Like the Captain Ahab character in Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby
Dick," performance artist Laurie Anderson found herself in a profound
struggle with her own Great White Whale as she put the book to music and the
For "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick," a multimedia production she'll
premiere next week in Philadelphia, Anderson said she had to reach back
in time to figure out how to make the 19th-century adventure tale sing
for 20th-century audiences.
"It meant I had to rewrite a classic, somewhat," Anderson said during
the final week of writing and rehearsals. "It's been pretty daunting. I
just hope [Melville]'s not rolling over in his grave."
Anderson plays myriad roles: among them, Melville's famous white whale, Pip the cabin boy -- even the reader. The show features singing and acting by a five-member cast along with visual projections wrapped around three-dimensional objects.
Anderson also invented an electronic instrument, the talking stick, which is harpoon-shaped and manipulates sound on a computer according to the performer's motion with the stick.
Literary types looking for a strict musical adaptation of the 1851 novel about Ahab's obsessive quest for a white whale won't find it in "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick." What they will find is a work inspired by such Melville characters as the book's narrator, Ishmael, and by figures who play an important role in the novel, even though they're not brought to life in its pages -- such figures as the Bible's Jonah and Job.
"Like Melville does, I try to slide in between being a narrator and being a character," Anderson, 51, said. "He himself is hundreds of characters in the book, in the tones of his voice. We're trying to reflect that, and that's the biggest challenge: how to find a way to tell a story [by] sometimes being the characters you're invoking, and [by] sometimes being a reader who's reading about it."
Melville wouldn't have objected, according to some scholars. Mary Edwards, a professor at Williams College's maritime program at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., who has studied Melville's biblical sources, said figures such as Jonah and Job are key to underscoring the suffering in the novel.
Anderson, a presence in the New York performance world for two decades, had a minor hit with the 1981 single "O Superman" (RealAudio excerpt). She's better known for composing and performing such intricate pieces as the several-hour "United States," released on four CDs as United States, Live (1984).
Craig Werner, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies both literature and music, said "Moby Dick" is an ideal source for Anderson, particularly because it focuses so closely on details that may seem peripheral to the primary story.
"It's not really the details [Melville is] writing about, it's about the state of mind that is encountering that detail," said Werner, who is also author of "A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America." "And Laurie Anderson has always played those meta-games really well. I think that's what she's best at: stepping outside the framework of the material she's dealing with and looking in on it with irony, humor and anger."
"Songs and Stories From Moby Dick" opens May 12 in Philadelphia, where a 10-show run is scheduled. Anderson will then take it to various U.S. cities through October, and to Europe in November.
In the summer she plans to record a companion album she describes as a separate examination of the novel rather than a traditional recording by the show's cast.
While the modern world is vastly different from the one about which Melville wrote, Anderson agrees with Melville scholar Lynn Horth, who said the author's concerns -- including obsession and societal indifference -- are shared by 20th-century audiences.
"I had to really think about what we have in common with people 150 years ago who lived here," Anderson said. "Melville's descriptions of Americans are pretty similar: real technophiles, very garrulous. ... And also there is this need to find some kind of meaning in what you're doing."