Stories are so powerful that it’s a wonder people don’t put more effort into them. It’s dull to hear the same drab tales told over and over again. From the familiar “things are getting worse” to the hard-working “bad people are up to their old tricks,” stale plots are the default and cliches are the norm. For Laurie Anderson, the veteran performance artist who will appear at Campbell Hall on Wednesday, April 9, stories are where the action is-literally. She believes that “when you tell or listen to a story, you kind of act on it. Stories are magic; they can start wars. If you look at people’s stories, you see that the winner is usually the one who tells the best story. We are a story-savvy media country.” Anderson has dubbed her newest show Homeland, a word that she says she’s not sure really applies to America right now, because it is “so tender, and maybe too sentimental for us. But is has a bitterness to it as well.” Homeland, like all of Anderson’s work, is a multimedia production, and it will be supported by an electronic ensemble that will feature Anderson’s vocals, filtered through some of her trademark technological gadgetry.
Talking about her methods from her loft overlooking the Hudson River, Anderson reflected on the mix of stories and voices she’s using in Homeland, saying, “One is a straight-ahead narrator, and one is a whisperer. Those parts are mostly written out, but I always save something to write the night before each performance. It’s dangerous, and sometimes those bits flop, but I need the challenge of that spontaneity to keep it fresh.” The piece opens with something from Aristophanes’ The Birds, which Anderson caps with the line, “this was the birth of memory.” From there it’s on to what she calls “a fractured narrative about change. I’m speaking through a male filter again, for the first time in years. At the beginning of the project I thought of that character as the voice of authority, but : then it changed.”
Homeland has more music in it than many of Anderson’s recent projects, and will be released as an audio CD later in 2008. Writing the music for Homeland took place over more than a year, and was done “mostly on the road, with different groups and radically different types of people.” But the constant mixing of musicians was not a distraction for the composer. On the contrary, she said, “I hear the different players in my head when I’m writing because the instruments and their individual sounds are so diverse. The Chinese violin that I work with has an old radiator sound that’s like nothing else in the world.”
As for the politics of Homeland, the emphasis is on avoiding the expected response and investigating the sources of knowledge. In “Only an Expert,” a track from Homeland that’s now viewable on youtube.com, the refrain, “only an expert can deal with the problem,” becomes an ironic obstacle to appearing on the Oprah! program. To be on Oprah’s show, according to Anderson, you need to have a problem, but if “only an expert can deal with the problem, [then] only an expert can see the problem.” And if only an expert can see the problem, well, without them there’s no problem. From this light-hearted opening, the piece swiftly modulates into the tense atmosphere of military expertise, in which the problems-like the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq-are only visible to “experts.” It’s Anderson’s gift that keeps these gradual transitions from feeling forced, and escalates her political satire to the level of global conflict, wrapped in the delightful, ever-surprising tones of a master storyteller.
Laurie Anderson will bring Homeland to the Campbell Hall stage on Wednesday, April 9, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for details.