Miami Light Project launched its sixteenth season Saturday night at the Gusman Center for the Arts downtown, with Laurie Anderson's The End of the Moon. The season continues November 11 with Haiti's Beethova Obas, and soars all over town with such diverse offerings as the local debut of Japan's Rinko-Gun Theater Company and the return of Miami's own Octavio Campos. But it was up to Anderson to set the tone, and America's electronic troubadour did not disappoint. The End of the Moon is as touching as it is beautiful.
It is also surprising. This latest Anderson piece is low-tech and high-concept, more political than her previous work, and no less winningly performed. Anderson herself, though ever more assured, nevertheless still makes a virtue of her lack of polish on stage. Reading her own text from index cards, she rambles awkwardly through lyrics that touch on -- for starters -- astronauts and soldiers, the nature of beauty and the beauty of science, the wisdom of Buddhism and the intelligence of her pet terrier, the horrors of 9/11, and the loneliness of human history. "The day you realize you will never tell your own story," Anderson confesses alone on stage, "that's the day your life begins. Good evening. Table for 5000, please."
With a neat black suit and scruffy frosted hair, she is cute at 57, ageless in her insouciance. Dreamily she runs on and on, disconnected episodes punctuated by violin interludes, a reluctant poet almost forced to share her song. And if this particular song aims for the stars, her journey happens to run right through familiar Anderson territory: "I really started to hate symmetries," she says. "They're just physical rhymes."
Not long ago Laurie Anderson was surprised to be honored as NASA's first artist in residence. No sooner had she begun to figure out what that meant than she learned she'd also be NASA's last. She decided then and there to start from scratch and reconsider her year with the space agency, revisiting her discoveries alongside NASA's own. Tales of a prototype for a spacesuit equipped with built-in injections of adrenaline or morphine become even more disturbing with the news that the design has been picked up by the army, that the uniform will be used not in space but in the desert. A few non sequiturs later we get this aside as the performance artist settles into a big stuffed chair: "This war will never be over. It will just keep moving from place to place."
The End of the Moon feels like a radio play and might end up working better on CD than some of Anderson's big hits like The United States and Home of the Brave. It is a more intimate affair than her 1995 Nerve Bible. Anderson's sound has grown, if anything, more accessible. All we have here is the woman, her violin, and her PowerBook. The electronic abstractions of her early multimedia spectacles, everything from the distorted vocals to the thickets of pulses throbbing around her voice, have by The End of the Moon given way to something simpler, gentler but no less eerie. At its best the violin underscores Anderson's narration and creates a dangerous mood not unlike that achieved by Angelo Badalamenti in David Lynch's pictures. Even on its own, though, the music is gripping: meandering andantes filtered by industrial-strength amplification, pizzicati that echo an entire steel band, languid melodies, and a striking use of silence.
The words piercing that silence are eloquent in their simplicity. Of course, as a monologuist, Anderson is no Spalding Gray. Musically she is no Philip Glass. Yet she hits the right populist note as she sits comfortably on the fence dividing high art and low. Her fascination with Buddhism, she confesses in The End of the Moon, comes from its complete lack of interest in ontology. Her own interest in aesthetic matters is not profound. She has beliefs, not theories; impressions, not vision. She has no pretensions. Her disarming views on war and peace could be considered controversial only in a culture defined by the values of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. That, actually, is why Laurie Anderson is a necessary artist and why The End of the Moon is an important work for this moment in American culture.
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