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This Day in UMS History: Laurie Anderson Meets the Great White Whale (Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 1999)

By Sara Billmann

Multi-media dominatrix Laurie Anderson opened the 1999/2000 UMS season with three performances of Songs and Stories from Moby Dick in the Power Center.  The piece took Melville’s great novel as its inspiration, with Anderson’s signature penchant for the technological edge highlighted by the debut of the “Talking Stick,” a digital sampling machine that could replicate virtually any sound at a granular level.  Anderson’s interest in developing the piece evolved because she was working on a project for high school kids about books with another producer (the project never materialized).  She chose Moby Dick, remembering the novel’s obsessive captain, but also remembering, with dread, the incredible detail about the whaling industry and its technical paraphernalia.  She was completely captivated by the novel as an adult, read it five times, and began to hear the music and lyricism in the author’s voice.  From that experience, she began her largest undertaking in 15 years.

This production was Laurie Anderson’s UMS debut (she has since appeared in 2002 with Happiness and in 2004 with The End of the Moon, and returns in January with Delusion).  As a relative newcomer to the staff at that time, I traveled a few months before her Ann Arbor production to see the work in Philadelphia, at the Prince Theater.  A night or two before I saw it, the actor playing Captain Ahab miscalculated the edge of the stage and fell into the orchestra pit, breaking his leg.  I don’t recall the details of what happened that particular night — I think they canceled the performance — but by the time I arrived in Philadelphia, the actor was back on stage, manipulating his crutches through a surprisingly complicated stage choreography and making it seem as though that had been part of the design from the beginning.  It turns out that although Captain Ahab is probably the most famous one-legged captain in literature, Anderson’s team had not considered using crutches until the accident forced the issue.  By the time I saw the production in Ann Arbor several months later, the crutches had become an integral prop, perfectly incorporated into the storytelling.

Anderson’s ironic sense of humor permeated Moby Dick.  In the program notes for the work, she noted, “Being a somewhat dark person myself, I love the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.”

This performance brings back so many strong memories for me: how gracious Laurie Anderson was to break from tech rehearsals to give an interview to a public television TV show, how she willingly went to Detroit for a 20-minute interview on WDET, her generosity in allowing selected classes to see a dress rehearsal of the work in tech week.  I also remember seeing an internet ticket order come in from somebody who lived in the same small town in Wisconsin where I grew up.  This was in the early days of e-commerce, and it was shocking to see an address that was literally down the street from my childhood home, from someone renting an apartment in my late great-uncle’s house.  Songs and Stories from Moby Dick was an incredible introduction to Laurie Anderson’s work and an amazing way to kick off the UMS season.

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