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The NYPL Podcast

Podcast #122: Laurie Anderson on Melville, Opera, and Mystery


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Laurie Anderson is one of the great pioneers of American art, combining and redefining various media, including film, music, spoken word, and performance art. She has collaborated with artists ranging from William S. Burroughs to Lou Reed. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library podcast, we're proud to present Laurie Anderson discussing Herman Melville, turning books to opera, and her attraction to uncategorizable and mysterious art.

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson LIVE from the NYPL

Prior to her LIVE from the NYPL event, Laurie Anderson visited the Library's Special Collections, where she saw a piece of paper handwritten by Herman Melville on which he took notes for his masterpiece story, "Bartleby the Scrivener." Anderson spoke of it as one of two great books about labor written in the nineteenth century:

"There were two books written right in the middle of the last century, the nineteenth century, not the century before this one, about work, and one was The Communist Manifesto and one was 'Bartleby the Scrivener.' And, you know, I really for me these are the two you know questions about why we work. I mean, I think before that point, nobody really asked, 'Why do I work?' You work because you work, you have to work for your living and so on. So here’s Bartleby who is, 'I prefer not to,' and the Communist Manifesto that is, you know, 'workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.' And 'a specter is haunting Europe.' I mean one of the greatest mystery stories ever written, you know, it’s such a beautiful book, but the polar opposite, and so when you see these books together in just all collected in a huge place like this, it really is mind-boggling."

Anderson's love of Melville is well-documented. Her opera, Songs and Stories of Moby Dick, was critically lauded, but she advised against composing on opera based on a beloved book:

"I did write an opera based on Moby-Dick, and I just have one thing to say about that. If you fall in love with a book, don’t write a multimedia opera based on it. Just a tip, you know, because you have to—you know, I mean I fell in love with that book in way that you know, it’s music. What a story, it’s like, and it works the way your mind works, made of jump cuts, you know, just zoom zoom zoom zoom, and I loved it so much and but if you’re writing something like that and you’re changing things around, you know, you have to be a little bit rough, you can’t—and my white gloves were on, I was really kind of afraid of it. Also, I live not so far from where Melville lived and worked, and I thought he was going to come and find me and kill me, you know. 'My book does not need to be a multimedia opera, thank you so much. It’s fine as a book,' you know."

Anderson spoke of other artists besides Melville that she admires. One was the performer Andy Kaufman, who she described as an artist capable of imbuing his work with uncategorizable mystery:

"Andy was a really complicated guy. I saw him first in a club in Queens. He was—a friend said, “just check out this guy, he’s playing bongos.” And I was like, 'Bongos? Okay, I’m not really into bongos.' I went there and he was playing bongos on and on, you know, and then he starts crying a little bit and he suddenly starts crying a lot, sobbing, and playing, and everybody in this club was like, 'Why am I here? This is not funny, I don’t know what it is, it’s not music, I don’t know what it is,' and I was like, 'I am in love with this guy' ... [I loved] the, oh, God, well, the hilarity. The making something so mysterious that people didn’t know how to—they didn’t automatically go into their, you know, way of evaluating, is that interesting, is that good? They were like, 'I don’t know what it is!' I go for that. I live for that, of not really knowing what it is. And he was doing that and I was just—so I followed him around and we did a lot of things together. We would go out and I was kind of his, like sidekick, kind of. We would go for example to Coney Island, and he knew exactly which moment was really filled with a combination of hope and fear, which I really appreciated."

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