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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

But the literate tradition is undeniably weakening under pressure from visual media and audio technologies, and performance art like Monk's is one of the symptoms. Most other performance artists have fewer scruples than she about accepting technological innovation, are less resistant than she to reification, and are consequently less likely prospects (or targets) for reclamation by those who trade commercially in notation.

Is it a coincidence that most of them are women? How could it be one, given that performance art is the only creative musical scene that women have ever dominated? Unsurprisingly, male and female explanations for the phenomenon vary in perspective. Kyle Gann, unable to come up with more than two names of men who “use their own voices and bodies as material for their music” but having easily listed a dozen women who did so and claimed to know dozens more, suggested that such an activity “involves a vulnerability, a publicly emotive expressiveness, that men in our society are perhaps too inhibited to indulge.”46 Susan McClary, the feminist musicologist, puts it somewhat differently. “Women's bodies in Western culture,” she writes, “have almost always been viewed as objects of display.”47 It is the traditional role of women in the performing arts to be a “body set in motion for the pleasure of the masculine gaze.” And she quotes Laurie Anderson (b. 1947), one of the most successful performing artists of the 1980s and 1990s, as corroboration: “Women have rarely been composers. But we do have one advantage. We're used to performing. I mean like we used to tap dance for the boys.”48

The difference, of course, is that performance artists write their own scripts. “Women have rarely been permitted agency in art,” McClary writes, “but instead have been restricted to enacting—upon and through their bodies—the theatrical, musical, cinematic, and dance scenarios concocted by male artists.”49 One can observe those prejudices and restrictions against women's creative agency over the whole range of musical histroy. Performance art is one way in which women have been able to wrest creative agency from its traditional custodians while maintaining, as Anderson whimsically suggests, their traditional “advantage,” and without becoming authoritarian figures themselves. Performance art, as a site of female self-representation, thus found itself a natural ally of the feminist movement.

Some performance artists espoused an aggressive feminism. One, Karen Finley (b. 1956), who performed acts of sexual degradation upon herself such as smearing her nude body with chocolate, became the object of a fierce controversy in 1990 when the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew a grant to her at the behest of several enraged congressmen. Others, like Anderson, taking a less confrontational but still politically engaged approach, sought to beguile rather than harangue. Anderson cultivated an androgynous persona in her “punk” hairstyle and unisex (often leather) attire, deliberately downplaying her sexuality, which, as McClary remarks, “given the terms of the tradition [of feminine performance], always threatens to become the whole show.”50

A Feminine Redoubt

fig. 10-5 Laurie Anderson, 1985.

Yet in another way she does actively contest rather than evade gender stereotypes, and that is in her enthusiastic embrace of technology, the very domain that Meredith Monk has tended to shun. As McClary comments, by mastering high tech “she displaces the male subject who usually enacts that heroic feat.” Also heroic is the sheer Wagnerian scale on which Anderson operates, with one-woman shows (or “solo operas,”51 to use John Rockwell's term) that combine visual images, words, and music, and that last four and five hours, sometimes split over two evenings (though her popularity is mainly based on excerpts that have been disseminated—all right, marketed—as recorded “singles” and music videos).

Yet she does it all with a wink. An Anderson performance rarely goes by without recourse to a wide array of digital hardware. The hardware includes samplers and sequencers that enable instantaneous manipulation (including “looping”) of sounds recorded on the spot; “drum machines” that synthesize percussion tracks; and voice-distorting machines like the vocoder (which blends the voice with keyboard-controlled harmonies so that one can “sing” whole chords) or the harmonizer, which radically transforms pitch and timbre, giving a user of either sex a potential range from the squeakiest soprano to the boomingest basso (or what Anderson calls her “Voice of Authority”). Trained as a violinist, she has even rigged up an amplified fiddle with tape playback heads so that a bow strung with audiotape can play (and distort) intelligible words on it. The Anderson that performs (particularly when heard in recordings) is in effect a synthesized instrument, capable of simultaneously shamming and mocking superhuman vocal (and instrumental) feats.

