickens. I started thinking about "Moby Dick," a book from my high school days.

Reading it again, I thought, "Wait a minute. I don't remember this being so insane - with a million different voices and a lot of stuff about technology I'd skipped over the first time.

The project never happened, but I started thinking about developing the writing into lyrics for music. Because it's real 19th-century language with a lot of thees and thous, it was quite a challenge. And of course, we use it as a jumping-off point.

What's the contemporary relevance here?

There's a lot of stuff the technophiles will love. And it's the first book about working, with a big cast of characters, like any TV show you see about a work crew of doctors, lawyers or cops. Melville threw a lot of voices in there, not just the ship crew but also Noah, Jonah, Job and the philosophers Spinoza and Plato.

Mostly what connects is the sense of strain and questioning which was going on then and is still going on now. What are we doing here? Does our work still make sense?

People I know work around the clock. We never see each other anymore. The speed revolution has really put everyone into hyperdrive. It's highly addictive and you have the illusion you're doing something worthwhile, even if it's just entering data or cruising the Web.

Or are we just spinning our wheels? Also, having a guy at the top, like Ahab, who's out of his mind, is something we can relate with today.

Isn't this your first time directing a play with a real cast of characters?

Co-directing. I decided to do it in a moment of megalomania. I've never worked with actors before and I've learned an awful lot, watching a guy like Tom Nelis morphing from one character to another, making up the whale, stepping in and out of the 19th century.

I note that the soundtrack to this show will be coming out on the art-music-oriented Nonesuch label, ending your long relationship with Warner Brothers. Would you agree they were more committed than most other big commercial labels in doing things for the sheer sake of quality, and where are they now?

That was before they cared about lots and lots of money. Now they just care about lots and lots of money. Call me bitter, but it's true. As soon as they figured out kind of how to do it, they did it.

They had a lot of people who cared about unusual music or things that weren't chart-topping things. Then they realized, wait a minute, this isn't making us the money.

You can't blame 'em, but it's like Mario Cuomo doing Doritos ads. You wish they wouldn't. But dream on, that's not the way the world works.

I understand you're working with an operation called the Interval Research Corp., co-founded by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. Is that where your new musical instrument The Talking Stick was developed?

They've been my partners for 21/2 years. When I realized it wasn't really going to work with the art world or the music world, in today's climate, I thought "What's happening? Ah, software."

So I approached them and said, "Would you like to be partners in an electronic theater company, producing theater things and works involving a lot of technology?"

I go out there and poke around with their designers and act as a kind of gadfly, making suggestions. The Talking Stick thing has been very satisfying. I'm on a campaign against rectangles. Let's get away from keyboards - typing and musical. It's a digital sampling machine, shaped like a harpoon.

1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.


Spoleto Festival USA

Review: Laurie Anderson's 'Moby' -- the big blubber

Web posted on: Friday, June 04, 1999 2:20:49 PM EST

By Porter Anderson CNN Interactive Arts Critic

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- "I fell in love with the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive."

Believe her.

Laurie Anderson's aesthetics are being chewed up by her career-long pursuit of electronic enhancement on stage.

It's in her eloquent, engaging program notes for "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" that you find this reference to ambition and who's edible. And just minutes into the production -- in its Spoleto Festival USA presentation sponsored by AT&T -- it's clear that Anderson's proven sense for performance-artistry now is nipping at the toes of those red shoes she wears.

"Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" is scheduled to play New York in October. It's co-produced in part by Harvey Lichtenstein's fine program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM mounts the Next Wave Festival each fall. Anderson enjoys a rightful, loyal following in New York. She's a longtime favorite of the off-Broadway set.

But if her "Moby Dick" beaches itself in Gotham as it did on Thursday night at the Gaillard Auditorium in Charleston, there could be a notable ebbing of the tide.

Here are the main problems: (1) At two hours, 40 minutes, the piece runs almost twice as long as the material justifies. (2) The stage design by Christopher Kondek (visuals), Michael Chybowski (lighting) and James Schuette (set) is a repetitive leviathan in its own right. (3) And Miles Green and Bob Bielecki have designed the show's sound and electronics so that fully 50 percent of the spoken words -- and there are many -- are unintelligible.

