Form and Story: Laurie Anderson at UH

Laurie Anderson resists categorization. The Mitchell Artist Lecture is an annual event that aims to bring “icons of the avant garde” to the University of Houston. And you can read the long list of reasons why Anderson fits this bill on Wikipedia, but on Wednesday night at the Moores Opera House she embodied a more complicated set of questions the twentieth century has asked about music and art on the whole. She opened her lecture by stating “I’m going to talk about a few of those things I supposedly do, but really…I’m a storyteller…I’m going to talk about some ways I try to jam those things into different forms.”

Why do we need categories? Anderson spoke about the “Art Police” commanding “Get back into your category!” She was reminiscing about the 1970s, when “Nobody really knew what they were doing…We just tried everything.” The borders between what they—Gordon Matta-Clark and Philip Glass, to name a few—were doing, though, remained flexible. “Nobody ever asked me what I wanted be as a kid,” Anderson joked, “So I never decided.” Here Anderson presses against an on-going struggle, particularly in the critical sphere, to define something by placing it in a box with a specific heading: opera, musical, symphony; sculptor, writer, composer. Her interdisciplinary body of work (and that is an understatement) forces us to deal with a more repressed question: what is at stake without the box?

Why does form matter? Once performing on the street in Italy,  Anderson stood in ice skates that were frozen into a block of melting ice, and she played the violin until the ice melted, leaving the duration of her performance up to the elements. The revolutionary aspect of compositions in the twentieth century begins with tension between content and form of a work. The inventions of the twelve-tone scale, tone rows, and matrices in the early half of the century are philosophical experiments in how content is generated, and we can look to Arnold Schoenberg, a pioneer of atonal music, as a yet unwavering exceptionalist figure of the Composer. In the latter half the century, though, chance-generated work radically removed a composer from her work. Indeed, John Cage, a student of Schoenberg, sought to free the content of his music from individual (or the “Composer’s”) likes and dislikes. But it’s not a free-for-all. In chance-generated work the content is unrestricted, but the form is often inflexible. The developing relationship between form and content in Anderson’s work shows an inkling of the future: will form still matter?

How does storytelling relate to form and content? Throughout the evening, Anderson read several stories and told several others off the cuff—some of which she finished and some she left dangling without conclusion. It made her lecture seem disorganized, but the form her lecture took represents an important concept of telling stories. Think of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, for example. Ashley’s investment in American storytelling instigated a move to television—a trailblazing move for opera especially. But someone watching Perfect Lives for the first time will likely have trouble grasping its plot. Instead, we recognize the characters, and this familiarity ties it all together into a story. For Anderson, a story is a set of links: “String something together and call it a story…often I’m very suspicious of those kinds of things, but we all have our stories about our lives,” she said. As such, it’s fascinating to think about what it means for storytelling—an ever-expanding category in itself—to be the inflexible form of Anderson’s work.

A wise person chose David Eagleman, a neuroscientist interested in time perception, to introduce Anderson. Anderson’s stories ranged from ducks in ponds to watching friends die and Vipassana meditation retreats in the mountains—all deeply reminiscent. Many of the films Anderson showed ran in reverse, emphasizing varied states of passing time. At one point she stated, “Every time you tell [a story], you forget it more,” implying, too, that as memories fade they grow into stories with a life of their own. Perhaps time, memory, life, and death raise the largest set of questions, too many and too varied, that stretch throughout civilization far beyond the twentieth century—questions that have yet to be answered in any discipline.

Sydney Boyd