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If you could somehow transport Lake Wobegon to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and if you could somehow persuade all the God-fearing Lutherans who live along those Minnesotan shores to convert to Buddhism, you might just find yourself in the surreal world that Laurie Anderson describes in The Language of the Future.

The world-renowned performance artist was in Nashville on Thursday night, presenting a program of multimedia songs and stories at OZ Arts Nashville. For the better part of a hour and a half, Anderson transfixed her audience with stories of ordinary people, just plain folks really, leading lives of quiet (and often farcical) desperation. She spoke of an Amish family from Western Pennsylvania, a dysfunctional clan who sat around the kitchen table for days doing nothing other than “burning in silent rage.” And she related tales of McDonald’s workers as they dealt with the daily tedium of their assembly-line existences.

All of these stories were recounted in Anderson’s familiar style: the fragmentary memories told over a cushion of electronic sound, with Anderson’s velvety voice conveying these tales in her soothing singsong. The soft, rising inflections at the end of her sentences usually delivered the punchlines — often with devastating effect, as when the Amish child's grandmother claims an agreed-upon smooch from her grandson, who has “learned to kiss without affection, to kiss as a form of payment ... part of a deal.”

Thursday’s performance was presented as a one-woman show, with Anderson performing on a bare, darkly lit stage as dozens of small candles on the floor supplied a kind of mystical illumination. Anderson provided her own accompaniment, her electric violin and keyboard creating a constant, atmospheric hum. She used an electronic voice filter to transform her pillowy soprano into the creepy baritone of her alter ego, Fenway Bergamot, who recounted “Another Day in America.”

There were a few disappointments. For instance, I couldn’t help but notice a certain lack of avant-garde adventure in Thursday’s performance. There was too much Garrison Keillor and not enough Gertrude Stein in her folksy (though admittedly darkly satirical) stories, and more Yanni than Xenakis in her music. One suspects that she performs less pointed, less risky programs when she tours the provinces.

But that seemed to be just fine with the audience that packed OZ on Thursday night, since they gave her a genuinely enthusiastic ovation at the end of her show. Clearly pleased at the reception, Anderson responded with a sweetly sensitive encore on electric violin.

Anderson will perform the second part of her program at OZ 8 p.m. tonight. On Saturday, she’ll participate in panel discussions at OZ for Pi Day, which celebrates the interconnections of science, art, technology, engineering and math. Pi Day at OZ seems like a must. Be there, or be square.


Image: Zachary Gray