'Moby' and mo' 'Moby'

The strongest component of Anderson's interpretation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel has nothing to do with the book: It's her music. The best is her solo violin work, the voice of the Whale. As so many times in the past, she uses electronic manipulation to submerge her listeners in a deep bath of gutsy, uneasy harmonies, many of them shudderingly dissonant, questioning, vulnerable.

We also get to hear her at times on what she calls her Talking Stick, a newly developed wireless sound sampler. At one point, she holds it like a shoulder rocket launcher -- or a harpoon gun -- and strokes its barrel to generate the sounds of a chanting choir, then a string ensemble.

But her compositions for the three men who join her as players in "Moby" are heavy, strident affairs. One is loosely based on Melville's Chapter 103, "Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton"; another on the book's sequence about the ship's carpenter; an early one on Father Mapple's sermon.

Anderson, true to form, makes no pretense of following these segments slavishly. Her notes say only about 10 percent of the show's text is Melville's. She orders her scenes according to her interests. All this is fine. All this is Anderson.

But big sections of these and other vignettes in this fatty pageant can't be understood. Voices are so profoundly distorted that whole pages of text aren't comprehensible out in the house. At intermission and again after the show Thursday, audience members were complaining -- in loud and easily understood voices -- that they simply weren't getting the words.

Worthy shipmates

Two bright spots are the staging by Anne Bogart and the male-lead work by Tom Nelis.

Bogart is the founder, with Tadashi Suzuki, of the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI). Her stage work "The Medium" still is landmark of movement-and-text theater, cerebral yet heartbreaking. In March, Bogart premiered her new "Cabin Pressure" at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Here, she serves as a co-director to Anderson, responsible for most of the staging. Bogart's love of symmetry and ensemble is a plus in 'Moby.' She handily echoes a lot of the novel's formality in her shipboard-swaying stage pictures.

Nelis, the actor who played Marshall McLuhan in Bogart's "The Medium," is along this time to play several roles. His work as Ahab the whale hunter becomes the most dependable, articulate element of the performance.

Nelis is joined with less success by Anthony Turner and Price Waldman. Neither is able to achieve much presence, each playing several characters who are largely indistinguishable. Costume designer Susan Hilferty puts Nelis, Turner and Waldman into fantastically tall stovepipe hats, one of them smoking.

But costume and stage the group as you might, the male trio is as dwarfed by the set as is Skli Sverrisson. He joins Anderson, an on-stage musician, providing the show's fabulous, ivory-splintering bass. You worry this could be the sound of the show being ground to bits between giant techno-molars.

Desktop scenic design

Are you familiar with the suites of display elements that a Windows 95 or Windows 98 program offers as "themed" desktop displays on a computer screen? You can choose one themed on Leonardo da Vinci, for example. Your screen background is a collage of his drawings, your program icons have a coordinated look to them, your screen saver features some of Leonardo's inventions.

In Anderson's "Moby Dick," Kondek, Chybowski and Schuette have done something so similar that you worry Bill Gates may be listed somewhere as an underwriter. The show uses a single, wide, raised platform upstage, a looming split-screen cyclorama at the back and a round "moon" screen overhead, stage-right -- all with matching projections and lighting.

The first time you see all this operate, it's wonderful. Anderson appears on the platform playing those fantastic Whale sounds on her violin before a mirror-imaged waves-on-the-beach projection. She looks about the size of a cockleshell. Breathtaking.

But as the night wears on? Clever bookshelf images turn up on each element of the set for a library scene. Spinal cords and skulls are projected for that anatomy-lesson sequence. Some animated cartoon projections go loping across the assembly as night-sky in constellations.

When we hear Anderson's long "Boy overboard" lament on the cabin boy Pip, there are bookend reef-and-eddies projections. A saltwater aquarium comes to mind.

And where does this long voyage of expensive, garbled theater take us? Back to Melville. By the time Anderson has Nelis finally tell us the end of the tale, he sticks close to the author's lines. "The ship? Great God, where is the ship?"

