Thirty years ago, well, thirty-one, to be more precise; Big Science, Laurie Anderson’s debut album, was published. If you want to talk in clichés, what doesn’t do justice to anybody, we could say that the American artist doesn’t need to be introduced: anyway, Lou Reed’s girlfriend, key player in various artistic scenes of the last decades, Laurie Anderson is a complex and an iconic personality, i.e., a child of the ‘80s.
Short-hair, violin, sunglasses, vocoder; the elements which have made her an icon are easy to identify, but a deeper critical and analytic interpretation is necessary to fully understand her debut work and, consequently, the complexity of her personality. Furthermore, every Anderson’s work, whether or not it was successful, was the result of considerations on time and times necessary for her artistic attempts and experimentation of that unstable balance between the evolution of individual experience and collective history. Her macro project, United States I-IV, followed that direction and, Big Science, the first act of its tetralogy, expresses as best it can that artistic need to develop a thought, to shape some – more or less authentic – ideas and, at the same time to depict the current situation.
By proceeding in that direction in her works, there’s room for both an apocalyptic and a utopian sense, which are ambivalent concepts coming from the same matrix; here there’s also room for the destruction of nature, for the dehumanized life, for the annihilation of human beings in favour of technique, for the ruins of culture and mankind; and also for all those subjects echoing in her work, the result of a much or less sifted reading of Adorno’s, of the Frankfurt School’s and of Walter Benjamin’s books. In the light of these reflections, we would like to reconsider Laurie Anderson’s figure by analyzing Big Science’s piece and LP, in order to celebrate its thirty years at the best, i.e., by showing its being modern.
“Big Science”, the album. The artist’s purpose and the breeding ground of a scene.
Big Science is the result of Anderson’s focusing on social phenomena surrounding her, but, however, observed from a different point of view. As she confirms, in fact, her album was devised as a look from the outside at the United States, her mother country, as “the portray of a civilization who invented the digital world and who, now, is going to learn to live in it.” Here you can find her exact words: “I was fascinated by United States, this portray was like watching a country from a distance. In the second half of the ‘70s I performed my songs in Europe, where American culture was whistled and appreciated at the same time (…). I’ve always heard that Europe considered United States as its future”.
Therefore, the first step to depict American culture in a critical way is to distance oneself from it, to watch that country from a distance, to watch it as foreigners, as outsiders. And what most attracts Anderson’s reflections is the link between technique and society, as distinguishing feature of American history and culture, the one she saw as personification of the idea of future from Europe, by making Gertrude Stein’s statement echoing in this thought: “The United States is just now the oldest country in the world… she who is the mother of the twentieth century civilization”. The look from the outside, from a distance, the epochè (suspension of judgment) as opposed to the routine, is a classic of philosophical thought, which was the core of the 20th century when the need for estrangement was the sine qua non in many analyses. Adorno is the example par excellence: he had a detached look at his country during his exile in the United States. Anderson, on the contrary, wasn’t obliged by anybody to leave, she herself decided to go away: “In the first half of the ‘70s I travelled a lot, I worked in a tobacco plantation in Kentucky, I hitchhiked to the North Pole, I lived in a Mongolian campsite in Chiapas and I worked in a commune. (…) My project was to portray the country where I lived from 1979 to 1983. “Big Science” is the first part of a puzzle, of an eight-hour performance entitled United States I – IV”. Those words clearly reveal Anderson’s approach towards her album and her way of observing the world she wanted to describe. She needed to travel, to distance herself and to watch her mother country from the outside, from a distance which could sharpen her objectivity and enable her to portray her country in a detached and reflexive way. When Anderson came back, she found herself in the New York of the ‘80s, of the explosion of digital technology, of the miniaturization of electronic parts, of the development of microprocessors.
Within that technological scenario Anderson played an active role: she experienced the evolution of technology with the artistic desire to manipulate its exuberance, and to make it material able to generate art, aesthetic experiences, in the wake of Fluxus’ work with material elements developed many years beforehand. The digital technologies of storage and DSP (Digital Signal Processing), which started invading recording studios, were particularly important for her LP: they were digital echoes and reverberations, compressors, filters and various special effect components, but especially the development and evolution of the sampler. Obviously, she is not the only one using new technology devices, there are a lot of musicians, in fact, fascinated by them, but unlike others such as Gabriel, Eno or Byrne, in Big Science sampling and loop techniques are used through a mechanism by minimalists in rhythm function, in particular Tudor tapes, as small repeating cells and whose example par excellence is, without a shadow of doubt, the vocal cell marking time in O Superman.
