Traditional stories treat plot as an artery through which everything else has to squeeze. No such convention exists in the work of Laurie Anderson, a New York-based performance artist whose meandering, stream-of-consciousness monologues mix absurdist humor with abstract philosophical ideas. Typically, Anderson will introduce a theme (i.e., cultural decadence, US paternalism abroad, the seductive force of technology) and then worm her way around it: voices collide, characters shift, metaphors shuffle rapidly to create the sense of an illusory moral center. In her most famous piece, “O Superman (For Massanet)” — the 1981 song that rendered Anderson an improbable hit — she uses the metaphor of a mother’s “long arms” to symbolize a warm embrace that becomes cold and electronic, even militaristic (in which case she deploys “arms” as a homonym). The song’s intention isn’t wholly political (it’s based on an aria, after all) but the image crackles, even if you take it at face value: a mother who coddles and then smothers her young.
Over her four-decade career Anderson created a vast repertoire of performance pieces, many of which demanded her whole arsenal of skills. (Before dazzling audiences with her strange ideas and tortuous phrasings, she was a sculptor and classical violinist.) Though wary of technology, she’s credited with inventing the tape-bow violin (which swaps magnetic tape for string) and for using cool vocal processing techniques. (In her recordings Anderson has modulated her voice to sound male, robotic, puerile, or echoey, allowing her to jump between characters and even create the illusion of a Greek chorus in the background.) Her new piece Homeland uses electronically altered sounds but dispenses with visible machinery. “It’s really driven by words,” Anderson said in a recent phone interview, adding that election-year oratory — particularly the candidates’ use of folklore and personal narrative as a form of political appeal — was one of many inspirations for Homeland (other influences: jazz musicians, Mongolian throat singers).
Often cast as a piece about “national identity” in a post-9/11 world, Homeland is an amalgamation of stories that show how the Western world is reinventing itself, and revisit familiar themes from Anderson’s oeuvre (i.e., consumer fetishism as embodied by “the Underwear Gods”). Anderson claims there’s no real figure in the carpet; she kept the meaning ambiguous by titling her piece with a word that’s seldom used in the American vocabulary. “It’s also a sentimental fuzzy word and you pair it with security and it becomes very bureaucratic,” she said. “I chose that just because part of what it’s about is national identity: How does how you feel about where you live change your idea of who you are? There’s a lot of Americans who feel disoriented lately — especially in the past couple weeks.” Homeland runs October 24 through 25 at UC Berkley’s Zellerbach Hall. 8 p.m., $28-$56. CalPerfs.berkeley.edu