The reinvention of the whale

Laurie Anderson is bringing her techno-operatic staging of Moby Dick to the UK. But would Herman Melville recognise his epic novel?
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The Independent Culture

After feasting on Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, it will be difficult to resist going back to Herman Melville's 19th-century epic of fear and loathing on the high seas. This gutsy techno-operatic version, which has its UK premiere at the Barbican next Tuesday, is awash with action, colours, words and sound: Anderson knifes through the hefty tome using a dazzling array of spoken word, poetry and song.

Anderson, whose previous works include United States, O Superman, Home of the Brave and The Nerve Bible, says that this might be the hardest project ever.

"Every single person who reads Moby Dick has a different slant on it," she reflects. "Mine is based on trying to look at Melville's transcendentalism with a modern spin. There are so many ways to tell the story. Guys going fishing every day is not what I'm after..."

A poet/pop-singer/composer and performance artist, Anderson has worked with modern legends such as Phillip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Wim Wenders. She never imagined that the inspiration for the most ambitious multi-media production of her 25-year career would be Melville's Moby Dick. "About three years ago, a producer asked me to write a monologue of my favourite novel, to get the PlayStation generation interested in reading books. I picked up a Bantam copy of Moby Dick and I didn't remember it being so insane - a million different voices and a lot of references to technology that I'd skipped over the first time."

There were also Melville's meditations on polar bears, stars, human nature, the origins of the universe. But, she adds, "It's a strangely silent book. There are very few descriptions of sound and many more visual pictures. When a character does speak it sticks out, but music is so inherent in the language itself that it feels like a musical book. It also sounds terrific just read aloud; the musicality of the language is really beautiful."

The original project was never finished but Anderson started thinking about other ways of approaching the material. "It's real 19th-century language and it was quite a challenge," she says. "I wanted to understand the book and interpret it in my own way. I tried to ignore the vision of poor old Melville turning in his grave. I fell in love with the idea that what you look for during your whole life will eventually eat you alive."

Anderson says that Moby Dick is the first book written about working with a big cast of characters. "And," she adds, "having a guy like Ahab at the top, who's out of his mind, is something we can relate to today. Melville threw a lot of voices in there - not just a ship's crew but also Noah, Jonah and Job, as well as Spinoza and Plato. Mostly what connects the disparate elements is the sense of stress and questioning which was going on then and is still going on now."

Anderson says that she's tired of the modern age. "What are we doing here? Does our work still make sense? People I know work around the clock - we never see each other any more; the speed revolution has really put everyone into hyper-drive. Are we just spinning our wheels?"

On stage, Anderson sets the scene with a pulsing solo, her violin electronically manipulated to sound like a concert orchestra. The opening meditation is a stormy seascape, superimposed on to a view of lower Manhattan and a daunting projection of Melville's face. Then, after breezy opening images of the sea, Anderson climbs onto an outsize white easy chair and, becoming a sit-down comedian, begins her take on Moby Dick. She becomes a professor, explaining how sperm whales got their name, how they communicate with each other and the virtues and vices of the Natural History Museum, where she researched her subject. A series of words describing white objects, marbles, pearls and the white mountains of New Hampshire are projected with photos of fluffy white pillows in which to bury your head. "It's balance, perfect balance. You don't know how difficult that is to achieve," says Jean-Michel Jarre, who's popped in to record Anderson's voice for his next album.

No longer a one-woman show, Anderson populates her hi-tech stage with a supple supporting cast. Skuli Sverrisson, the bass player, and four male singer/actors take on roles as rhythmic, rapper ship-board characters, dodging in and out of the 19th century. Ranting histrionically, Tom Melis's funky interpretation of Ahab has a nod and a wink to John Barrymore, Gregory Peck and Captain Birdseye. "It kind of follows the narrative... but not really," explains Anderson. "Melville did that too. There are countless asides in the book. He mentions a character, and that character does not pop up until 300 pages later. We're changing from being characters to stepping outside the book and looking and commenting on it. Straight Melville text is about 10 per cent of the show. Sometimes I would just use a word or a phrase to build a whole song but I tried to do it in the spirit of the book."

Anderson's multiple talents have never been as comprehensively exploited: as composer, violinist, keyboardist, guitarist, singer and speaker. With dexterity she manipulates her latest invention, the Talking Stick, a harpoon-shaped instrument, about six-feet long, which was developed with the backing of Microsoft. It responds to touch, emitting different pre-recorded sounds. A stroke prompts first a monk-like chant, then a chirp, then the muffled sounds of great white whales. The stick weaves digitally sampled sounds and manipulates speech, bringing Melville's voices to life. "We can do switches between voices really quickly, the way Melville does from sentence to sentence," she explains.

Watching the performance with the non-stop projections of back-drops, lights, the sound of storms, sea-gulls, and those in peril on the doomed Perquod, the show becomes an electronic world of glistening images. When it's over it was as if we'd been there, done that and chased the great white whale. They should sell waterproof coats in the boutique, alongside the CD.

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