After all has been oversaid and overdone, the audience is left listening to a bit of "Moby-Dick" read aloud. The dreaded original has surfaced, unbeaten. Going down with the ship

Make no mistake: These problems have nothing to do with sloppiness or shoddy preparation. Anderson has researched her material for years; brought her powerful image-vocabulary to bear on it; and performs it in her usual earnest, clean, accomplished style.

But it needs cuts so it doesn't sink under its own weight. It needs technical restraint so its effects don't drown its words.

And it needs heart. Performance art too easily can intellectualize material, setting work adrift without emotion. It's happened this time. You feel only for the Whale here, mostly in a little lecture about ocean-noise pollution jamming today's whale communications.

This is all salvageable. "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" can be honed down to something compelling, concise and comprehensible.

Laurie Anderson is too good not to finish the job she's started. Until she does, nobody's going to call her Ishmael.

"Songs and Stories from Moby Dick," by Laurie Anderson. June 3 and 4, 8 p.m. Gaillard Auditorium at Calhoun Street and Anson Street, Charleston. Tickets $10, $20, $30, $45. Information (843) 723-0402.


SPOLETO REVIEW BY TERI TYNES

Laurie Anderson

The work of avant-garde performing artist Laurie Anderson is famously obtuse, and thus her fan base, though solid and loyal, is small and limited. Melville's Moby Dick is also famously challenging, the book everyone tries to avoid in required literature courses because it is so painfully long, a novel about a man's search for a whale and without any girls. So the presentation at Spoleto of Songs and Stories from Moby Dick by the pixie artist who superficially seems to embrace everything that is post-modern, post-deconstructive, and post-feminist (her beau is Lou Reed!) may not be to everyone's taste.

It is, however, mine, as I am a fan of both Laurie Anderson and Herman Melville. Call me a nut or call me Ishmael, but her interpretation of Moby Dick last week at Spoleto should deservedly earn her and Melville a larger and more appreciative fan base. While it will be difficult to see any of the limited remaining performances in the U.S. before its European tour, Nonesuch Records will release the recording of Songs and Stories from Moby Dick in the fall. The novel, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, I believe, is still in print.

Laurie Anderson's interpretation allows the artist to create a musical and visual language to articulate elements within Melville's rich text, a work that has invited a multiple number of interpretations. As Anderson explained in the performance, interpreters of the tale often take poetic liberties with the work, including a silent version from the `20s that did indeed invent a romantic sub-plot. Many versions focus on the tortured peg-legged Ahab such as the recent one on TV with Patrick Stewart, a Jean-Luc Picard gone mental. Most literary critics point out the complexity of the novel, a work that does seem to invite multiple readings dependent upon one's own frame of reference. Is it a parable of the Bible or an exploration of the political landscape of America on the brink of a civil war? Leslie Fiedler makes a good case in his classic Love and Death in the American Novel from 1965 that Moby Dick is a fabulously homoerotic novel that plays off the relationships between the dark angel of Queequeg and the innocent narrator, Ishmael and also between Ahab himself and his harpooner, Fedallah, the Parsee. Recent critics find in Melville's book of 1851 the seeds of contemporary post modernism.

Laurie Anderson's version is whale-centered but logo-centric. With her modified synthesized violin, she herself plays the great leviathan, commanding center stage evoking the whale's music and passion. In her musical rendering of Moby Dick's spirit and struggle, she alternated playing rough and heavily syncopated low register musical passages with highly lyrical ones. That's a characteristic of much of her work. In Moby Dick she successfully invented a voice for the whale, an animal that she pointed out already possessed strong communicative powers. Because Anderson's strengths are thought to be elsewhere (she does have a gorgeous speaking voice), she is too often overlooked as an outstanding instrumental performer.

