'Happiness' is haunting show

by Elise Dunphe | 6/28/02 5:00am

For Laurie Anderson, reinvention is an inevitable -- if discomforting -- corollary of storytelling.

Anderson, one of the world's premier performance artists, presented her two-hour monologue "Happiness" in Spaulding Auditorium last night.

The performance was a series of short stories from Anderson's personal experience. She spoke in a slow, calm tone of voice, creating a very haunting sound when combined with the long and dissonant musical tones used to emphasize and separate her thoughts. The effect was very dramatic and reflected the discomfort which she was expressing.

Although throughout the piece she spoke on subjects as varied as her brother's parrot and a short exploratory job behind a counter at McDonald's, Anderson repeatedly recounted her thoughts regarding the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. She did so naturally, with a grace that was entirely apolitical.

"I live on the West Side Highway in New York, and every night last fall and winter, trucks drove by carrying away debris from the Trade Centers and every morning it was like waking up in a parallel universe," she said as she began the piece.

She continued on to comment on the twin beams of light that appeared in the spring to commemorate the tower site, while standing under two vertical blue lights.

But "Happiness" was not about a new American society fighting a war against terrorism. It was about how people remember events in their lives, and how those events are retold over time.

"I have never really trusted traditional narrative and in this piece I am trying to move even further away from it and express the way my own mind actually works," wrote Anderson in an artist's statement in the playbill. "In 'Happiness' I am not looking for conclusions but for another way to look at the world."

Anderson repeatedly spoke about the lack of silence that permeates America and of the extent to which people are uncomfortable with silence.

"It never lasts for a more than a couple of seconds," she said. People develop an "intense awareness of each other" in moments of silence.

Anderson proved her point on silence when she ceased the mixing of tonal electronic music which had served as a backdrop for her voice. She remained quiet and still until the audience began to shift in their seats. Tentatively moving people seemed awkwardly self-aware during this portion of the performance.

"These are the kinds of stories we start out with, the ones we tell ourselves about who we are," she said in a remarkably powerful moment for a performance that was profound yet presented with measured calmness.