Some Thoughts on Happiness
11 May 2002: Wortham Center's Cullen Theater Houston, Texas
The Cullen Theater’s stage looked rather bare on Saturday evening: a few pedals, a keyboard, two speakers, an amplifier, a microphone, a violin, and a bow. Audience members were treated to the sounds of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue as they shuffled around the theater finding their seats. I overheard several people in the audience talking about seeing Laurie Anderson perform Songs and Stories from Moby Dick the last time she was in Texas. Others in the audience confessed that they knew very little about Anderson, and they weren’t quite sure what to expect from the artist or from Happiness, a performance piece commissioned, in part, by Houston’s Society for the Performing Arts (SPA). In support of the SPA, these adventurous season-ticket holders were willing to give performance art a chance.
Happiness, Laurie Anderson’s most recent performance piece, examines loss, memory, survival, and happiness in uncertain times. On the Pomegranate Arts website, Anderson explains, “Happiness is my way of looking at some of the things that both interest and trouble me: the evolution of behavior, how we learn and what we remember, expectations, the meaning of justice and the effects of increasing speed—colored by the darker elements of doubt and fear.”
Happiness presents a series of stories that invite us to think about constructions of history. How do we know the things we know? What stories have others told us about the past? More importantly, what stories do we tell ourselves about the past, present, and future as we construct our own life-narratives, selectively leaving out particular details and adding others? Interweaving stories of her personal experiences with more public stories of loss and remembrance, blurring the boundaries between material reality and imaginative fiction, Anderson takes the audience on an almost two-hour journey that moves from the rituals of burial and mummification in ancient Egypt, to Anderson’s childhood memories of the time she spent in a children’s hospital ward, to musings about silence and technology. Along the way, Anderson punctuates the narrative landscape with her quirky observations about the absurdities and implausibilities of legend and history. What really happened on Paul Revere’s famous ride through the countryside? As he sounded his alarm of “The British are coming! The British are coming!” did people look at each other and say, “Wait a minute…we’re British. How can we be coming if we’re already here?”
Humorous observations like these give balance to the performance’s heavier moments, many of which focus on last year’s attacks on the World Trade Center. A resident of New York City, Anderson has experienced close-up the destruction, losses, and aftermath of the September attacks. Happiness gives us insights into an artist’s attempt to acknowledge these painful events—moments that are at once both personal and extremely private—and to see the impact of these events on her worldview and imagination. Having witnessed the construction of the World Trade Center, Anderson commented that the event was primarily an aural one. Most of the construction took place behind the building’s outer facade, as the real process of construction went on within the walls, hidden from view. Only the noises of the construction—the jackhammering, the pounding, the clanging—betrayed the work going on inside. Conversely, our experience of the Trade Center’s destruction was primarily visual. Most of us watched the images of the two planes flying into the towers over and over again on our television screens. These images have overwhelmed any of the sounds that may have been captured in the news footage—what we remember primarily are the horrible and heart-stopping images.
Visually, Happiness is minimalist; the film clips and image projections that often make up a significant component of Anderson’s performances are noticeably absent. Instead, the stage is backlit by a simple projection of white light that is static throughout most of the performance. Since September 11, our brains have been overloaded with the images of the attacks and their aftermath. It’s time to take a deep breath and consider sounds: the simple, uncluttered sounds of digitally generated pulses, keyboards, and a violin. The most unusual audio moment in the performance happens when Anderson puts on some sunglasses rigged with impulse sensors. These sunglasses magnify the bodily sounds of Anderson’s teeth clicking, the sound of Anderson patting her own head, and the thump of Anderson slapping her shoulder with her hand. Ironically, it’s the sunglasses—an accessory for the eyes—that renders these bodily thumps audible.
Most of Happiness is new material. The entire evening, I recognized only one story, one which Anderson has told at other performances about her brief stint as an art history instructor. Additionally, the only familiar song was “One Beautiful Evening” from Anderson’s Life on a String, a CD released last year on Nonesuch Records. While Anderson was following a skeletal script of sorts—she worked her way through several pages of notes throughout the evening—the performance was essentially improvised. “I get a lot of pleasure out of DJing these sounds, which allows me to improvise. Unlike the technically more complex multi-media shows I often do,” writes Anderson, “Happiness is meant to be flexible and in the moment” (also from Pomegranate Arts website,).
Each performance of Happiness will be different from previous performances; this is just one of the many reasons to see Happiness. Aside from the surprises of improvisation, the piece also presents us with a lot to think about. Yes, we live in extremely uncertain times, but there are still new things that we can learn, experience, and feel. Thinking critically about memory and history can give us some insights into cultural and individual survival.