Laurie Anderson’s Big Science is the most recent addition to the Oxford Keynotes series, a collection of texts that places canonical Western musical compositions in the context of the 21st century. Considering Big Science as canon may be surprising, as the previous books in the series include Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and Bizet’s Carmen. Yet the inclusion of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports in the Oxford Keynotes in 2018 provides a solid precedent for Big Science, especially as both albums are outside of the traditional classical music corpus.
Laurie Anderson’s Big Science blends cultural critique, scientific speculation, philosophical musings, and a unique creative voice. Professor and music critic S. Alexander Reed considers the album from these various perspectives, arguing for the need for a multifaceted interpretation of it. He marks 1982 as the pivotal year between the industrial age and the information age, a fitting moment for the arrival of Big Science.
Clocking in at just over 38 minutes, the album is comprised of eight tracks drawn from Anderson’s epic performance, United States, which was released as a five-record collection in 1983. Reed traces the histories of these songs and their performances, showing how they were developed in a variety of contexts, remixed, and reconsidered. Certain phrases and interludes were used in collaborative performances while others are found in United States I-IV.
Where United States was directed at the New York art crowd, Warner Bros. packaged Big Science for a more mainstream audience. The quirky “O Superman” was a surprise top 20 single in 16 countries, but a whole album of similarly strange music seemed to call for an interpretive introduction. When Warner Brothers sent Big Science to the American press, they skipped the standard 8×10 headshot and one-sheet. Instead, they bludgeoned DJs and reviewers with a three-hundred-line CV of Anderson’s art exhibitions, five pages of lyrics, and a barrage of full-page clippings from the fine arts sections of Newsweek, Life magazine, the Los Angeles Reader, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Artforum, the SoHo News, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice and, to cap it all off, two pages from a Swiss paper in untranslated German.
As an interlude chapter between writing about the two sides of the album, Reed includes a chapter titled “Flipping the Record”. He begins with the visceral experience that places the reader in the room with their turntable, conducting a close study of the album itself. The taken-for-granted assumption is that vinyl will be your choice: “Playing a record means letting the needle trace its every intimate curve. Albums are wax sculptures, echoes made solid, tactile cryptography.”
Reed strikes an effective balance throughout, informing a reader unfamiliar with Anderson’s oeuvre while also offering a knowing wink to her devotees. A shining example is this parenthetical statement:
(For those peeking ahead, we never learn to walk without falling, nor do we find out what’s behind that curtain, whose “the voice” is, how much “you owe me,” what X equals, or what “it” might be.)
As an author who frequently breaks the fourth wall, Reed maintains a sophisticated analysis despite encouraging the reader to bookmark a particular passage because he will return to it later, or to confess that he “nearly lost track” of the distinction between Anderson’s voice and her violin while listening to “Sweaters”. Testament to his immersion in Big Science and its universe is clear in the way that Reed often writes like he is in conversation with Anderson, carrying her rhythms and themes into his discussion of the album: “The future is always arriving, but it never arrives, skipping straight to yesterday. The mountains are already built. The characters have already fallen off. It is a world deferred, no town but only the road to it.”
This reflection also foreshadows a discussion of Reed’s recontextualization of Big Science in the 21st century. Fans of Anderson’s work will correctly predict that the album seems even more prescient in 2022 than it did in 1982. Big science, late capitalism, digital culture, and anonymity are not merely still present, they are the constructs of our everyday lives. That Anderson could banter about these ideas with a modicum of humor speaks volumes about her insight and her influence.
Separating the events of September 11, 2001, from the opening lyrics of “From the Air” is nearly impossible now: “Good evening. This is your captain. We are about to attempt a crash landing.” The ethereal captain exists solely as a disembodied voice, but by the end, the circumstances are even direr: “There is no pilot. You are not alone. Standby.”
The 21st-century posthuman surveillance society points to Anderson’s assertion that we are isolated but never alone. As Reed notes, this is not revelatory to those of us living in the exhausting reality of capitalism realism. Forty years ago, when Big Science was taking shape, this seemed more like a dystopian fantasy than a likely outcome.
None of this negates the reality that Anderson’s mastery of both language and music gave form to an engaging album that remains witty, bold, and compelling. Drawing from his own mastery, Reed lays out the arguments to praise Big Science as a canonical text across the preceding and current century.