One of the keys to Laurie Anderson’s material success as an artist has been the ability of her albums to stand on their own merits, to exist as artistic objects that are separate from her performances. Certainly, Anderson’s performances — multimedia combinations of film, music, dance, and verbal storytelling — bring a new dimension to the songs that we hear on the CDs, deepening our appreciation for Anderson’s work. However, one thing that distinguishes Anderson from other performance artists is that she has achieved a fair amount of commercial success as a recording artist. As early as 1981, for example, she was achieving mainstream success in Britain with the single “O Superman”, which peaked at Number 2 on the British charts. It’s often the appeal of her recordings that draws newcomers to her performances.
Musically, Life on a String (produced by Anderson and Hal Willner) is less experimental than Anderson’s earlier recordings, which saw her experimenting with various mechanical sounds (i.e., telephone sounds), modified violins, and synthesizers. One of the most musically experimental tracks on the record is “My Compensation”, which is constructed around computer-generated percussion programming and sampling loops. Most of the songs, however, center around the mournful sounds of stringed instruments, as this CD finds Anderson relying mainly on the stripped-down sounds of the violin, guitar, cello, and bass. Critic Gillian Gaar accurately describes the overall sound of the CD as “spare”, which is a shift in the way Anderson has often layered sound upon sound upon yet more sound, resulting in waves of human voices, computerized noise, and synthesizer babble. “My main exercise in this record was taking things out”, Anderson explains. “I would tell myself: ‘You don’t need that, take that out, take this out’, until it was pretty stripped down. I really wanted to have more air in it”. In fact, until Life on a String, Anderson hadn’t played violin on an album since her debut album-length recording Big Science.
Following her Songs and Stories of Moby Dick — a performance that premiered in Dallas, Texas, in 1999 — Anderson had originally intended to make a CD of her interpretation of Herman Melville’s classic. Drawn to Melville’s story of monomaniacal obsession, Anderson single-mindedly set out to transform Melville’s book into a multimedia performance. Turning the performance into a record proved to be too much, though, as Anderson changed the direction of her project. “I’m completely in love with Melville’s book”, says Anderson, “but by the time the show was over I was so sick of these smelly old sailors and their problems! I thought, ‘I can’t be in the 19th century another second!’ So I started again. I wanted this record to be more about my own experience, my own life”. Two main themes emerge from this treatment of Anderson’s “own experience”: death and loss. Indeed, the sparseness of the musical arrangements complements these themes, as Anderson allows herself to pause and consider the emotional vulnerability that accompanies an artist’s “life on a string”.
Literally, of course, the string is a string on a violin or bow. The CD booklet is filled with photos of Anderson’s performance-weathered violins and bows with all of their electrical accoutrements. Anderson aficionados will be pleased to see some of the instruments she has carried with her across the world on her tours: the viophonograph (a violin with a battery-powered turntable mounted on the body and a stereo needle attached to the bow), the tape bow violin (which has a revox tape playback head where the bridge should be and a bow that is strung with a strip of prerecorded audio tape), and Anderson’s signature white violin. Anderson introduced listeners to the technology behind some of these instruments on her interactive CD-ROM, 1995’s Puppet Motel. Some of the most striking photos are of violins atop a pile of tangled electrical cords. Indeed, these photos are emblematic of Anderson’s career as an artist, her own “life on a string” (made up of strings of electrical cords, bows, and violins).
However, the literal strings are merely a medium of artistic expression. While these instruments are integral to Anderson’s artistic expression and innovation, the essence of what she is looking for and trying to create as an artist goes much deeper and is beyond the materiality of the strings. In the title track, she muses, “Some people know exactly where / They’re going / The pilgrims to Mecca / The climbers to the mountaintop / But me I’m looking / For just a single moment / So I can slip through time”. As an artist, she’s always searching for “a single moment” that she can transform into art, capture on her musical canvas. She doesn’t know what that “single moment” is, and in fact, she’ll never find one moment. Rather, art is comprised of many moments that will be performed differently each time. Each time a piece of music is performed, each time a particular story is told, there inevitably will be variations. As the composer John Cage argued, these variations might be as seemingly insignificant as a cough from an audience member or a creak from a piano bench. The performance is dynamic, and these changes keep art interesting and alive for both the artist and the listener.
The narratives that make up Life on a String are comprised of emotionally painful moments. On this CD, we don’t get a lot of the humor that we find on Anderson’s other records. For this reason, some may argue that Anderson is sentimentalizing loss and even death, as these moments always seem to carry with them some epiphany about the individual or some insight into the human condition. For example, “Broken” captures a moment in a relationship where the singer realizes that the “heat” has vanished from the relationship: “Silence can be a beautiful thing / But only when it can be broken with a kind word / With a soft word / With a word”. Left unspoken, “Our love lies broken”.
In the past, Anderson has often kept us off center by countering these more depressing moments with something quirky or fun, something that makes us laugh. Not here, though. Things mostly seem pretty bleak. When that silliness surfaces, as it does in “One Beautiful Evening”, it often seems misplaced. Throughout this song, for example, Anderson repeats the words of a familiar children’s song: “I’m a little teapot short and stout / Tip me over and pour me out”. The joyful sounds of “hey hey nonny nay” are undercut by “It’s another blue day in a nowhere place”. So, while Anderson is certainly being ironic in places, the irony is dark.
In “Dark Angel”, an artist is visited by her muse, the “dark angel”. Lost in an empty materialism, the artist bemoans “all the new machines” that are “supposed to be all brand new but it all looks the same”. Ironically, the artist whose work has generated an excitement about technology and the artistic possibilities is reconsidering her investment in technology and the “oooh, ahhh” effect of slick production. “Look at all the things I’ve bought / I can’t believe what they cost / Just a lot of plastic and numbers on my credit card”. It’s just a lot of bells and whistles, really. Anderson’s irony resurfaces, as the dark angel tells her: “Just make sure you use a pencil / So you can always get it . . . you know . . . right”. Of course, even a technological instrument as “primitive” as a pencil can hinder expression. As a tool, it can’t capture the essence of art (the illusive “moment”) any better than the latest innovation in computer software. “It’s a small world full of light”, the angel tells us, “But I wouldn’t want to have to paint it”. He flies off, leaving the artist alone to continue in her work. He leaves her with another moment to fuel her imagination, but the “single moment” remains just beyond her reach.
Musically, Life on a String is beautiful. The haunting melodies and string arrangements enhance the CD’s contemplative mood, bringing us into the artist’s reverie about emotional pain and art’s dependence on such painful experiences. All of this is good stuff — thought provoking and oddly inspiring because it can help to bring about an understanding of loss and can provide insight into what seems to be insurmountable suffering. Though the CD was released prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of the songs seem to make better sense in light of those events. Most chilling and prophetic is “Statue of Liberty”, which is especially poignant post-September 11: “Freedom is a scary thing / Not many people want it”.