Laurie Anderson, Big Science (Warner Bros., 1982)
Laurie Anderson, Home of the Brave Soundtrack (Warner Bros. 1986)

I’ve been trying, and failing, to pinpoint when I discovered Laurie Anderson. But I owned Big Science, on cassette, in junior high school — meaning that, by 12, I cared enough about her to plunk down allowance money for her music. (That cassette got played so much it wore out, and was replaced by a CD in college; when that came up missing after our move to NC, I bought this vinyl copy at Nice Price Books in Carrboro, along with the Home of the Brave soundtrack.)

That memory search highlighted something about my early musical awakening that is, objectively, maybe kind of odd. By the time I was in junior high, I was already aware of, and genuinely liked, music by John Cage, Harry Partch, Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, and other avant-gardists. I discovered their work on LPs at the Waynesboro (VA) public library. I also have a distinct recollection of watching excerpts of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach on our local PBS station — and that would’ve been even earlier, like when I was 9 or 10.

The point of that? (a) Public cultural institutions had a profound impact on the growing mind of this rural mountain boy, and (b) I’d directly attribute my worldview to that early exposure. (Which sounds a little like a pitch to make a donation. Fine — given the current regime’s blatant disregard for them, all the more reason to step up.)

Oh — the records. Big Science is a masterpiece of restraint, of minimal means used to maximal effect, of tiny non-sequiturs and repetitive motives combining into rich, emotive expression that sucker-punches you when you’re least expecting it. You already know that — and if you don’t, well, anything else I could say by way of description would not convince you, so you should just listen for yourself. The soundtrack to Home of the Brave has a few great moments, but is overall pretty weak, a result of divorcing these songs from their intended context (live, with a full multimedia staging) — so the concert film is the way to go.

You were born. And so you’re free. So happy birthday.

(No full album link for Big Science on YouTube. Just buy it already; Laurie Anderson’s more than earned your money. But obligatory feed of “O Superman (for Massenet),” plus the Home of the Brave concert film, below.)

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