Thar She Bows

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

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 performsSongs 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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