Habeas Corpus by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson (electric violin, voice)

Omar Souleyman (voice)

Merrill Garbus (electronics)

Shahzad Ismaily (bass)

Stewart Hurwood (guitar)

Park Avenue Armory
October 2-4, 2015

For the better part of her career, American performance artist Laurie Anderson has been exploring the liminal space between the word and the voice. The result is a quasi-Sprechstimme, a lyrically inflected, groove-inspired recitation. The listener experiences this as a precipice: we are listening to the fringe of the word, and the fringe of the musical note, at one and the same time. Anderson’s technique is inimitable. The domain is solely hers, but her art form has yet to earn its own well-deserved appellation. Anderson’s mysterious and hallowed place is where music enters the text. If Roland Barthes were alive, he would be the first to give Anderson a standing ovation.

When Anderson took to the stage to perform her 1981 signature work O Superman at her self-proclaimed dance party—the let-your-hair-down postlude to the real-time, daytime installation Habeas Corpus at the Park Avenue Armory—she reminded us again of her virtuosity, and we responded with a standing ovation. O Superman is the archetypal Barthesian jouissance experience, and the Armory performance showed us how Anderson’s self-developed, sui generis technique reflects not only contemporary storytelling, but also of the influence of operatic form. She has been orbiting opera for most of her career. For her audiences, the influences of this historical art form have perhaps been less overt, but for Anderson they are substantive and formative. In O Superman, Anderson recalls Jules Massenet’s aria “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père,” from his 1885 opera Le Cid. Anderson’s pop charting song is a classical, antiphonally-based work echoing operatic recitative. O Superman’s dramatization of an answering machine conversation between a narrator and an anonymous voice is also relevant to Habeas Corpus. While Anderson describes it as a meditation, its musical installation component is a re-imagining of an 18th-century vocal recitative. In Anderson’s 21st-century hands, Habeas Corpus is an extended, open-ended recitativo accompagnato sitting in the passageway between opera and oratorio. But in 2015, O Superman’s ‘80s answering machine is superseded by telepresence.


Storytelling is at the heart of Anderson’s work. In Habeas Corpus Anderson’s torch of justice shines on the experiences of Mohammed el Gharani, a Chadian man who was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for seven years starting at the age of fourteen. In 2002, while praying in a mosque in Pakistan, the teenager was rounded up, arrested by Pakistani police and handed off to U.S. forces. He was falsely accused of fighting for the Taliban and of being a member of a London-based al Qaeda cell. But he had never visited Afghanistan or London. He was charged on evidence based entirely on statements from two other prisoners. He did not receive a trial. He was among the youngest prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

The evening dance party of which O Superman was a part was a mosh pit experience. The obvious intent, to find relief from the subject matter of Habeas Corpus, was worthy, but it emerged as an unhinged appendage. The daytime meditation offered the resolute artistic statement.

In Habeas Corpus, the breadth of Mr. Gharani’s experience was brought to life through what we saw, heard, and felt in a mirror ball-lit immersion interweaving technology, design, and music—a juxtaposition generally called multimedia, though that is a term Anderson openly rejects. Perhaps the more nuanced term “intermedia” would suit her better? Either way, labels are merely a distraction for Anderson. She is a storyteller and artist. The multi-art collaboration is simply the scaffold where Anderson hangs her musical text.

Mr. Gharani was Anderson’s collaborator. Since he is unable to visit the United States, a proxy was needed. Mr. Gharani’s telepresence was projected from an undisclosed location in West Africa to the Armory’s Drill Hall. During the seven-hour performance, Mr. Gharani’s live virtual presence took center stage. He sits on a marble white throne proportioned to the scale and design of the Lincoln Memorial. Sitting on this hypocritical seat of justice, Mr. Gharani recollects the torturous experiences he endured as punishment. He speaks without a script. His memories are chapters read from a book that hopes to be forgotten, left on a dusty library shelf. The pages of his autobiography do not seem to belong just to the man telling his own story. The incredulity of his personal experiences pulse uneasily through a voice that is otherwise unassuming, tender, and reserved. We know when Mr. Gharani is with us in real time thanks to his physical cues: from time to time he clasps his hands, wipes his glasses, shifts his feet. The three distinct movements emerge as his choreographic repertory. They become his metronome.

When Mr. Gharani’s voice entered the cavernous podium stage, it was the same stage as his heart. His words wanted to sing in the same way that his life wants to sing. He is at once imprisoned and free. His movements are minimal and for the greater period of time his hands rest on the larger-than-life armchair. He is anchored. The stillness of his physical presence constantly refers the audience back to his voice. Our appreciation of his character is now more acutely defined by the smallest modulations of his voice, where every articulation is symbolically and ironically strangled by his remote presence and his memories. His voice reaches at us, but cannot reach us, so it is up to the instrumental music to draw the dynamic contours of his emotions.