She once said that her work dealt with "the declamation of language," and rhetoric, elocution and writing have always played important roles in her compositions. She draws attention to words and phrases and to their visual manifestation. She often projects texts on screens, repeats whole phrases, and pre-records written passages. She's partial to William Burroughs but also to Dostoevsky, the writings of John Cage, and to Shakespeare's The Tempest. In Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, the stage is often awash in the printed word, literally filling up the rear screen and the proscenium arch with sections of text. At times she makes use of Melville's handwritten manuscript. In one sequence, the text visually moves across the screen, such as the citation from the chapter, `The Whiteness of the Whale," one of the most sublime constructions of the American literary imagination.

Her presentation of Moby Dick does not pretend to cover all bases, rather the imaginative multimedia performance emphasizes passages and themes that interest Anderson as a performer and as a visual and musical composer. She tends to interpret the novel not as a sweeping narrative with a central core but as she writes in the program notes, as "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."

She's also keenly intellectual, zeroing in from the start on Ishmael's cynicism and world-weariness from living in Manhattan. She seems to find the celebrated literary inventions of Melville and the topic of whales more interesting than in the human relationships central to the novel. There's little, for instance, of Starbuck, the first mate, and his inability to confront Ahab, nor do we find much treatment, for that matter, of Ahab's motivations in casting ashore conventional morality. If her strength comes in renewing our interest in words and the possibilities of human language and in lending more sympathy with the whale, her failings come with her overly developed sense of intellectuality and cleverness. She tends to pick and choose the parts that seem most Laurie Anderson and not Herman Melville.

The staging of Moby Dick most always surprises and entertains. The physical set is simple, a raised platform upstage (perhaps too far back). A suspended globe dangling high over downstage serves as the moon but it is also able to technically project the faces of those speaking on stage. With cleverly situated live cameras, the players can also be "televised" on the rear screen. The focus of attention is often on these images displayed at back behind the players--the black and white film footage of the ocean, the still image of a whale's skeleton, and as stated, the words of Herman Melville.

The fascinations of this staging though made it tough for the three male players to grab the audience's attention. Tom Nelis presented a rather youngish Ahab, more delineated in character than the others thanks to his stove-pipe hat and crutches. Price Waldman as Ishmael(among other roles) possesses a fine speaking voice. Anthony Turner (as Fedallah and Queequeg) was not given enough to do. Aside from Anderson herself, the most important musical performer was bassist Skli Sverrison who supplied to unifying loud electric bass sounds throughout most of the performance.

Less successful was Anderson's use of her "talking stick," a long pole meant to serve as a visual symbol of a harpoon. Like the prepared violins of earlier works, she pre-recorded sounds on tape and affixed them to the stick so that she could manipulate the sounds during the performance. While a visually interesting object (it glowed also), the sounds were often unintelligible to those in attendance at the Gaillard Auditorium.

Though the production displays a few weaknesses, Laurie Anderson's gifts are numerous. She's an excellent storyteller, a gifted violinist, and an exciting conceptual artist. Her lyrical and melodious speaking voice can do anything, and she knows it, playfully distorting it as she often does with her ventriloquist "act." Songs and Stories from Moby Dick complements and strengthens her already impressive repertory. n

For those who'd like to sample Laurie Anderson's multimedia work in the privacy of their own home, the Voyager Company has just released Puppet Motel, her 1995 CD-ROM previously available only for Macs, in a hybrid version. This fully interactive and engaging piece takes the participant into over twenty rooms of a fictional motel. The whole place is presided over by a puppet, a funny little thing that looks like Laurie Anderson. Moving the mouse over elements in each room opens up bits and pieces of the Anderson repertoire--stories, songs, texts, and whole segments of The Nerve Bible.

In the funky bedroom, there's a portrait above the bed of William Burroughs that speaks the words, "Come here, little girl," and moving the dial on the bedside radio brings more surprises. Another room plays homage to detective fiction. There you can write a whole novel or rewrite parts of Dostoevsky. When visiting the music room, you can learn more about Anderson's history of prepared violins and even play them. There are many surprises in store--the breakfast-table, the planetarium, the Green Room, the palm reader, the ouija board, etc. The artist herself pops up in surprising ways here and there to tell a story. Even after playing it dozens of times, I always find something new upon each visit. Serendipitously, just the other night, the first story I came upon was Anderson's story about John Lilly, "the man who can talk to dolphins." She told the story about Lilly's telepathic communication with a whale.

