Laurie Anderson’s “Dirtday!” Enthralls at UW’s Meany Hall
At age 65, Laurie Anderson still defies description. Her performance-art pieces combine visual, musical, and electronic elements into dramatic, highly-personal multimedia events. Anderson’s long career has taken many twists and turns. Trained as a sculptor, she entered the performance-art world in 1969 with a musical work written for car horns. In 1981, her single “O Superman” climbed the pop charts in the UK. Anderson is also known for her experimentation with electronic music and sound, particularly in the area of voice modification. Her inventions often involve the use of the electric violin and keyboard.
On Saturday, Anderson arrived at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall to present her most recent work, “Dirtday!”. Upon entering the auditorium, the sold-out crowd was greeted by a constellation of candles scattered around the sparse, darkened stage. Anderson’s electronic keyboard and violin huddled on one side of the stage, while a leather armchair stood on the other. Just off center hung a blank white screen suspended above the stage.
Illuminated by a single spotlight, Anderson begins the performance with a brief, improvisational solo on the electric violin. Throughout the 90-minute show, she returns to the violin again and again, using instrumental interludes to bridge sections of the performance.
Though music plays a vital role in “Dirtday!”, much of the performance centers on Anderson’s spoken-word monologue. The work is an immersive odyssey into Anderson’s world, a platform for the expression of her ideas, emotions, anecdotes, and musings about life. Anderson’s voice, with the meditative cadence and lyrical tones of a yoga teacher, remains a soothing force even when she’s discussing topics like the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the US government to detain citizens suspected of terrorist activity without trial.
In terms of content, “Dirtday!” sprawls, digresses, and covers much ground. Anderson touches on a huge range of topics, including Darwinism, dreams, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and fond recollections of her piano-playing dog, Lolabelle. At times, her presentation feels like the ramblings of a chatty, dog-loving grandmother, albeit one with sharp political opinions and a wry sense of humor. The ideas don’t always adhere together in a cohesive manner, but we don’t hold it against Anderson. As spectators experiencing her personal, artistic, and intellectual odyssey, we are guests in her world.
Anderson’s monologue is accompanied by simple but dramatic visual and audio effects. Colored lights illuminate the stage and the hanging screen in glowing hues, slowly shifting between reds, blues, and greens. A soundtrack of dramatic beats is enhanced by effects from Anderson’s keyboard, which she plays while speaking. At times during her monologue, Anderson switches on one of her signature voice filters, which lowers and deepens her voice, making her sound manly and ghoulish. One of the most effective moments of the performance involves Anderson singing a duet with herself, her normal voice echoed by the sinister filtered version.
Sometimes, all of this is a bit overly cinematic. At times, the pounding electronic rhythms give the performance the air of a cheesy spin-off of the Inception film trailer. When coupled with the diabolical tones of Anderson’s filtered voice, the glowing colors of the stage lighting turn the suspended screen into a diabolical Eye of Sauron, straight from the set of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Anderson doesn’t miss the opportunity to show off one of her electronic inventions. She incorporates a demonstration of her modified “pillow speaker”, a small device that fits into her mouth and transforms her voice into violin tones. This doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of “Dirtday!”, but the technology is so enthralling that it doesn’t matter. The performance would have been enhanced with the inclusion of more of Anderson’s gadgets and inventions.
Despite Anderson’s constant digressions, the force of her personality and the immersive nature of her presentation are enough to hold one’s attention throughout “Dirtday!”. The Meany Hall audience remained riveted, giving Anderson two standing ovations at the end of her performance. It’ll be interesting to see what this iconic artist comes up with next in her journey of creation, innovation, and expression.