Art of Record Production Conference
May 17-19, 2019
Berklee College of Music, 921 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02215
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Sunday, May 19 • 15:15 - 15:45
New Music, New Wave, New Age: Genre Discourse in Laurie Anderson’s Big Science

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Laurie Anderson’s 1982 Big Science, produced by Roma Baran, is the site of a unique stylistic convergence indicative both of the early eighties’ cultural moment and of the ways that genres’ superficial similarities can both obscure and reveal deep-level differences. This paper will specifically address circa-1980 pop harmony and the musical language of postminimalism.

Anderson herself studied and played with Philip Glass, and fact that the famous pulsing “ha” of “O Superman” is a repeated C will escape no musician who has ever performed Terry Riley’s landmark In C. The stylistic meeting points on display here emblemize the Downtown music ethos of the era, in which art music, avant-garde practices, punk, and disco all coexisted.

Specifics of style (structure) and genre (social negotiations of style) thus operate differently here than in other musics. The album’s sound owes not only to new music, but to new wave (compare, for example Big Science to the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light) and to the emergent new age classification (Anderson’s saxophonist Peter Gordon was a vital early figure). So amid new music, new wave, and new age, Big Science prompts a discussion of the discourse of the “new,” circa 1980—arguably the last moment in history when such perceptions of “newness” were possible (Fukuyama’s famous “End of History” thesis was published in 1989).

Remarkably, Warner Brothers, in signing Anderson to a six-album deal, genuinely thought that performance art (or at least a pop reduction of it) could emerge as a bestselling medium, or even give rise to new pop genres. Knowing in retrospect that this was not the result, the paper will conclude by asking under what circumstances was this perception even possible.

avatar for S. Alexander Reed

S. Alexander Reed

S. Alexander Reed is Associate Professor of Music at Ithaca College. He is the author of the books Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music (2013 Oxford University Press) and Laurie Anderson's Big Science (2021 Oxford University Press). He also co-wrote the 33 1/3 volume... Read More →

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