Not only electronic music, but also video and visual experimentation played an important role in her work: “My recording studio was an image as well as a sound lab. I produced short-films which then I presented at film festivals. I had never time to do music, thus I stood in front of the projector talking and playing violin. Music was always part of image”. The presence of video and her desire to establish a relationship between image and sound, music and film, comes clearly to light in O Superman: “It was a visual as well as a music song. The right hand played the keyboard while the left one gesticulated by mimicking the shadow of the hand on the screen behind. The piece was supported by these language gestures: greeting, muscle flexion, thumb up and balancing. A bright source was placed close to the keyboard and was pointed at the screen, so that the shadow of the left hand became part of the visual image. It was a way to mix the second and third dimension, the projection and life”. That desire to experiment new languages, to connect different artistic performances with each other and to make them have a short circuit, was the result of her education based on the study of figurative arts and of the positive osmosis which was shaping itself during those years within a certain group, which we could define pop musicians, equipped with “learned” experimental experiences of the past years: Cage, Flusxus, the minimalists, the performers, Borroughs, Harry Partch and the practice of self-construction of their own instruments.That circle of musicians who wanted to have experimental and performing experiences, which we could define “contemporary” ones; became protagonists of that current which wanted to measure itself with society change, it was a group pervaded and influenced by the philosophical and aesthetic themes which had characterised the second post-war period, both as regards the music context and the performing arts one.
In this sense then, New York in particular, where Laurie Anderson had started her artistic career, is a propulsive centre for criticism and thinking about art and society: “I visited also the circle of alternative art galleries by presenting my performances combining film, electronics, stories and music together. When I started working I began planning the biggest step. My objective consisted in not being only the narrator, but also the outsider, the foreigner. William Borroughs was my favourite author besides being my performance partner. New York was my headquarter. I belonged to the downtown artistic world, we were really self-aware of the fact that we were going to create an artistic, music and life scene radically different on the whole. That scene belonged to the community, it was a democratic and experimental scene free from barriers among the various arts. In that period it seemed that all the people I knew were working on a project”. Technology must be used and it must become artistic material, as we were saying earlier, and, by drawing inspiration from Fluxus’ or Harry Partchance’s experiences, the construction of instruments offers new possibilities for expression: “I played violin and different keyboards such as the Farfisa and the Vocoder. Some violins were created on the basis of my sketches: self playing violin equipped with a speaker inside of it and Viophonograph, a violin equipped with a record player assembled on its body and a needle in its bow. The shows were a mix between story and songs, and were often supported by neon light or microphones”. The use and construction of new technologies, above all the sound ones, but also lights and videos, became an absolutely essential component of performances, often mixed into the text as very well-finished reading produced by Anderson.
In those years the artists shared not only the location, New York, but also the environment, the exchange, the situation and the thinking so much that three very different artists among each other such as Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson found themselves to share a critical point of view of the American society “and of the Western world on its whole, so that they were pushed to learn from the protagonists of European anti-modernism (Rimbaud, Genet, Benjamin), to take an interest in not western cultures such as the African one, or the Middle- Far East ones; to continue the fight for the overcoming of the limits imposed to individual and expressive freedoms of the system, by following in some artists’ footsteps such as Burroughs, Cage, Ginsberg and Pollock”.
Big Science came out from that context, or better, Anderson’s purpose was to portray all of what was happening during those years, to portray it as an outsider who travelled the country far and wide and tried to observe it from Europe by involving experimentation, traditional culture, technique, criticism and avant-garde. The result of that work was a crossed path developing, from one hand, in the estrangement process from tradition in favour of progress, which started from human voice, becoming then mechanic and filtered, and then continued by playing one of the most traditional instrument: the violin. On the other hand, however, it developed by criticizing progress and its tendency to empty human condition, not so much the corporeal one as the spiritual one. Even here, we can quote the verses of O Superman again: “O Superman, o God, o mum and dad” in which a filtered voice begs the coming of a saviour. Anderson, described as an artist unconditionally inclined to new technologies, disclosed a deeply critical point of view and way of thinking towards them. A distant point of view, as we said earlier, a critical one, which let the artist stand out and attract attention to her and her concept of future, progress and tradition through the role of a visitor-person, who came back as foreigner, as an outsider in her country, after travelling, and then who discovered that nothing had been saved except she as individual. Here, she wanted to show the progress of technology in everyday life, in the most common daily issues; the artist turned into a mirror in order to criticize that kind of progress, and presented her art filled with technology as gauge of the situation, by showing how life and “projection of life” combine with art and not only.
“Big Science”, the song. Analysis of an electronic psalmody.
Coo coo it’s cold outside. Coo coo it’s cold outside.
Ooo coo coo. Don’t forget your mittens.
Hey Pal! How do I get to town from here?
And he said: Well just take a right
where they’re going to build that new shopping mall,
go straight past where they’re going to put in the freeway,
take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center,
and keep going until you hit the place
where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank.
You can’t miss it. And I said: This must be the place.
