Words Resonate Through the Electric Violin

Any artistic performer?s goal is to make an enormous impact on the audience. To achieve this goal with no props, little background music, and minimal setting to support the performer can seem an almost impossible ordeal. Laurie Anderson, in her performance titled ?The End of the Moon,? reached that goal with her words and shoots them into space with the simple act of picking up her electric violin.

Anderson emerged from stage right, dressed in a gray pantsuit that wouldn?t get her a sidelong glance on the street, and took her seat on an imposing armchair, one of the three main objects that dominated the stage. After a moment?s pause Anderson started to tell her first story. Her figure was lit by tiny votive candles and by a small, simple spotlight whose colors cycled from yellow to blue to red repeatedly throughout the performance. Though often her face spoke a deeper meaning of her words, especially during her humorous introductions of pieces, seeing her was utterly superfluous. Anderson captured the audience with her sound.

Her initial piece was similar to a short story ? a slow and winding progression through the eyes of someone in a foreign land, asking passersby, ?Where am I?? Anderson controlled the attention and locked the audience members to their seats with her cadence. She had a rhythm with many stops that was abrupt and sometimes very strong. The final pause of this first piece seemed to warrant the continuation of the story, but in place of that continuation, she merely walked over to the center of the stage where her violin hung. When Anderson made music on Wednesday night, she made it with her voice, but she drove her meaning to its limit with her songs. That moment when the first notes arrived from her electric violin was almost unreal. For those unacquainted with this instrument, it makes a powerful sound. It is almost a challenge to believe that the diminutive structure of the electric violin, compared to the smaller structure of a traditional violin, can produce such a noise. Particularly on the opening number, with the long silence after her last words, the electric violin seemed to produce such an enormous resonance that it created a sort of awe. This, and the beauty of the entire piece, was the real crux of how these musical ties made Anderson?s words so charged.

The joining of Anderson?s poetry with her song became more pronounced as the performance continued. In a much later piece, she recited a single line, played a few notes, and repeated the process to create a paradox that could be described as very fragmented and yet quite interwoven. But at the beginning, Anderson was at her most wry and witty state of the performance. She even did an impromptu bit by pacing a few steps across the center of the stage and weaving anecdotes from her time as ?the first artist-in-residence at NASA.? Anderson based a large portion of her readings on her work at NASA, using her unique style of poetry, or poetic stories, to convey the sense of what it is like to be the first in anything and to portray some of her observations of various areas of NASA. She spoke a bit about the space shuttle Columbia and about pictures from the Hubble telescope, as well as telling a poignant story about space suits. At this last story, she described the creation of a new form of space suit that was to be with the up and coming: a more form- fitting variety with quite a few features that seemed the stuff of science fiction. Some features included morphine injections in case of injury and a mechanism to increase the strength of the wearer?s arm. After viewing this technological wonder, she said, she was informed by a representative from NASA that in fact, the patent for the suit had been transferred to the Army. A modified version would be traveling not to space, but to the battlefield.

Anderson also discussed politics, in her own sometimes sarcastic, sometimes melancholy manner. She talked about September 11 and the war in Iraq. The grace with which she spoke, however, prevented her from becoming preachy. And, of course, there was little to argue with when she lifted the bow and produced, to accompany her carefully crafted words, the pulsing music that simply dropped the jaw.

Anderson calmly recited her stories, which are sometimes so abstract they are only comprehensible because she has set them up within the framework of this mystic journey, to the outer reaches of space and the inner workings of her soul. She possesses an uncommon talent for drawing humor into even awkward situations, such as situations where she experienced disappointment with NASA, which described human nature aptly. From the free-flowing humor she used while describing her dog to her passionate description of a relationship being torn apart, each story was cut brilliantly by her wise dialogue. The thing that set her far beyond the boundaries was her music. Not simply the bare product of the music, but how she presented it as a whole, by linking it inextricably to her words.

Anderson performed on Wednesday at the Byham Theatre. Her work is well worth experiencing in recorded form.

Michelle Bova