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Thar She Bows 

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

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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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.

One of the things that struck Anderson in her examination of Moby Dick was how little sound played a part in the story. "Moby Dick is a curiously silent book," she says in her notes to the show. "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."

In translating Melville's written language into a visual language, Anderson says she restricted herself to a few abstract ideas: words, water, flowing textures. "I do believe that there is such a thing as too much," she says. "So I've really tried to be careful about not trying to make a multimedia extravaganza, but to really feature the words." In Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, the stage is literally awash in the printed word, with sections of Melville's text -- including some from his handwritten manuscript -- projected onto a giant screen behind Anderson and the other actors/singers at the rear of the stage. Then, suddenly, the images change: Ocean waves crash against the shore; palm trees in Warhol colors blow in the breeze; a whale's skeleton, still, haunting, hovers in the air.

Wisely, Anderson never attempts to actually show Moby Dick, realizing that the leviathan is better left to the imagination of the audience than the set designer. Instead, she portrays the whale herself, using instruments to give the creature something that Melville did not: a voice. "Melville was unaware that whales can talk and sing," says Anderson in the program notes. "He compared them to the 'tongueless crocodiles of the Nile,' and most of his descriptions of them are visual or spiritual." The whale speaks through Anderson's trademark synthesized violin, as well as through her latest instrument invention, the "talking stick." Created with the aid of Interval Research in Palo Alto, California, the talking stick is six feet long, shaped like a harpoon, and emits a variety of sounds -- including voices, percussion, and, of course, whale sounds -- when stroked. "The thing I love about it," she explains, "is that it's very musical. It's not like a lot of MIDI instruments where you just push a button and there's a sound. It's very physical, which I really like, because it's about getting away from typing. And it's just great fun to play."

Prior to her recent performances in Ann Arbor and at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music, Anderson pared down the show considerably from the original version, cutting a full 40 minutes out of the score. "The first version had attempted to do some of the characters," she says. "And it's so frustrating, because really to do some of those characters, to tell some of their stories, it would have to be 50 hours long. So this next version is much more streamlined, and I'm trying to focus on really what the hunt was about. The things that interest me in the book," Anderson adds, "are not the things in quotation marks."

What interested Anderson the most about Moby Dick are the broad philosophical issues the novel addresses. "Melville was willing to ask really big questions, like 'What are you looking for?' and 'What do you want?' There are not many books that are that obsessive in that way. And it's also the question that I think a lot of people are asking these days. Fortunately, Americans are naive enough to ask those sincerely. If you ask a French person why we live, they'll say 'To drink wine, to eat cheese, to make love.' For Americans, I don't know if those are really answers. Maybe," she says with a laugh, "the wine just isn't as good here or something."

As for whether a 19th-century sea story about one man's maniacal hunt for a whale can still be relevant to a space-age society at the dawn of the 21st century, Anderson says "I think people can relate to it on a few levels. One is that it's about people working -- and that's pretty American. Another is that you're trapped on a ship with a captain who's out of his mind. And this is not an unfamiliar concept to Americans: The guy in charge is crazy, completely crazy. And the third is that it's about something that you look for, that you're never going to find.

"We're not going to catch a lot of the references," she admits, "not knowing the Bible as well as they did back then. But I don't think it really depends on those references. I mean, they add a lot; but I think that the starkness of the story is something that people can relate to -- in the way that any kind of situation of a ship going down is terrifying and thrilling."

Anderson may not have had the opportunity to follow through on her original plan to share her love of Moby Dick with teenagers; but if nothing else, Songs and Stories From Moby Dick is getting some adults to take another look at this classic piece of American literature. "The most flattering thing that somebody has said about this," says Anderson, "is 'Y'know, after seeing the show I went out and got the book. And thank you so much for reminding me how wild it is.'"

Laurie Anderson performs Songs and Stories From Moby Dick Tuesday through Saturday, October 26-30, 8 p.m., at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft and Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $18-42; call (510) 642-9988 .

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Stacey Kors

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