Ooo coo coo. Golden cities. Golden towns.
Golden cities. Golden towns.
And long cars in long lines and great big signs
and they all say: Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
Every man for himself. Ooo coo coo.
Golden cities. Golden towns. Thanks for the ride.
Big Science. Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
You know. I think we should put some mountains here.
Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?
And what about stairs? Yodellayheehoo. Ooo coo coo.
Here’s a man who lives a life of danger.
Everywhere he goes he stays a stranger.
Howdy stranger. Mind if I smoke?
And he said: Every man, every man for himself.
Every man, every man for himself.
All in favor say aye.
Big Science. Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
Hey Professor! Could you turn out the lights?
Let’s roll the film.
Big Science. Hallelujah.
Every man, every man for himself.
Big Science. Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
Among the different pieces constituting the LP, it’s worthwhile to analyze its eponymous piece. The song starts with a howling followed then by coocoo. “Ooocoocoo, it’s cold outside”, what does it mean this beginning? First of all, we could say that the way in which the song starts, as regards the fact of attracting attention, is actually staked on that howling, followed by the sound of the synthesizer and then by the voice. Thus, first there’s a wolf howling, then we can hear the first notes of the synthesizer in a low range, and finally there’s the voice singing: “it’s cold outside”. Everything seems very natural: the sequence of notes, both for the range used and for the OB-Xa specific timbre that recalls the sound produced by an electronic organ, gives an impression of something completely extraneous to the city context, something shadowy and disturbing, where there’s few room for human beings and their consumption, and where nature hasn’t been disposed yet and therefore, it still owns its place.
Anyway, we haven’t analysed that “coocoo” yet. By listening to it for the first time, it seems one of the many vocal cells used by the artists in her songs; besides, “coo” is very similar to “cool” (in the meaning of “cold”), by reconciling the semantic similarity with the phonetic one produced by the howling. As a matter of fact, “coo-coo” in American English has a specific meaning, i.e., “crazy”, so the interpretation on its whole starts moving and making that introduction important for the rest of the piece. “Don’t forget your mittens”, this phrase closes the first passage and then everything gets complicated: who is the voice talking to? What has this phrase to do with the cool and natural atmosphere described before? And who is that crazy? By carefully listening to the sound, we can realize that the howling is the result of a synthesized sound: the sound we hear, if we listen to it twice, more gelid than a wolf howling and more mechanic in the sequence of its three notes, is the first sign that the – nocturnal and crepuscular – context isn’t so natural. Even the sound produced by the organ, whose timbre is recalled in the long notes, is synthesized and we are finally able to find a sense for that crazy: the context is crazy, the mimicry between technique and nature is crazy and that artificial nature is crazy too. Let’s try now to examine the dialog full of meaningful parts that we’ll try to carefully deal with, both for their sound component and for their textual one. The synthesizer keeps on being, in the long heavy dragged notes, the sound background of an icy cold and apocalyptic unreality setting, while a rhythmic form, produced by percussion instruments, starts and accompanies the first dialog, and subsequently extends and embraces all the piece. In this sound background, made up of OB-Xa and percussion instruments, a dialog between the protagonist and Pal, who has been asked how to go to the city, takes place. The fact that Anderson asks how to go to the city is essential for the theme of estrangement and of the point of view as an outsider, as a foreigner, themes which we have already discussed earlier. Anderson is approaching as somebody coming from far away, who sees everything from a different perspective unlike the people who live in it.
At this point let’s try to focus the attention on the music aspect, and to ask ourselves what this sound situation reminds us: we will soon find out that the portrayed atmosphere can be related – on a sound level – to a ritual. This impression is given by the sound produced by the synthesizer chosen that, as regards its possibility for holding long notes, refers to the sound of an organ. Anyway, it’s not only for this that we perceive a ritual atmosphere on a sound level, but it’s also for another reason: the choice of percussion instruments, until now kettledrums and rototoms, and of the rhythmic form which clearly refers to the percussion instruments of the indigenous people of the Americas.
We can trace the ritual theme, the one of celebration, also in the text, within which we can find various signs referring to the distinguishing features of Psalms: the use of keywords (“mittens”, for example) of open and closed phrases, the extreme simplicity of the text, the search for a “house”, the responsorial form, the Jubilus. Anderson is presenting us an electronic psalmody, a hymn to progress, to the “Big Science”, where she is the foreigner in search of the “house”, of the kingdom where the Jubilus form refers both to the Christian one, the Hallelujah, and to the vocal and popular one, the Yodelling, in order to show the total involvement and their fusion into the kingdom of Big Science of sacred and profane.
