Laurie Anderson – Here Comes The Ocean
Friday, March 6
Laurie Anderson was invited to the NZ Festival as one of the guest curators – that meant performances from Anderson as well, including this: her symphony of ocean-inspired songs from late husband Lou Reed and various texts and spoken word pieces of her own around improvisations from her touring band of virtuoso players augmented by some of our own local talent.
First off, I want to say that this is a great example of the Festival getting it right – bringing world class talent to collaborate with local artists, creating a jarring, profound, occasionally baffling and often brilliant work that could only ever exist in this moment and on this stage – never to be repeated (at least not in quite the same way). It was a melding of cultures that never felt forced (unlike the Festival’s opening night mess). It was also – in as much as one two-hour show can be – a near-perfect snapshot of what Laurie Anderson, performer, conceptualist, is about; a good portion of her life’s work and themes served in precis right here and in this moment.
That means there was some walk-outs, some heads being scratched, a lot of polite applause and one or two standing ovations that were probably as much to do with herd mentality as actual appreciation of what had been heard. Again, that’s what an arts festival needs to be offering – something that is challenging.
But there was so much beauty on offer here. Horomona Horo’s use of Taonga pūoro fit perfectly – helping to cover wave song and nature sounds that found connection and space around the warm bass lines served by master Greg Cohen, and as an added texture to the lines created by cellist Rubin Kodheli and violinist/guitarist Eyvind Kang.
Megan Collins and Budi Putra from Gamelan Wellington collaborated and connected with multi-instrumentalist/percussionist from Anderson’s touring unit Shahzad Ismaily to contribute rhythmic subtleties, as much about energy as demarcating the time.
And at the helm of it all, very much the captain steering the ship for this ‘Ocean’ voyage, even if she delighted in the suggestions of their being no real chart given the improvisatory aspect, was Anderson. Her electric violin, her keyboards, her sampling of Lou Reed’s voice on one occasion, her direct lift of James Brown’s Get On The Good Foot on another and of course her voice – a tool, a calming agent, all at once the most human sound and then alienated via filters and software; as human and machine were made to morph.
There were beautiful songs buried deep in there – particularly Reed’s Cremation (Ashes To Ashes) from his 1992 masterwork (Magic and Loss) and of course our title song, from Reed’s 1972 solo debut – but also part of the Velvet Underground’s live sets a couple of years earlier. And there were moments of musical magic that seemed to appear like little epiphanies (a chamber-esque piece that felt like Penguin Café Orchestra in its fleeting moments) as well as abrasive drones and groans from gongs and things that were never close to approaching actual songs. All wonderful and/or hideous – depending on the eye and ear (and ‘air’). There were also interpolations of lyrics from other places – Joni Mitchell’s River, Reed’s Dirty Blvd – made over as new mantras.
I loved the chance to hear and see Anderson – I thought Horo was a subtle star (as he was in the previous evening’s conversation with Ismaily and Anderson) and I simply enjoyed the fact that this strange new symphony built from the parts of previous songs and brand new, in the moment improvisations, could be given its hour (and 50 minutes) to strut and fret across the stage.
“The great thing about art”, the writer Tom Robbins was fond of saying, “is that it serves no purpose”. That’s another way of saying we, as an audience, a recipient, need to bring the purpose and a context to the work. It exists in and of that moment – and maybe its great purpose is to take us away. To make us forget for a moment. Or to confront and challenge us. Anderson’s use of the recurring ocean motif reminded us – in her words and in the movement of the music – of the fragility of earth, the hostility of politics, the simple joy that can be taken from human connection. There were words from her, in performance and in banter between the pieces, to support this.
There was something profoundly deep about how skillfully integrated all the facets of this riveting and frankly bonkers set of works unfolded. Tai Chi moves, deep remembrances of loss, the feedback drones of Reed’s guitars (serviced by his faithful roadie, Stewart Hurwood) were all given space. And time. Those two key ingredients for true artists.
And it was also a reminder to me of how ‘weird’ someone can be without ever seeming like they’re trying too hard. Anderson skirts across the fringe and darts toward the mainstream. She won’t be caught in either pool. But she’s dipped her toes in various waters and knows the temperature across the board. She’s a true artist. And this was a reminder of her dedication to her craft, her singular belief, her ongoing curiosity.
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