Big Science – Laurie Anderson (1982)

Big Science album cover
Big Science album cover

Art and music naturally should go together, after all music is arguably the most popular of the applied arts. But somehow in the process of marketing music in the scheme of big business, the art part gets left behind. One of the few artist to keep the two together is Laurie Anderson.

As a trained sculptor, Anderson made a name for herself in the New York art circles with performance installations. Music eventually became part of her art as she collaborated on projects where she previewed the early making of a unique musical style.

Anderson’s real musical aspirations took off with the single “O Superman”, originally taken from a 8 hour performance called United States. The song caused a sensation in the high art circles and naturally it became an unexpected hit in England. The success of that song prompted Anderson to release her first true music album called Big Science. For the elitist in the art community of New York, Anderson was seen as selling out, but Big Science was far from being pop.

For something out of 1982, Big Science does not sound like a product of its time. The looped vocal sounds combined with traditional instruments like clarinet and trombones were timeless, simple and sparse. There was even the occasional bagpipe on “Sweater”, a harsh (unfortunate) jab at an otherwise constant sound.

The pretense of high art was revealed by Anderson’s spoken word wit and charm as many of the songs contained humorous observations about life, technology and Anderson’s own suburban upbringing. It would be with Big Science that Anderson’s trademark white sport coat, shirt and tie look would be seen by most people. She had long flirted with androgyny well before Madonna or Annie Lennox would capture the public’s imagination with it (that’s if you don’t count Billy Jean King in the ’70s).

Footage from the United States show was featured on MTV (usually in the form of the song “O Superman”) and was my first taste of avant gard rock or art rock as it is more commonly referred to.
The simplicity of Anderson’s music, basically short stories put to music betrays the fact that she was a pioneer in the development of customized electronics for music. She created a kind of violin-like instrument that read magnetic tape instead of strings to create sound from whatever source she pre-recorded.

Vocorders, samplers and harmonizers were used, but the music was seldom chilly or overbearing in the way that other musicians using technology was (early new wave). In all Big Science showcases a style that was fully developed by 1982 and ranks up there with work by Brian Eno, Steve Rich and Philip Glass in its innovation.

Anderson would stay true to the performance art aspect of her music by keeping it free of trends that limited most pop music’s shelf life. Her devotion to art means that you are more likely to see and hear her work in your local museum or modern art than on the radio or any music video outlet.

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