But let’s go back to the dialog, from now on, let’s focus the attention on the psalmody form. “How do I get to town from here? And he said…”. To the question asked by Anderson, who from an undefined place, earlier depicted, wants to go to town, or better to the town centre; Pal starts explaining the road to follow, where one must bear in mind every single turning, which is then conquest of the contemporary rationalization and commercialization: shopping mall, freeway, sports center and the drive-in bank. “And I said… This must be the place”, this is a meaningful verse that discloses Anderson’s research aiming at depicting a cross-section of the American consumer society, where she lived. So, now we find the city, the golden place, the place she was looking for: “Golden cities and golden towns, long cars in long line and great big signs”, a situation of city prosperity and excessive consumption which makes Anderson’s criticism regarding this kind of lifestyle and people’s reaction, explicit: “They all say Hallelujah yodellayheehoo”.
And here we are, we have now to analyze the expression giving the title to the piece and to the LP “Big science hallelujah”. The sound atmosphere, soft and cautious during the travel and in the first beats describing the city, now is a real hymn: it becomes a holy sound, the arrangement highlights the choral aspect by means of a filtered voice and in a loop, one of those vocal cells we were talking about earlier. Here the voice isn’t used with the purpose of beating time, as it happens in O Superman, on the contrary its function is simply to thicken the plot of the sound weaving in order to clearly make the synthesizer stand out, which is now definitely an “organ”, supported by drumsticks and rototoms, and which accompanies the profane celebration over or between Christianity and paganism of the Big Science.
From this point a surreal and crazy dialog, probably heard by Anderson, starts; it deals with the planning of the city, a planning which, besides of structuring it from an architectural point of view, intervenes also on the landscape nature, as if it itself was artificial, as if it was a scenic design where actors play a part: “I think we should put some mountains here?”. And then, we arrive at one of the focal points of the piece: human condition. Anderson described it through a complete sense of unfamiliarity towards nature and other human beings; it is the failure and the total loss of human being’s mimicry towards nature; it is the crisis of the opportunity for having experiences and the accentuation of a danger: “Here’s a man who lives a life of danger. Everywhere he goes he stays a stranger”. Then the interlocutory part arrives: “Howdy stranger. Mind if I smoke? And he said: Every man, every man for himself”. This is the icily friendly answer given to the stranger who is in the city of God, and so she comments “All in favor say aye”. There are two ambiguous things in this last dialog: the first one is “Howdy”, a reference to a fake survival of spontaneity, an old cowboy greeting which is now taken out of context and deprived of its familiarity and immediacy. The second one: the author put that “yes” in an ambiguous way, i.e., it’s not a canonical “yes”, but “aye”, in order to stress the assonance with “I”, so that “All in favor say aye” can be interpreted as the declaration of individualism of the society where the Big Science reigns supreme: “All in favor say I”.
And finally there’s the song closing where it is asked for turning out the lights to a professor, a bishop or mind of that city, who is able – with just one gesture – to distract everybody by screening a film. Let’s make another couple of remarks about sounds. First, we want to stress the lack of effects on the voice of Anderson, who does the reading with her own vocal timbre, neither with the robotic one of the vocoder, nor by turning into a male voice through the harmonizer. Second, Hey Professor: from here the last instrumental intervention, i.e., we can hear the beaten bottles and the glass harmonica, an instrument which resounds through the vibration of its crystals and which has a particular meaning for US tradition, because, in the historical memory, it is connected to Benjamin Franklin’s version.
“This is the time. And this is the record of the time.” That phrase is exemplifying for Anderson’s work. That is a verse taken out of From the Air and it shows all of her research and her own look at the present day that is filled with significance and questions: how far has science gone? And the human supremacy over nature? And the human supremacy over other human beings? And then the subject: which is his/her role? Where can we find it? Is it a possibility to escape yet? How can the artist portray this condition? How can it be critical? These are all recurring questions in the philosophical speculation of the second post-war, as we were saying before, and they are asked in that new technological wave of the ‘80s again.
“Big Science was a LP about the technology, the prominence, the industrialization, the change of attitude towards authorities and individuality. Sometimes I was a scaremonger when I was painting the country like a building on fire or an air crash. Technique and apocalyptic view went hand in hand. Together with the absurd. The daily life. It was also a series of short stories on strange characters. In the LP I sketched out the features of employees and pilots, preachers, of adrift characters and foreigners. The “Big Science” LP became, for all the later multi-media pieces, a way to work.”
“Big Science”, Nonesuch Record 2007.
 Claudio Chianura, “Langue d’amour”. “Quaderno di appunti su Laurie Anderson” (Notebook about Laurie Anderson), Auditorium, Milan 1995, p. 8.
 The analog OB-Xa is related to the sound of the ‘70s, but it is a cut above many others, because it offers the possibility for splitting, layering and storaging voices and that’s the reason why it is considered a poly-synthesizer.
“Big Science”, Nonesuch Record 2007.