Anyone who wandered into the Holly Solomon Gallery last month was confronted by, of all things, a jukebox. It was a big stereo model, all lit up in the usual way. If you pushed a few buttons, it would play any one of 24 singles by Laurie Anderson, and the day I was there you didn’t even need to feed it quarters. On the walls of the gallery were a number of wall hangings, also by Anderson. Most of them were first-person anecdotes, conveyed by a carefully lettered text and a photograph. Some of the wall hangings matched up with jukebox tunes, and some were independent. I had the feeling that the artist would probably have liked having a tune for every wall hanging, and a wall hanging for every tune, but that some of her ideas just didn’t quite lend themselves to both mediums.
Anderson is perhaps best known as a performance artist. I’ve never seen her perform, but have read a little about her work in this vein. There is a piece called ‘Duets on Ice,’ for which she places a small loudspeaker inside her violin so that her instrument can play prerecorded violin music in duet with live violin music. I’ve also heard about a ‘Duet for Violin and Door Jamb,’ which she apparently performs standing in a small doorway, so that the bow occasionally knocks against the doorway as well as moving across the strings.
The singles on Anderson’s jukebox were in an artsy sort of semi-popular vein. Like most jukebox numbers, they were largely vocals, about three or four minutes long, and they generally conveyed a story or poem. But most of the other conventions of pop music were broken, if not completely ignored. Number 114, for example, was called ‘New York Social Life.’ Speaking voices expressed insincere concern for one another, made casual unspecified lunch dates, and generally carried on in a cool, frivolous way, against a background of unpleasant, raspy string sounds produced on a tamboura. In ‘Unlike Van Gogh,’ number 143, Anderson related a personal story about working as an art critic. The music in the background includes a chant on the words of the title, a high plucking rhythm, and a bass line. Number 121 admitted a number of extraneous sounds, such as a boat horn and a parrot. Number 100 featured a talking jew’s harp that conveyed a text almost comprehensibly. Number 103, ‘Like a CB,’ lamented the intrusion of CB signals on home stereo equipment, and itself had a brief CB-type intrusion.
Most of the songs had a personal, almost primitive touch in one way or another, but they were produced quite professionally. The stereo mix was often knowing, and Anderson sometimes overdubbed several vocal lines skillfully. Her violin playing came in several unusual forms, all of which she handled well, and she has real control over her singing when she wants to, as in number 102, ‘Talk to Me (Lucille).’ She also made good use of Scott Johnson’s guitar and Peter Gordon’s sax on some numbers.
There must have been an hour and a half of music in all, and since other gallery visitors kept selecting things I’d already heard, I could see that it could take all day to get through the complete repertoire. So I left before hearing everything, but not before gaining some clear impressions. Anderson is a good musician, and a good record producer, and though she seems to be steering a clear, strong path into a unique, semi-popular, semi-avant-garde area, she is also running into a dilemma. It has to do with one basic question: Is the gallery situation necessary to the music?
I began asking myself that question before I had even left the exhibit, and even after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure of the answer. I can’t help feeling, though, that the exhibit involved some contradictory motives, and I can’t help wondering just a little about the integrity of the project. If the art-gallery and jukebox situation is really necessary in order for the music to make its statement, then the music should not even be discussed except as a part of a multi-media exhibit, and it should certainly not be issued on an ordinary LP, as it apparently will be before long. On the other hand, if the music has its own integrity, then why bother to put it in a gallery situation? Why not just present it as music?
One can’t generalize about such things because so many works do function in more than one medium. Ballet scores become pure orchestral pieces, operas become record albums, books become movies, sculptures become theater sets, and there is no reason why a gallery exhibit shouldn’t occasionally become a recording. Usually, however, works have to undergo a great deal of translating, revising, and adapting before they really come alive in a second medium. In Anderson’s case I sensed a bit of opportunism, an attempt to have it both ways, and I sense a bit of cynicism in my response. I just can’t stop suspecting that maybe the exhibit was a covert publicity stunt, an attempt to con us into noticing some music that we probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to in a more conventional presentation. And I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about having noticed.