There is no singing in Anderson’s recall of Mohammed’s story, but she covers the ground that Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte would have visited: the style of the delivery is indicative of ordinary speech, no lines are repeated, and the form facilitates action and storytelling. While Anderson’s effusive, operatic versions relied on a rhythmically prescribed declamation, Mr. Gharani’s remote, present/non-present narrations offered a subdued, rhythmically fluid meter.

Throughout the recitative, Anderson’s accompaniment echoes Gharani’s emotional temperature. She draws on multiple orchestrations, from strings to electronic soundtracks. The extemporizations seep into the storyline as a series of polyphonic voices. They are emitted through shadows and darkness, mostly at the periphery of the hall. The articulations are peripatetic. The electronic contributions arrive through multiple speakers dispersed throughout the echoing space, ricocheting sounds through the air like pinball machines. Other musical lines are offered acoustically thanks to the services of roving live musicians.

There were three distinct tonal levels of accompaniments, hovering in specific tessituras. A low score of multi-guitar drones devised by Anderson’s late partner Lou Reed and realized in Habeas Corpus by Reed’s collaborator Stewart Hurwood was the metaphorical Baroque figured bass line. The rumble was menacing and the upper partials cruel to our ear. The distortion was bedrock.

A clutch of violinists and cellists approached the audience members, who were either seated or lying down, on flattened cardboard boxes. The musicians approached with stealthy steps, harnessing an encyclopedia of avant-garde string effects—from the bounce of the wood of the bow across the strings to the stutters of percussive gymnastics. The program notes told us that Anderson’s T’ai chi teacher once told her to “listen behind you.” In Habeas Corpus we do just that. To my ears, the sounds recall the hand bells interspersed throughout a Catholic mass. Is this the meditation that Anderson seeks to create? The shuddering bells were subtle cadence points in her recitative. The clustered vibrations and tremolandi contributed to the spiritual ambiance that Anderson seemed to be seeking.

At the height of its tessitura, Anderson’s electric violin became Gharani’s musical co-conspirator. She delivered her cues from a raised stage to the left of Gharani’s center stage. Also shrouded in darkness, her violin’s voice was the most substantive refrain in this recitative. The improvisations were an antiphonal response to Gharani’s recitation. She articulated motivic cells of musical material, for the first time in this open-ended story referencing melody and harmony. She drew on a wide lexicon. In one moment, an all-American hoedown fiddle tune morphed into acerbic harmonies borrowed from a Shostakovich. Another refrain conjured birdsongs edging together in intervals of a second. The birds sang the dissonances of a women’s chorus from the Middle East. There was also harmonic playback summoning Bach chorales.

Omar Souleyman

Omar Souleyman

This music that wordlessly writes the subtext also contributes to the story’s punctuation. At some points the motivic cells are exclamation points in the paragraph, at others commas. The three accompanimental lines that orchestrated the space were a series of polyphonic monologues. They allowed many verses of sound to be heard simultaneously. Our perceptions, consciousness, and attention were dependent on where we meet the sounds, but the importance of their composition dissolved as soon as the recitation resumed. Our attention sauntered to wherever the sound of Gharani’s voice, or the orchestration, took us in that instant.

It is only later, when you leave the room, that the weight of Mr. Gharani’s story drops and the orchestration of the recitative begins to unbalance your first perceptions. Mr. Gharani’s voice uneasily revealed that he was so badly abused he tried to commit suicide twice. An interrogator stubbed out a cigarette on his arm. He was kept in freezing conditions, sleep-deprived, and with alternating experiences of unpredictably blasted music and flashing strobe lights. The violin’s beautiful shudders, the potent guitar drones, and the flippancy of the American hoedown were the re-imaginings of this horrific incarceration. It was the soundscape of Mr. Gharani’s heart, of the existence he was forced to endure. In the clear hindsight of daylight, the experience is more sinister than I realized at the time. It was we who were being interrogated.

Yes, there was a mocking beauty in the seven-hour scene, but there was also an equal purity and beauty that offsets our sensibilities. There was a tenderness emanating through Mr. Gharani’s humble presence, and a tenderness that came from Anderson’s efforts to bear witness to his story. This is what shined through in the gaze of that mirror ball.


Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based essayist and cultural commentator. She is a visiting scholar at Columbia University.


Image credit: Stephanie Berger