The Language of the Future

Day 16: Laurie Anderson in Concert, SF Jazz Center

In 1985 I experienced a cultural awakening, leaving my home in Oregon to attend graduate school at Cornell University in upstate New York. Culture shock, some might have called it. Oregon at the time had a homogeneous, insular culture. Something it still has, to a great degree. In New York, I was exposed to the east coast state of mind. Somewhere in the first year I also discovered the art of Laurie Anderson, watching her movie “Home of the Brave” and soon after buying as many albums as I could find.

Flash forward 30 years, I’m sitting in the San Francisco Jazz Center, awaiting my third live performance. Laurie is now in her 60s, many have recently become acquainted with her as the widow of the late Lou Reed, and her memorial reflections of life with Lou are touching (see the link at the end). I think back on my “fandom” of her art, what it means, how it has changed and challenged and confirmed my understanding, my philosophy, my life. Laurie tells stories, with a keen observational humor, accompanied by the music of violin, synthesizer, and her signature vocoder which alters her voice into a surreal, deeper, male sounding “voice of authority” (as she calls it). In the lightness and satire, there is often a sense of foreboding, a view of culture and society and relationship on the slant. America and Americans are revealed for our hypocrisy, arrogance, naiveté.  No stone is left unturned.

And at the same time, she challenges me to change, to grow, evolve, become more of who I want to be. A muse, with a gentle, unexpected critique, with often builds to the crescendo of a final, pithy statement, a punchline, not for a joke, but for a cringeworthy, “Oh.” “Did she just do that?” The title of the concert, “The Language of the Future” comes from one of her first works, as does the image above, where she reflects on the digital age, where binary “0” and “1” may define relationships, on again, off again. Laurie was one of the first “multi-media” artists to embrace computer imagery which now seems cartoonish. Some much has changed since 1985, where CGI now often replaces “live” actors, with most people not noticing, at all. So goes the binary, as Facebook users are limited to “liking” or not liking, a vote thumbs up.

How has the digital focus changed our experience of life, now that we are all speaking the Language of the Future? The digital quantifies, values are based on numbers, discrete, breaking down value as certainly as the crude pixelated images in Laurie’s first performances. But real life, living systems, this is where the “analog” exists, in biological, artistic, felt sense. What value do we derive from a beautiful flower, a coastal vista, an entrancing sunset? From the quickened heart and breath of the cyclist climbing a mountain, from the cool breeze of a foggy morning, from the warmth of a campfire with friends and stories and s’mores. From the deep deep satisfaction after a long day’s ride is complete.

“Thumbs up”? Certainly. And so much, much more.


Video: Laurie Anderson’s powerful reflections at Lou Reed’s memorial (pardon the shaky camera and poor audio)



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