Since theater began thousands of years ago, there have been performances that could not be classified as plays, musicals, concerts, or public readings. In the early 20th century, these avant garde mixed-media performances could be seen in Bauhaus, Dada, and in the ‘50s and ‘60s, beat poetry. In the ‘70s someone finally gave these unclassifiable things the label of “performance art”, applied to any combination of spoken word, music, and visual aids that followed no traditional narrative form and was presented by an Artist (“capital A, please, I Am A Serious Artist”). Being a product of the avant garde, performance art tended to be obscure, using a coded language designed to befuddle and discourage those who were not a part of the in crowd.
In the ‘70s one of this group of new artists was a sculptor and art history teacher named Laurie Anderson, who felt that performance art did not need to be difficult for “regular people” to understand. She spent many years performing her mixed-media pieces in in museums, galleries, and clubs all over the US and Europe, and in the late seventies recorded some of her pieces for a variety of New York indie labels, including Giorno Poetry Systems and 110 Records. Then she released a song on 110 Records called “O Superman” in 1981. A British DJ played it on the BBC, people started demanding it, which led to a distribution deal with Warner Bros., college radio air play, and suddenly performance art was not so obscure any more. As she’d suspected, the non-Artists Got It.
Talk Normal is a retrospective of Anderson’s recorded work that captures four to seven tracks from each of her records. Those already familiar with Anderson’s work, who own all of the albums already, don’t need this collection because they already have it all. There are no “special bonus unreleased tracks” to encourage completest to buy it in order to have everything she’s recorded. Since this is a Warner Archives release, it only includes tracks from her seven WB releases. Unfortunately this means that none of her early independent recordings from the ‘70s are included. Neither is there anything from her soundtracks for Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box.
For someone new to Laurie Anderson, however, this two-CD set is an essential collection because it does include her best work, and a representative sampling of all her styles. It’s is definitely a “best of” collection that covers more than just the accessible, more “musical” work. “O Superman” and “Sharkey’s Day” are there, yes, but so are the spoken, “artsy” pieces like “It Tango”, “So Happy Birthday”, and “Language Is a Virus”. Some favorites are not present (“Example #22”, “Puppet Motel”, “Hiawatha”) but that’s a problem any Laurie Anderson fan will have. This compilation is not for the converted, though. It’s for our friends, the ones who know a little about Laurie Anderson but aren’t sure which record to get. The selection from each record gives a good impression of the breadth of each one.
What no recorded collection can do, though, is show us what her live perfromances are like. There is an attempt to help on that as well. In addition to the two CDs is a 50 page booklet which features 40 pages of pictures and extensive biographical notes by Gillian G. Gaar. Gaar does an excellent job of discussing the backdrop of Anderson’s work, the tours, her other projects, and her fondness for experimental sound-making devices (such as her famous tape-bow violin and body drum suit).
Laurie Anderson was one of the most interesting artists of the last quarter century whose emergence as the first “popular” performance artist made way for Diamanda Galas and Karen Findlay to find a wider audience—though their style is far different, it is doubtful they would have been come at least somewhat known if Anderson had not made the general public aware of performance art. The Talk Normal package is an excellent summary her career and holds out a promise that she is not done yet. Buried in the credits page we find: “Laurie Anderson’s Nonesuch Records debut will be released Spring, 2001.” Something to look forward to, indeed.