Puppet Motel can be ordered from Learn Technologies Interactive by calling 1-888-292-5584. The new hybrid version as well as the Mac version sells for $29.95.

1999 Free Times Inc. All rights reserved.


Fan Reviews

I was fortunate to be 5th row center during the first of three shows at the McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas. The show "Moby Dick" was terrific. Laurie's fellow actors/performers handled their roles with perfect coordination and skill, the staging, costumes, and locale were perfect for this type of performance. The usual touches of Laurie's humor peppered the show, while the story itself was extremely interesting and very entertaining. I saw Lou Reed sitting in the 10th row and he seemed to be enjoying the show as much as all of us. The talking stick is a really interesting instrument and quite fascinating. I encourage any and all of you to catch this performance, it's worth every minute and penny, you will not be disappointed. I'm looking forward to the official release scheduled for this fall. By the way, if anyone happens to get a recording of any of these performances please, please let me know, I'd be happy to work out a trade, or whatever you require to get a live performance. As I told a friend, you know a shows good when you can say afterwards that you'd gladly go again. Well "I'd gladly go again". Later, Marc Tull
Hi folks! Well, I finally achieved a lifelong dream of mine: to see Laurie Anderson perform live, and was it ever worth the wait!

The Saturday evening show at the McFarlain Auditorium was nothing but spectacular. From the moment the first actors took the stage with glowing harpoons, to the final "...What white whale..." from Laurie, I was mesmerized.

Being a linear-type performance, the show did have a different feel to it, but there was still that stream-of-consciousness feeling about the bits and peices she had arranged. Her music was at once sincere, almost touching at times... funky (the hip-hop Ahab bit was too funny!), and pure Laurie.

The talking stick proved to be yet another brilliant and odd creation, although it did not appear as much as I had thought it might. What really got me was the original songs and stories Laurie wrote, specicially the onse about the whaling industry specifically (the name of the song escapes me, if there even IS one yet).

The staging and the imagery were absolutely amazing to look at - walls of words... spinning letters of the alphabet... mirrored images of an underwater invironment, neon palm trees (the song for that section is the best one, in my opinion) glowing, floating whales, a talking moon... never was there a moment of stagnation - at all times was there something moving and changing, with sounds that at times shook the walls, to Laurie on a stage projection near the audience on the floor with a keyboard playing a song, or playing a hauntingly beautiful violin solo... it was magic.

I urge anyone with a love of life to see this performance.

As an aside, I must relate the best part of the evening for me. I had heard that Laurie meets and greets her fans after her shows, and I was not going to miss this opportunity! I waited with a few hearty souls after the show at the back of the auditorium, and after about an hour, she appeared and began signing autographs. Well, when I first heard "The Ugly One With the Jewels," a line from the track about Andy Kaufman, "The Rotowhirl," hit a spot in my heart... she says, and I paraphrase, "I loved Andy... now I'm not one to expect to see Elvis come back around again, but I will always expect to see Andy again...someday..."

Well, I found a picture of Andy right after I heard that line and drew a portrait of him to give to her whenever I saw her. After finishing signing autographs, she turned to me and I said "Hi!" and I told her that I wasn't going to ask for an autograph, but that I had something for HER. Her face lit up and she said, "How cool!" I don't think she knew that it was for her - so I said, "This is for you," and she said "I'll treasure it always," and hugged my neck and gave me a kiss on the cheek!

Needless to say, I am still in a daze! I'd love to read any more reviews, so post them if you can, please!

Sincerely, Robert Chapman Austin, Texas


Date: Sat, 1 May 1999 03:09:20 EDT
From: Jilalan@aol.com
To: jim@jimdavies.org
Subject: want a fan review of 'Moby Dick'?

I LOVE Laurie Anderson, I've nominated her as my own personal deity. I've seen her in concert 5 times, most recently '95's Stories from the Nerve Bible/Puppet Motel tour and have been listening to her works since 'Big Science'. So... it is with GREAT regret and a little embarrassment to report that I came away from the ambitious 'Moby Dick' a little, well, BORED. It simply was not the transformative, stimulating, emotional experience I've come to expect from her.

