Thar She Bows

Performance artist Laurie Anderson puts a modern musical spin on a classic American novel

In her program notes to Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, Laurie Anderson explains her fascination with Melville's literary masterpiece: "Being a somewhat dark person myself," she says, "I fell in love with the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive." There's an irony in Anderson's statement. Tampering with classic works of literature is usually regarded as a suspect proposition, often met with scorn and derision from audiences and critics alike. (A recent local example is André Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire, which premiered last fall at San Francisco Opera and was reviled by reviewers for its inability to successfully translate Tennessee Williams' tragic play to the operatic stage.) To turn one of the greatest American novels ever written into a multimedia theater project is almost asking to be devoured by the public and press. But sometimes classic stories can stand a little updating for contemporary audiences. And Anderson, a natural storyteller and language-lover, is proving herself to be quite capable in her adaptation. Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, which has been touring the country since April, has not only been hailed as Anderson's most ambitious project to date, but is also considered by many to be her best.

Tackling major themes and creative challenges is nothing new to the keenly intellectual Anderson, whose large-scale multimedia projects encompass music, film, mime, visual projection, dance, and spoken and written language. But even two decades of incisive, experimental one-woman shows -- such as Home of the Brave, United States Live, and Stories From the Nerve Bible -- and collaborations with Allen Ginsberg, Brian Eno, and Wim Wenders -- couldn't prepare her for taking on Melville and his notorious great white whale. Not only does Moby Dick mark Anderson's debut as a director of actors (with cutting-edge co-director Anne Bogart), but it is also the first time that the avant-garde artist has worked with a text other than her own -- and no small one, to boot.

"The hardest thing about this project," Anderson admits from New York, "is the almost crippling fear that I wasn't doing justice to a book that I loved. And I've never been in that situation -- I've always been writing my own stuff. So I really was afraid that I was distorting things -- and I'm sure I am, in the end. But hopefully the angle that I'm looking at is interesting."

The initial inspiration for the production came two years ago, when Anderson was one of several artists asked by a multimedia producer to create a monologue about their favorite books for a proposed DVD project aimed at teenagers. "He was going to have Spalding Gray do Catcher in the Rye, and Robin Williams do a Dickens book, and Anna Deveare Smith was going to do Huckleberry Finn. So I said I'd do Moby Dick." The then-50-year-old Anderson hadn't read the novel since high school, and remembered being bored by much of the whaling details and technical jargon. But when she read the book again, "I fell in love with the language. And I read Moby Dick five more times in a row." The producer's project didn't pan out, but Anderson -- forgive the pun -- was hooked.

It's not surprising that Anderson, who once said that her work dealt with the "declamation of language," should find the power and majesty of Melville's magnum opus so irresistible. Yet at the same time, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more incongruous image than that of the spiky-haired performance artist, known for her digitally processed vocals and electronically enhanced violins, sitting in on Melville Society meetings and dissecting chapters of this Bible-laced behemoth of a book.

In many ways, however, it takes just such a 20th-century sensibility as Anderson's to truly appreciate Melville's 19th-century tale. Moby Dick wasn't greeted very favorably at the time of its publication in 1851; it was only rediscovered and hailed as a masterwork in the early part of this century. Taking issue with how the novel jumped around from idea to idea, contemporary critics called it an "absurd," "inartistic" book, "as clumsy as it is ineffectual," the "eccentricity in its style and in its construction" akin to "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish."

But that unorthodox mix of ingredients appealed to Anderson, whose associative and anecdotal narrative style is uncannily similar to Melville's. "I loved the crazy stories Melville told," she explains, "in the hundreds of voices that he invented -- historian, botanist, dreamer, chemist, librarian. I liked the jump-cutting around, and the way he was so free about saying all right, now I'll tell you a story about these old bones, now I'll tell you a story about a pyramid, and now I'll tell you a story about something else. And I thought, 'This is my guy.'"

In the spirit of the Melvillean jump-cut, Songs and Stories From Moby Dick unfolds in a mosaic of words, music, and images. The show -- which will be recorded as Anderson's first album for her new label, Nonesuch -- is a rather broad retelling of Melville's story, with only about 10 percent of the text coming from the actual novel. Sometimes Anderson lifts whole passages from the book ("Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn..."); sometimes she uses a single idea or phrase to build a song ("Because in all men there reside certain properties, occult and wondrous and hidden"); and sometimes she simply muses meditatively on her own.

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