by Davide Sapienza
The musical avant-gardes have always been aware of the primordial strength of sound: combining it in new forms, artists who wanted new languages have always asked themselves questions about the meaning of music with regard to their own contemporaneity. And this is how Laurie Anderson, violinist and ‘storyteller’ – as she has always defined herself – conceived the practice of her own creativity, going so far as to title one of her well-known songs ‘Language Is A Virus (From Outer Space)’. Spoken language has always guided us by modifying its message through the use of the contents expressed: music, as a non-verbal language, has always given the listener another way of seeing life through sensory perception, which becomes a legitimate protagonist based on the strength of the creativity that produced it, and that comes to us without filters, especially when it is an unexpected experience. A new language. A viral language.
At the end of 1981, Laurie Anderson released a single titled ‘O Superman’. Quickly and unexpectedly this (non) song crept into the ether to clamorously climb the charts: the elusive muse of the New York avant-garde had succeeded in bringing her new language from street level – where she loved performing without advance notice – to the viral level, allowing herself eight obsessive minutes marked by the repetition of the syllables ‘ah-ah-ah-ah’, around which she had embroidered her own voice, filtered by the vocoder. A disruptive effect that demonstrated how the avant-garde – with its language for the few – can become popular, with the typically viral musical and verbal language of popular song. ‘O Superman’ entered the collective unconscious and Big Science, Anderson’s debut album released in 1982, which included ‘O Superman’ and which even today seems to come from the future, imposed a musical-vocal language whose characteristics were similar to those of a virus that changes continuously in order to survive – in this case in our perception. Four years later, the American artist captured the zeitgeist with another provocative composition, the title of which, borrowed from a phrase by William Burroughs, was more than eloquent: ‘Language Is A Virus (From Outer Space)’ transformed the very idea of refrains in word-notes (‘Language! Is A Virus!); a destabilising method to remember that language, in history, has always played a dual role – that of communicating and that of manipulating us, and therefore of modifying us by modifying itself. In 2000, in an interview with the Italian channel Rai Educational about the long echo that her work has had, she stated: ‘“Language is a virus that came from space” was a William Burroughs quote (from the 1961 novel The Ticket That Exploded) and it struck me because I found it strange for a writer to argue that language is an orally transmitted disease. But I liked this statement because it is difficult to put your thoughts into words and one of the reasons why I devoted myself to the visual and musical arts is that I love words, but I am also convinced that they are very deceptive. We often use language as a defensive weapon and we feel very embarrassed when we stop talking. But many new aspects of everything are discovered only when we stop using it.’ And again, two years ago, commenting on our current situation with regard to our relationship with the planet, she declared: ‘It is more and more complicated to tell stories, because the ending is already hanging over us. We are the first human beings to have the task of talking about the possibility of extinction and we write stories that we might not tell anyone, but we have to do it because words can defuse fear.’ Language is a virus, yes: but it is up to us to understand how to use it, or whether to let ourselves be used.