Self-parody is an essential part of the performance (but so is seriousness); that is one reason why so many critics have called Anderson the postmodern artist par excellence. Her breakthrough piece, “O Superman” (1980; an excerpt from the seven-hour multimedia presentation United States first performed complete in 1983), is a particularly teasing example of that interplay. Subtitled “For Massenet,” on one level it is a straight parody of the aria, “O souverain, ô juge, ô père” (O King, O Judge, O Father) from Massenet's grand opera Le Cid (1885), in which the title character prays for victory on the eve of battle. Anderson's translation of the opening line, “O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad,” takes it down many pegs, even as she identifies herself with a heroic operatic tenor. (Who's making fun of whom—or what?) On another level it is a sincere tribute to Charles Holland (1909–87), an African-American opera singer whose career, thwarted by racism at home, had perforce to be carried on in Europe. (Anderson heard him sing the Massenet aria in a farewell recital in 1978.)

The audience does not necessarily have access to this background information, of course. (Le Cid is a pretty well forgotten opera; “O souverain” is known today only to retired performers, voice teachers, recital buffs, record collectors, and maybe a few stray scholars.) But the ironic interplays certainly inform what the audience does hear. The song begins with Anderson's voice, looped by the sampler into an unhurried Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha that lasts the length of the performance. When it comes to the words, Anderson's voice is expanded by the vocoder into two alternating chords (C major and E minor) with two tones in common including the pedal pitch, differing by only a hypnotically reiterated semitone. The whole song rocks gently back and forth between them like a babe in arms while the weird synthesizer-voice, joined gradually by Farfisa organ and a couple of winds, croons a dozy meditation, warm and comforting and matter-of-fact yet also somehow sinister, on … what?

O Superman. O Judge. O Mom and Dad.

Hi. I'm not home right now.

But if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone.

Hello? This is your mother. Are you there? Are you coming home? Hello? Is anybody home?

Well you don't know me but I know you. And I've got a message to give to you. Here come the planes.

So you better get ready, ready to go. You can come as you are, but pay as you go. Pay as you go.

And I said: OK! Who is this really? And the voice said:

This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the hand. The hand that takes.

Here come the planes.

They're American planes, made in America. Smoking or nonsmoking?

And the voice said:

Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night Shall stay these couriers from the Swift completion of their appointed rounds.

’Cause when love is gone, there's always justice, and when justice is gone, there's always force,

and when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me, Mom, in your long arms, In your automatic arms, In your electronic arms.

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms, Your petrochemical arms,

Your military arms,

In your electronic arms …

A lullaby of annihilation? Of robotization? Of self-imprisonment? An Orwellian nightmare of sweetly instilled thought-control? Or (more topically) a demurrer at the lullingly soft-spoken yet military-minded Ronald Reagan's election as president? The song seems to be about the potential horrors of technology, yet its medium is very high tech. (Who is laughing—ha-ha-ha—at what?)

Whether despite or because of its ironies and ambiguities, something in O Superman touched a nerve. Semiprivately pressed at the instigation of Anderson's promoter as a 45 RPM single (with another affably nightmarish Anderson song—Walking the Dog, about a domestic relationship going up in flames—as the flip side) in a tiny edition of 1,000, the song was played on the air in Great Britain and shot briefly to the top of the pop charts. To fill the orders, Anderson signed a contract with Warner Brothers Records, a major pop label. Sales of O Superman grossed over a million dollars. It lifted Anderson out of the avant-garde and into the popular culture.

That freakish, never duplicated success is why Anderson's CDs are usually marketed as rock recordings, while those of Meredith Monk are found in classical bins. The arbitrariness of the classification is symptomatic of the nature of performance art, just as performance art is symptomatic of postmodernism. Their superficial differences—Anderson highly verbal, openly political, and urbane; Monk pre- or postverbal, only implicitly political, and “artless”—are outweighed by their similarities, the most striking of which is the irreducibly oral/aural nature of their products. Translate their work into notes on a page and everything that counts is lost.


(46) Gann, American Music in the Twenieth Centuiry, p. 208.

(47) Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 138.

(48) Quoted in Ibid., p. 139.

(49) Ibid., p. 138.

(50) Ibid.

(51) Rockwell, All American Music, p. 125.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010008.xml