Performance artist Laurie Anderson has charted new waters with Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, a contemporary "opera" based on Herman Melville's classic whale of a novel. Seen for 10 performances in November as part of the 1999 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (after a US tour and before shipping out to Europe for a series of dates in Italy and the Festival d'Automne in Paris, France), Moby Dick combines Anderson's sharp visual design sense with her signature vocals and quirky musical style.
While the impish Anderson, with her short spiky hair, black clothes, red shoes, and violin sidekick, is clearly the captain of this ship, Moby Dick marks several important departures from her usual performance parameters. Most importantly, this is the first piece in which she uses a text other than her own; she also shared directorial credit with avant-gardist Anne Bogart.
This is also the first time she does not appear alone onstage (aside from concert tours); she is accompanied by four singer/performers and two onstage musicians, giving her a six-person crew for her virtual voyage aboard Ahab's Pequod. Also new is a custom-built instrument, a MIDI-controlled "talking stick" or "musical harpoon," which serves as a sampling device that digitally accesses and replicates stored noises and voices.
The score features prerecorded musical tracks, including vocals and keyboards. "Laurie refers to these playback tracks as the phantom band," says sound designer Miles Green, who performs vocals in the piece as "Falling Man." Green has collaborated with Anderson for over 10 years as an audio advisor, and technical "Guy Friday" (he is also a singer/songwriter whose work can be heard at www.milesgreen.com).
The sound system used at BAM was rented from Firehouse Productions of Red Hook, NY. "We called them because they are experts on in-ear monitoring systems," says Green, who used custom ear molds from Firehouse that were then plugged into a Shure wireless microphone system.
The vocal-rich soundtrack was heard through EAW 750 loudspeakers, with a Cadac J-Type mixing console located at the back of the orchestra-level seats. Digital playback devices include an Akai DR16 digital multitrack unit and two CD players (for crossfade possibilities) run by Green from an offstage position where there is also a Yamaha O1V sub-mixing console. "I use this for on-the-spot mixing," explains Green.
In spite of the voice-enhancing instruments and digital playback, Anderson likes a sound that is "natural and lifelike," Green says. "It is unclear what sounds come from where," he adds. "She likes to keep the audience guessing." The soundtrack is basically an abstract landscape of sounds. "There are sounds that imply the ocean, but nothing so literal as actual whale sounds," says the sound designer. "Like with the visuals, using the ocean is a point of departure."
Visually, Moby Dick represents an astonishing technical maturity in Anderson's work. She is credited with the visual design of the piece, with additional credits going to Chris Condek (co-visual design), James Schuette (co-set design), Michael Chybowski (lighting design), Susan Hilferty (costumes), Bob Bielecki (electronics design), and Ben Rubin (video systems design). Dan Hartnett is responsible for the live image control.
The projected images in the show range from pages of scrolling text, opening like the pages of a book, to a large gold coin, underwater bubbles, outlines of whales, library shelves, and various abstractions that amplify Anderson's interpretation of Melville. At one point, the set is lit in blocks of saturated colors (red, green, aqua) or Anderson appears alone in two concentric circles of light, or she sits on a huge white armchair, a lone voice in a vast sea.
"The visual concept was designed to support the emotional experience Laurie was getting from the book," says Chybowski, who has also worked with Anderson for the past decade, including two-and-a-half years on Moby Dick. "We worked on how each individual image should feel and then wove them all together into something quite coherent," he explains, noting that the ideas of water and whiteness were concepts that they toyed with.
Working on a white set conceived as a multilevel, multiplane projection surface, Chybowski used a smallish lighting rig which included eight automated fixtures. High End Systems Studio Spots(TM) were hung three overhead (left, right, and centerstage) and three upstage of two video projections that hang over the stage. Two High End Systems Studio Colors(R) were hung in the upstage corners of the stage to provide diagonal backlight.
Chybowski replaced the standard templates in these fixtures with litho patterns that created dots and little planets on the floor and in the air, with smoke to highlight them against a background of lavender and blue light. The show was programmed by Eric Bruce, lighting supervisor, on an ETC Obsession II console, which accompanied the European tour (the rest of the rig was rented in Amsterdam), with Michael Smallman serving as the show's electrician. The lighting rentals for BAM came from Production Arts/PRG.
In addition to the automated fixtures, Chybowski used fairly simple backlight washes from ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with dark blue (Lee 119--Anderson's favorite color), medium blue (Lee 161) for the feel of water, and Rosco's feathered glass templates.
"We chose the colors for the [Wybron] scrollers after the video had been completed," explains Chybowski. "I went back in to choose tones to match, and extend the video images to create a totally immersive environment." The color palette ranges from gold (GAM 395), fiery orange (Rosco 23), and red (Rosco 26), to jade (Lee 393), lavender (Rosco 58), and blues, including Lee 161, 119, and 201 (color-correction).
In a show as projection-heavy as Moby Dick, Chybowski worked to use light to pick out the performers as much as possible. "I mostly used the moving lights to do this, as I was unsure where they would be in the final version," he says. "I wanted to latch onto the video and surround the performers with two or three different layers of color, so the whole experience would make sense."
The back wall of the set and the front of a riser unit are covered with a Gerriets projection surface that Chybowski refers to as "opera plastic." A pair of masonite pillars painted white pull the images to the front of the stage, while an inflatable moon also serves as a projection surface for solid color or various images. This is lit by ETC Source Fours on the floor with scrollers to provide a range of colors.
"There are no followspots and very little front light. What there is, is specific to certain songs, and comes from a 10-degree Source Four. At BAM, this was hung on a high balcony rail," says Chybowski, who also used 12 Source Fours, in three sets of four, in the boombox positions to help light the downstage pillars. "The overhead lighting is hung like a dance rig, which can hit almost anything anywhere, with really clean angles and long diagonal throws."
At the end of the show, Anderson once again appears in circles of light. "Hidden things keep popping up," says Chybowski, who wove the idea of circles of light into the show. "We played with certain ideas to make visual connections and provide the audience with a road map."