Monday, April 23, 2012

Song #168 of 9999 - O Superman (For Massenet) by Laurie Anderson

Song #168 of 9999

Title: O Superman (For Massenet)
Artist: Laurie Anderson
Year: 1982
Album: Big Science

There's so much great pop music from 1982 that I was having a hard time choosing a song with which to start the week. Rather than choose, I just went in the complete opposite direction. "O Superman (For Massenet)" is a piece of art music inspired by the aria "Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père" from Jules Massenet's 1884 opera El Cid. Rodrigo, an 11th century knight, prays for victory ("Oh Sovereign, O Judge, O Father") as he prepares to fight a battle with an overwhelming army of Moors. Laurie Anderson's overwhelming force is that of the American military establishment, which was engaged in attempts to rescue the hostages being held in Iran around the time this work was constructed.

Anderson employs the use of new digital audio sampling technology and an instrument called a vocoder that harmonizes vocal melodies with notes played by the performer simultaneously on a keyboard. (At least, I think that's how it works--feel free to correct me.) The song has just two chords (Ab Major and C Minor) linked by the common note C sung repeatedly from the beginning of the work ("ha, ha, ha, ha...."). I find this cadence-free alternation of major and minor chords to be hypnotic and soothing (it reminds me of the strings in Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question) although some people claim the piece sounds sinister to them. Interestingly, the lyrics of the piece seem to caution against technology even as the musical arrangement is consumed by it.

More proof that Brits are infinitely more interesting than Americans, "O Superman" peaked at #2 on their pop charts! (It also hit the top ten in the Netherlands and #11 in Ireland.) At least we were clever enough to install its accompanying video at New York's MOMA in 1983. It's an intriguing, evocative piece and its central themes are still resonant thirty years later (even if we have mostly given up our answering machines).

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