As a performance artist, Laurie Anderson has been pervasively acknowledged for her artful mastication of technology, but the potency and poignancy of her work has always come from human language and human silence. In a recent interview, Anderson declared that computers are stupid because there is no such thing as digital silence, only off and on. While it is within the rudimentary skill-set of every bartender and recreational storyteller in the world to be quiet, a machine cannot be programmed to deliver a perfect pregnant pause. Anderson's new show, Happiness, is replete with pauses; in fact, the show itself may be one carefully arranged, long-needed pause. Certainly, when compared to Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, Anderson's most recent epic multimedia opera, Happiness is like spending a late afternoon in an Irish kitchen -- albeit an Irish kitchen that blinks and bleeps and glows. With Happiness Anderson spins tales from her own memories, notions, and adventures, while electronic drones and hums rise around her with the comfort of cooking steam. Occasionally, she lifts her electric violin and sings a refrain or two; perhaps she'll pop a light bulb into her mouth -- a signature parlor trick that always pleases -- or perhaps not.
This show is as fluid as Anderson's expansive mood, but neither the show nor her mood started that way. Initially, material for Happiness came from Anderson's struggle with boredom and disillusionment, both with her own work and with culture at large. She set out to forcibly shift her perspective by placing herself in uncomfortable situations. She took a job for two weeks at a McDonald's on Canal Street in New York City; she labored on an Amish farm; she agreed to contemplate the work of Dogen (a 13th-century Zen master who believed mountains had awareness) for two weeks while canoeing in silence through Utah. Wonderfully, all of Anderson's expectations were shattered. Night after night, the Amish seethed in silence at the dinner table over an unresolved dispute; the Zen practitioners collided with talkative environmentalists, and neither was able to bend to the other's will; Mickey D's supplied joy, laughter, and camaraderie, as friends of Anderson failed to notice the woman behind the uniform and microphone; and then Sept. 11 happened. An acrid cloud blanketed Anderson's home, which is 10 blocks from Ground Zero. Her neighbors recounted their view of the second plane as it roared down Greenwich Street as if the thoroughfare were a runway, and "expectation" took on a new resonance for Anderson.
Folks have long observed that after a disaster, conversations become more absorbing, colors and sounds more acute, and memories more tangible, as if concentration on the fleeting present imbues life with indescribably rich hues. After 9/11, Anderson once again began to heed her own warning that "expectation is experience" and that ennui and disappointment grow in the gap. Just as United States, the seven-hour performance piece from which her breakout album Big Science was drawn, offered diamondlike slivers of society, Happiness is a gathering of moments -- such as the time Anderson spent as a 10-year-old on a children's ward where burn victims screamed and died -- that explore the dual reality of the human psyche. Laurie Anderson performs on Friday and Saturday, March 8 and 9, at Zellerbach Hall (Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-42; call (510) 642-9988.
In the '60s, Viennese lounge lizard Louie Austen whiled away the late-night hours singing standards at New York's famed Ginger Bread Club. Throughout the '70s he sidled across stages with the likes of Al Green and Engelbert Humperdinck, before creating his own show with Ginger Davis. Later, he settled into the comfortable relative obscurity of Vienna's resort lounges, which is where mad dance producer Mario Neugebauer found him. With the added help of Austrian experimental-techno artist Patrick Puslinger, Austen recorded his debut record, Only Tonight, a deranged collision of resort-revue croon, disco beats, xylophone samples, aged electronica, live scratches and raps, and Vegas-style trumpets. The aural collage of '70s pastiche swirls around Austen's swaggering, full-bodied voice, sometimes enveloping it, sometimes incorporating it, and sometimes framing it. But my favorite moments exist in songs like "Only You," on which Austen sounds completely out of place, as if he were singing karaoke in a retro-future lounge of his own imagining. Not so weirdly, Austen's duet with his nasty-tongued labelmate Peaches, the lascivious "Grab My Shaft!," has made it to the Top 10 on Germany's dance charts. More peculiar is the fact that Austen will open for Detroit metal sensation Andrew WK on Tuesday, March 12, at the Bottom of the Hill at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 621-4455.