Laurie Anderson‘s speaking voice is a national treasure. And the single syllable that best encapsulates her wit and wisdom is that symptom of inarticulateness: “uh.”
What is in most mouths a signal of hesitation can be, in hers, everything from a considered pause to an ironic gesture to a luxurious cushion of affection.
The one thing “uh” is not for Anderson — and perhaps for her alone among speakers of the English language — is a thoughtless tic. It is, instead, a springboard held on extended pause at its lowest point, while just below rests a pool of observation that trails off into the distance.
Anderson employs her trademark “uh” in much of her spoken performance work, but she may not investigate it anywhere else with the thoroughness that she does in a track available for free download at ubu.com. Not only does the phrase punctuate her talk, it is the talk’s subject — she provides an entire etymology for the syllable, perhaps factual, perhaps fantastic (MP3). For anyone enticed by, or otherwise interested in, Anderson’s “uh,” this is the ur-performance.
Though the recording includes none of the electronic techniques that are synonymous with her work, what she says is rich with a self-consciousness of the recording process, especially when she recounts, with inimitable humor, an “odd and beautiful song” she jokes that she witnessed a Cree Indian perform for anthropologists in Canada. To say anything else about it would be to give too much away; just take a listen.
According to the ubu.com entry, Anderson’s 16-minute talk was recorded in the mid-1970s as part of a spoken-word event held on the island of Ponape, which I presume is Pohnpei, in Micronesia. It was released as volume 4 of the journal Vision, edited by Tom Marioni, who is one of the other speakers in the set, which also includes Joan Jonas, John Cage, Robert Kushner, and Brice Marden. Marioni, by the way, makes an interesting observation in his contribution. He suggests that Miles Davis turned his back on his audience in his later years — that is, played facing his band — in order to show that he’s an artist, not a performer.