Monday, May 30, 2005

In your electronic arms

"Bubblegum and experimental music and nothing in between" is how Merritt had described the Magnetic Fields in the pre-69LS days, before a more consciously theatre-centric songwriting approach began to poke its head out of the shell. If you change "bubblegum" to "pop" in that statement, you might describe the music of his labelmate Laurie Anderson, the incomparable spiky-haired figure who boldly introduced the avant-garde to wide audiences. Her work is incredibly imaginative, using a variety of unusual violins and heavy electronics, and often expresses tones of apprehension and curiosity through both her fictional and non-fictional narrations. Several key features of many of her songs include the use of pitch-shifting for her vocals, an embrace of musique concrète, and frequently alternating between speaking and singing. Her concerts are quite involved affairs, leading many to call her a "performance artist," but that term is too constricting to include the astounding variety of visuals and sounds and unclassified elements.

Merritt has been a longtime fan of Anderson's, along with Claudia Gonson, who made Anderson a subject of her senior thesis at Harvard. The track "Technical (You're So)" is partially a tribute to Anderson, perhaps noting her distinctive gender-neutral appearance with the question "Are you a boy or a girl?"

In the 69 Love Songs booklet, Daniel Handler and Merritt discuss the track "Grand Canyon" and the Benjamin Britten opera Paul Bunyan:

Handler:'s a wonderful opera and it has a sort of similar fussy abstraction of cowboyness that the Magnetic Fields seem to enjoy.
Merritt: Which is stolen from Laurie Anderson, who probably got it from Benjamin Britten, I suppose. I love Laurie Anderson for being able to write heartbreaking melodies with words that make fun of heartbreaking melodies.

The track "O Superman (for Massenet)" is the song that put Anderson on the map, even reaching the top ten in Great Britain in the early 80s. It's a hypnotic and unsettling song, presenting an eerily technological maternal figure as a questionable source of comfort. (For more on "O Superman," listen to this radio program from the American Mavericks series.) When asked what he considered Laurie Anderson's best work to be, Merritt quoted from "Hiawatha," from the album Strange Angels, perhaps the most accessible of Anderson's albums. For newbies: if you lean towards pop, then try Strange Angels. If you leans towards the experimental, then try Big Science (or if you have the cash, the massive 4-CD United States Live, one of the best recordings in the history of everything.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:54 PM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Thank you!

10:55 AM  

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