Richard Brautigan's poem 'On an Elevator, Going Down' never fails to unsettle me.
The writer's journey takes place in Tokyo in the mid 1970's, during the mechanised descent he is joined in by an expensively dressed man whose ‘... left shoe costs more/ than everything I am wearing’.
Soon though, the mood changes swiftly when he morbidly notes:
‘...I think that he is not totally aware/that we are really going down/
and there are no clothes after you have been dead for a few thousand years’.
This is the problem. Behind all of our modern affectations, the visits to international destinations, the tall buildings, etc. We are (and here’s where we switch to over Laurie Anderson) ‘...all going down together.’
It’s not mentioned which cities the crashing plane in Laurie Anderson’s ‘From the Air’ are travelling between. The pilot's voice of the opening number on ‘Big Science’ seems to only share the perfunctory procedures for attempting a crash landing. Spoken like a nursery rhyme, detached from the chaos, played out against a cold synthetic background.
If Brautigan's Tokyo-based poems use the familiar ‘stranger in a strange land’ device to express his alienation and modern frustrations, then Anderson has chosen to let other voices give her cultural commentary throughout ‘Big Science’. The cast ranges from the quietly meditative ‘Walking and Falling’ to the disgusted scream of the ex-lover of ‘Sweaters.’
Forty years on from its initial release and the anxieties, ruminations on technology, and sense of foreboding that run through 'Big Science' is all still relevant. The 'petrochemical arms... military arms...electronic arms' of the single ‘O Superman’ are as present now as they have ever been. The reinterpretation of ‘...the American planes/smoking or non-smoking’ post 9/11 just adds to the sense of doubt. The stark electronic setting and, in particular, the pervading synth solo at the end of the number, are still disturbing.
That said, there is a lot of humour running through ‘Big Science’. The album’s title is mock-serious, as is the monochrome sleeve showing Anderson in a lab coat, hidden behind glasses with white lenses, unable to see forward. It feels like a jokey response to anyone accusing her Avant-Garde work as being overly serious. The title track is sardonic in its attitude to the creation of new towns (‘...just take a right where they're going to build that new shopping mall/ Go straight past where they're going to put in the freeway’). In her excellent book 'Model City' (2015), Donna Stonecipher creates verses on architectural visions (and architectural realities). I often wonder if she listened to this track on repeat whilst writing it.
Having pursued numerous performance art projects throughout the 1970s, 'Big Science' was the moment that Anderson gained recognition. Many more extraordinary works that covered music, visual arts, and film making (amongst many other forms), would follow. Here is an artist that cannot be constrained by one art form. Big Science was and still is, an excellent introduction to her world.