Call Her Ishmael

Laurie Anderson hunts the great white whale of meaning

Laurie Anderson cheerfully concedes thatMoby Dick was "not really asking to become a multimedia show." But she just couldn't help herself. She rediscovered the barnacled tome when a television producer invited her to create a monologue about a favorite book for a literacy project. (She hadn't read it since high school.) Though that project collapsed, Anderson reread the book six times. "I began to hear it as music," she says. She reveled in its "rambling, rolling sentences, the lapses into iambic pentameter, the lyrical poems all mixed with the thees and thous of another time." Woven into the narrative of Ahab's crazy quest, she saw a collection of little essays and tales about everything from polar bears to the origin of the universe.

Still. An avant storyteller and electronics whiz looks at . . . whaling? Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, opening this week (October 5) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, would appear to be a completely new direction for Anderson—her first piece with actors, her first with period costumes, and the first based on someone else's writing. Yet she's really only interested in the allegorical level of this fish story. "I fell in love with the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive."

As the poet Charles Olson said of Moby Dick:"It is America, all of her space, the malice, the root." Routinely, it's labeled The Great American Novel. So it's actually logical subject matter for Anderson, whose epic pieces (United States Parts I-IV, Empty Places) and one motion picture (Home of the Brave) were always about America. Of course, she's preoccupied less with landscape than with technoscape, that invisible country pulsing with waves and rays where disembodied voices drift from car radios and answering machines, where images travel through the air and materialize on televisions. That's the layer where identities and illusions are built—her subject.

Anderson is also a storyteller interested in the limits of language—all kinds. Not just words but symbol systems and body language. And in a way, Moby Dick is a tragedy about reading the symbols wrong. When Ahab informs his crew that their real goal is to find one particular fish in the sea, he argues that all visible objects "are but as pasteboard masks." And this particular White Whale means evil incarnate to him. The book is about assigning a single immutable meaning to a thing, then acting on it, acting tragically.

But let me not veer into lit crit, where the whale can stick in one's craw. Anderson's Songs and Stories will be a Moby Dick reprocessed. She follows the basic story arc: The boat sinks. But much blubber, even meat, has been trimmed to boil the thing down to 90 minutes. She regrets losing Queequeg, but now the piece is more focused. (Besides, she wanted to lose the intermission.) In fact, only 10 percent of the text is from the book. She'll take, for example, one Melville line like "were this world an endless plain" and build a song around it. "I'm walking a weird little line here, using bits of this thing and hoping that it will be in the spirit of him." She's introducing yet another new musical instrument, the talking stick, "a digital sampling machine, shaped like a harpoon." Her secret goal is to sell copies of the novel.

After the preview in Philadelphia, Anderson reports, "A woman came up to me and said, 'I'm Ann Melville.' She's his great-great-grandniece, and she said, 'Herman would have loved the show.' " As if. But the artist couldn't help feeling pleased.

Sitting in her loft on Canal Street, the Customs House, after all, and some of these Tribeca buildings were once courier buildings, the early 19th century version of Fed Ex. "You can still see the courtyards where all the messages were traded and sorted. You just think of Melville trying to get those last pages done and sent to his publisher, and he runs down here and goes through that same structure. A lot of these buildings were around then. It's an almost link. It feels very real to me."

Her admiration for the writer goes way back. She began attending meetings at the Melville Society in 1975, the year she made a Super-8 film called Dear Reader. She remembered him as "a presence" in the film, but until a friend reminded her, she'd forgotten that it contains an animated sequence on Moby Dick. "I thought, what, am I planning my life 30 years ahead or something?"

For several months, Anderson even had Melville's Bible, the one he bought two weeks before he started writing Moby Dick. (A friend had gotten it at Sotheby's and loaned it to her.) The margins were filled with pencil notes and markings, many erased by Melville's wife, "their relationship being far from idyllic," as Anderson puts it. She went through it with a magnifying glass.

"The one I found that was really scary was Isaiah 27:1, that 'the Lord shall punish Leviathan, that piercing serpent, that crooked serpent, and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.' It has a squiggle and a check, and I thought, 'Of course. The whale is the snake and the ocean is his garden and that's how he's working it out.' " At that point, Anderson was writing songs "about the snake that's inside us, this backbone." But the image she's focused on in the new version, she says, is "this very simple concept about an enormous head." Like the whale's.

Anderson announced that she's on a campaign against rectangles, "because everybody looks at boxes all day and their mind goes into the box. They name their hard drive after themselves and they think they've disappeared into it, and they do." But the look of the piece is going to be "very 19th century" — in a high-tech sort of way. She's animated water and words, gears, some rope. And while she can't get away from the shape of a book page, she wants to project these images onto a line, a stairs, a sphere, anything that isn't a box.

"The way I put it together is linked to the music so it's either slinky or choppy or whatever counterrhythm I want to work with, because the eye is so rhythmic. They do a little eye dance and then they go back to being very nonjudgmental, always taking it in. Always streaming and scanning." So she's written some "poems for eyes."

What's consistent in Anderson's work—and she began as a sculptor—is that she shifts the characteristic property of a thing without changing the aura of the thing. So the violin talks. The eyes dance. The mouse (in one of her old stories) is just workingas a mouse (but really wants to be a deer). Her work always shows the self to be both fluid and manipulable. She's actually very much like the Ishmael character — Ahab's opposite, who sees that the whiteness of the whale could mean so many things.

Anderson mentioned that her next project is going to be about germs, inspired by a book she strongly recommends, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life. "It's about why Americans were so receptive to the idea that something invisible and teeny-tiny could kill you." The idea didn't go over so well in Europe—at first. "But Americans," says Anderson, "the descendants of the transcendentalists, thought, 'There is an invisible world. I'll go for that.' "

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