“Sleep,” says Laurie Anderson in her haunting new multimedia piece, Delusion (playing at BAM as part of this year’s Next Wave Festival), “is where you learn to let things go.” Surrendering to dreams each night means forgetting ourselves, loosening our grip on time, space, and identity—and Delusion, which is about dreams and dreaming, makes similar demands. Spectators must fight the urge to grasp everything happening onstage: Between the kaleidoscopic projections, the virtuoso musicianship, and Anderson’s koan-like writing, there’s too much to see and hear. As soon as you start to savor a ravishing image, it’s already gone.
Dwarfed by a giant screen, and surrounded by electronic gizmos, Anderson—spritelike in shirt and tie—roams companionably around BAM’s stage, sometimes intoning snippets of poetic text into a standing microphone, sometimes perching on a globular sofa to chat. Her longtime male alter-ego, Fenway Bergamot—Anderson’s voice, digitally deepened—chimes in too. In one arresting feat of sound mixing, Anderson and Bergamot sing a slowed-down, yearning duet version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Two musicians, often seen in ghostly silhouette, provide rumbling bass notes and complementary violin lines.
Proceeding with the loopy logic of a nighttime stroll through the unconscious, Delusion mingles excerpts from Anderson’s dream diary—being served penguin in a restaurant; contemplating a giant cheese sculpture in her loft—with memories, fables, and metaphysical speculations (“What are days for? To put between the endless nights”). From any other artist, this level of whimsy might be cloying, but here it’s like artifacts freshly dredged from the mental depths.
Like the scintillating pictures onscreen, Anderson’s restless text is always traveling on, never allowing her audience to get complacent. Quirky aphorisms are succeeded by imponderable poetry, ringing out like plucked chords. Throughout, Anderson’s violin—eloquent as any human voice—serves as interlocutor, pleading, sobbing, even giggling.
Projections evoke the liquid mutability of REM sleep: Perspectives shift abruptly as the camera swoops in to display a worm’s-eye view of a spiky meadow, or hovers, godlike, above lunar landscapes. As in dreams, the borders between senses blur—images of contrasting surfaces (smeared chalk, wind-borne leaves) suggest texture while seducing the eye. The music roars so loud you feel it.
Recurring themes of mortality and transience lend existential force to the piece’s elusiveness. Anderson visits her mother’s deathbed, puckishly reminds us of America’s waning imperium. Poignantly, she pictures returning to the imaginary island where she hid childhood secrets—now submerged, lost.
Delusion leaves spectators in a happy state of Buddhist calm. As each sequence passes, as the performance itself vanishes, we’re reminded that we too must someday relinquish our fragile hold on our striving days, our dreaming nights.