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In the Belly of the Beast

Avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson surfaces with her version of 'Moby-Dick.'

October 17, 1999|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | Justin Davidson is culture writer at large for Newsday

NEW YORK — Laurie Anderson's spartan studio sits on the western lip of Lower Manhattan, where Canal Street opens into the Hudson River. Beyond the insulated silence of her white-walled rooms, derricks groan, drills pound and traffic grinds slowly into the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" begins somewhere in the neighborhood--in "your insular city of Manhattoes, belted round by wharves"--before beginning its great ocean trek. Anderson is a performance artist who has spent two decades in the nurturing hubbub of SoHo, looking south toward the Atlantic emptiness and across the river at her--and Melville's--limitless subject: America. And it is from here, in her command center alive with electronics, that Anderson has launched her own expedition in search of Melville's giant, spouting book.

Anderson's new multimedia show, "Songs and Stories From 'Moby-Dick' " arrives at UCLA this week. It is an opera as music video, full of stark, haunting songs and melting, allusive imagery. It's been sanded, reshaped and whittled down over the course of a zigzagging, intermittent tour that began inauspiciously last spring, when Tom Nelis, the actor playing the one-legged Captain Ahab, tumbled off the stage in Philadelphia, shattering his ankle.

"That was one of the worst moments of my life: hearing that thud of someone falling into the pit," Anderson says, eyes widening at the memory. "But we did a show that night, without him. I read his lines myself." She pauses, adding with a guilty grin: "I kind of like going to shows like that, where the unexpected happens."

"Songs and Stories" is back in the shop between performances, and even though this is reassessment time for Anderson, her days are crammed and complicated enough to guarantee that the unexpected will happen often. A pop musician with a tenacious cult following, and a bona fide soldier of the SoHo avant-garde, she seems always to have four things to do at once.

She sits cross-legged on the floor, still a scrawny gamin at 52. Then she jumps up, darts across the room, clicks her mouse on a computer screen, punches numbers into a cell phone, turns off a bank of humming machines, vanishes and returns a few moments later cradling her little dog. She doesn't so much answer questions as skate away and around them, letting her thoughts alight wherever they choose. At the moment her mind is on the string part she has promised to record that evening for her boyfriend Lou Reed's new album. She will have to write it in the cab, she says with a grin, obviously juiced by the pressure to improvise.


A few days later, the string part is ancient history and Anderson is sitting in a SoHo restaurant, efficiently stripping the meat off a roast chicken leg and laying it out on her plate before beginning to eat. She is a plain-spoken urban poet who always seems slightly amused. Her own celebrity, the timely absurdities of politics, the global itineraries of whales, the view from her studio window--it all gets absorbed into her terse, wry commentaries. She is a storyteller by trade, and her tone--cerebral, topical, direct and funny--could not be more distant from Melville's lavish bluster.

"At first, doing 'Moby-Dick' was almost cripplingly daunting. 'Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn,' " she recites. "That's fabulous language, but how do you get that to come out of people's mouths?"

Replete with brutish men and the gory minutiae of disemboweling whales, "Moby-Dick" has a biblical, epic tone. "It's a guy book," Anderson admits thinking early on. "What would I be doing in this?"

Yet Anderson has always concocted her own yarns and held the stage alone with her violin. So there she is, in her own "Moby-Dick," an impish presence on the Pequod's womanless voyage--rolling out Melville's rough tales in her intimate molasses contralto, as if she were narrating the book during a late-night phone call. Four male actors join her onstage, slipping in and out of the shipboard roles.

Behind them, on a pair of adjacent screens, waves charge toward the audience, antique maps scroll by, written words cascade and disappear like raindrops, stars mill and glint. The score's bare tunes curl over deep, lung-shaking drones and the deep-sea chatter of whale clicks. Anderson waves a "talking stick"--an aluminum tube crammed with microprocessors--and each stroke and swing produces a hyperactive clamor as if from an offstage orchestra of ghosts.

Anderson has had to jettison many of her early ideas, and the project has become less a staged version of Melville's novel than a piece of critical theater that swims alongside.

"I've given up on representing a lot of the characters," she says, wistfully. "I think of my notebooks full of songs about Queequeg," the hulking and taciturn Polynesian harpooner who befriends the narrator of Melville's book. "Now he'll never be mentioned."

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