It DID make me want to read Moby Dick and/or learn more about whales, and visually the use of projected text and mirrored images is stunning, but for me there just wasn't enough Laurie in this show. I miss her voice, her stories; seeing 3 other characters on stage more than her was a letdown, though their performances are above reproach. The highlight for me was a very brief aside where she talked about researching whales in a small London library and an effort to communicate with whales by mimicking their clicks while dressed as squid-- the only time her wit truly shone through all the gadgetry and storyline.

The whole thing was just too long, too repetitive (put my boyfriend to sleep, even the visuals got old) and a little musically overwrought at times. However, since I saw only the second night's performance (4/30 in Dallas) perhaps there are yet kinks to be worked out and some personality to be added. I like what she's doing with percussion, and it is visually/technologically innovative, but even the oh-so-cool Talking Sticks made for some awkward transitions and it wasn't readily apparent to the casual observer that they were the source of the sampled sounds.

Sober, I give it 2 out of 5 stars. Were I dosed on heavy hallucinogens, 4 stars for the lighting/projected images alone esp. underwater scenes, but otherwise I'd recommend it only for diehard Melville fans looking for a new treatment of the white whale. Diehard Laurie Anderson fans might enjoy seeing what she's undertaken, but go in thinking of it as an Anderson produced avante-garde play rather than a more typical Laurie Anderson performance, or you may be sorely disappointed.

Bottom line: looks cool, but too long and not enough Laurie.

-The .02 of Robyn W., Dallas, TX robyn@idengine.com


Laurie once again is at her best!!! I attended the opening night and the closing night performances. Because of this I was able to see the changes she made in the show. I only noticed three changes. (For those of y'all who are planning to see the opera and think this MIGHT SPOIL IT; this might. So stop reading now) The changes were slight, and basically will be unnoticed and basically don't need to be talked about.

So, let me just say that there is plenty of violin playing, stories, narratives and wonderful visual images to soak in. Laurie has three main singers who are Tom Nelis, Anthony Turner and Price Waldman. Plus she has a back up bass player who also does prepared bass and samples.

Laurie and the other performers weave a wonderful spell about, concerning, observing Melville's Moby Dick; research over Moby Dick & Melville's life, a film version of Moby Dick and lastly the origins of the naming of Sperm Whales.

There's more but at this point I think I've said enough. I will close with the fact that I got to go back stage both nights and meet Laurie (and even Lou Reed on opening night) which was great. A BIG, HEARTFELT thankx to a certain someone who got me my passes!!! All I did was say hello to Laurie, thank her for a wonderful evening, get an autograph and a hug and she was off. I feel that her world moves quickly.

With my head still reeling... Mikel

P.S. - I will answer any questions that are posted to the news group. No, I didn't make a recording of the show. That's illegal. We will all just have to wait for the CD to be released this Fall. And lastly, I picked up six programs that I will gladly give away to fellow fans who will not be able to attend this opera.


I saw Moby Dick last Thursday. I thought it was fascinating to watch, and the talking stick WAS cool. That actor, Tom Neill (?), was injured when I went too (I didn't notice anything either). There was a flaw or two. The only thing that seemed desperately out of place was that sugar-laden Carribean number that Queequeg and Ishmael did. That was jus inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the play. And that last song at the end of the first act about the spanish coin did grow a little tiresome. But other than that it was fantastic. I found the second act more enjoyable than the first and overall, I think that it brought me to a deeper understanding of some of the book's major themes. I aslo think, though, that if you didn't read the book you might be more than a little lost as to the themes she was trying to convey and even some of the stories. Other than this, I have had absolutley no exposure to LA. My English teacher bought tickets and my dad bought two from him. I was glad he did. Anyone who can think up something like Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, with its brilliant staging and provacative songs like that must be a genius. -Mike Zaleski


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HomePage of the Brave: Laurie Anderson by JimDavies (jim@jimdavies.org) Last modified: Sun Feb 20 19:41:21 EST 2000