Laurie Anderson at Cal Performances

The voice of loss

The voice of Laurie Anderson is unmistakable: low, almost sultry with the resonance of electronic processing, it has its own cadences, rising and falling with a deadpan irony. And her alternate voice, lowered electronically into the range of a man’s voice is almost as familiar—with delays, distortions and heavy pauses, it navigates Anderson’s numerous stories of cultural absurdity. This past weekend Cal Performances brought both voices back to Zellerbach Hall in the New York-based artist’s latest media performance, “Delusion,” an elegant and measured contemplation of loss.

“Delusion” begins with Anderson explaining how she has motivated herself throughout her life, in a carrot-in-front-of-the-donkey way, only to find that one day the donkey had died. The story begs the question: Why, we long to ask, did the donkey die? No answer is given, but soon after, she poses our unspoken question in another way: “What is a man,” her vibrant voice asks, “if he outlives the lifetime of his kind?”

Stories continue to unfold from the two voices: about the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, Switzerland; about the possibility of black holes destroying the universe; about the passing of the American Empire. Seated center stage as visuals of light and strange objects flow around her on the huge screen behind, on two smaller screens flanking her and on the sheet-draped love seat, she lists a series of bizarre dreams: “I am being interviewed about a book I have written … named Dog Drool.” “In a restaurant I am served a penguin … on the penguin is a small package addressed to me.” “A huge cheese in the loft.”

Finally, Anderson reveals the heart of the matter. Her mother has died. The stories she tells around this event are familiar and devastating. She goes to a priest to ask him what to do: she tells him she’s never loved her mother. He tells her to go to her dying mother, to bring her flowers and to tell her mother that she always cared about her.

Anderson resolves to do these few simple things, but her life interferes and she is unable to do any of them before her mother dies. More stories of loss thread their way through the narrative. She tells how someone dies three times: when your heart stops, when your body is buried or cremated, and when someone speaks your name for the last time. Hauntingly, that electronically enhanced and therefore slightly inhuman voice, changes throughout the piece, becoming quieter, less artificial, and tinged with the most delicate vibration of grief.

Anderson closes the piece by imagining asking her mother if she ever loved her.

Most striking among the many aspects of the performance were the visuals. Anderson has always had a strong auditory presence, not only in her voices but also in her violin and keyboard playing. This performance was augmented musically by two instrumentalists, Colin Stetson and Doug Wieselman. But the imagery Anderson used flowed as seamlessly and diversely as the music, including shifting chalk drawings erased and layered on a blackboard, fields of dandelions, smoky abstractions of color and cascading rain, and real-time projections of Anderson’s aging face as she told her stories.

Often, the media work of New York artists tends toward the slick, projecting an aura of calculation, and although Anderson’s Delusion wasn’t entirely free of this quality, it still managed to resolve problem of phrasing the intimate with the abstract so that the subdued voice of grief was never lost amid a flood of powerful imagery and music.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post

Photo: Laurie Anderson in “Delusion” by Leland Brewster