Lemi Ponifasio’s words come carefully, deliberately.
“It’s like sound without civilization attached to it.”
The Samoan-born, Auckland-based director and choreographer delivers the comment – instruction, really – to a pale, make-up-free, dimple-faced woman with spiky cropped hair standing before a lectern in a sound-proof booth. Her ears are covered with headphones; a big microphone is positioned close to her head; two plastic water bottles are propped on a nearby stool. The setting’s a recording studio in downtown Toronto and the woman receiving Ponifasio’s direction, dressed completely in casual blacks and dark grays, is Laurie Anderson. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? She’s likely the most famous performance artist in the world, certainly the most popular.
Flying into the city’s island airport from her Manhattan home earlier this morning – the day before her 68th birthday, it turns out – Anderson has been determinedly prophesying the end of the world since 11:30. Now, with the clock reading 3:05 p.m., with a return flight booked for early this evening, she’s in the home stretch. “I am alpha and omega, the first and the last,” she says once, twice, thrice, four, five, many times, altering the cadence and inflection ever-so-slightly with each iteration.
At one point, a man to Ponifasio’s right at the recording console breaks into the repetition. He’s veteran Toronto music director David Fallis. “More neutral,” he says with a certain delicatesse. “More mantra.”
“And repeat for a minute if possible,” Ponifasio adds.
“It’s hard to do robotic,” Anderson observes, but she keeps at it: “I am alpha and omega, the first and the last; I am alpha and omega, the first and the last; I am alpha and omega …”
If the words seem familiar, well, it’s because they are – drawn, in fact, from The Revelation of John, that epic book of “chaotic, polyvalent imagery” that concludes the New Testament. It’s here that its author, John the Revelator, a.k.a. St. John the Divine, traditionally identified as one of Christ’s 12 disciples, conjures an array of tantalizing, often bewildering, decidedly apocalyptic visions and scenarios – the 1,260 days of prophecy, the book of the seven seals, the 42-month reign of the beast whose mark is 666, the seven plagues of God’s wrath, the chosen 144,000, the woman standing on the moon, 12 stars on her head …
For centuries, Revelation has been, besides a source of terror and exegetical dispute, a wellspring of artistic inspiration. And among the most inspired has been the revolutionary Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who, in November, 1980, to mark the 125th anniversary of London’s incorporation as a city in Southwestern Ontario, oversaw the now-legendary world premiere of a spectacular oratorio, Apocalypsis, commissioned four years previously by the CBC. The oratorio was – is – in two parts: The first and longest, called John’s Vision, deals with the destruction of the world; the other, Credo, has been described as “a serene and ecstatic meditation on the majesty of God,” on the heavenly possibilities of existence in contrast to the hellish.
The London Apocalypsis ran two consecutive evenings and involved more than 500 musicians, choristers, dancers, actors and conductors, both professional and non. Then there was silence – a silence that has endured almost 35 years and that will only be broken the evening of June 26 when Apocalypsis is resurrected in its full, two-part majesty as part of Toronto’s ninth annual Luminato Festival. Three performances, each lasting two hours sans intermission, are scheduled for the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, the last a matinée on the 28th.
“Fuller majesty” might, in fact, be the more apt description. Because this Apocalypsis is enlisting the labour of 1,000 participants – as in 1980, a mix of professionals and amateurs featuring more than 900 musicians and singers, including members from 24 choirs around southern Ontario. Among this “cast” is a handful of “name roles”: Canada’s Brent Carver as the Antichrist, for example, New Zealand baritone Kawiti Waetford as the Archangel Michael and Laurie Anderson as John the Revelator.
With Ponifasio at the helm – his dance company, MAU, made its “brilliant, must-see” Luminato debut last year – and Fallis hand-picked by Schafer to supervise the music, it’s enough to make festival artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt risk a superlative: “I think we can say, with confidence, that it’s the single largest musical event in the history of Toronto. If someone can prove me wrong, I’d be interested to hear what it is. But as long as nobody can, I’m going to say that.” Certainly it’ll be expensive: more than $1.5-million. But what the heck, says Weisbrodt. “To me, this is the kind of project that Luminato really, in a way, was founded to do, to do things that no one else would tackle …”
It should be noted that Anderson won’t be onstage during Apocalypsis’s Luminato run. At least not in her all-too-human flesh. Admittedly, this isn’t what Weisbrodt and Ponifasio had in mind originally. When the two met in Toronto in fall 2014 to start discussing casting, it was Weisbrodt who suggested Anderson as John the Revelator, a role played by the now-deceased sound poet bpNichol in the 1980 production. The John in John’s Vision has only eight scenes or moments, the shortest lasting around 30 seconds, the longest four minutes, but, as Weisbrodt points out, it’s “the biggest part in the first part of the oratorio and the most important.” To his eyes and ears, Anderson would be perfect: “Her work has that visionary side, that apocalyptic side, the telling-the-truth side, plus there’s that enigmatic voice people just recognize and is so beautiful.”
Ponifasio quickly agreed. “Laurie’s voice is always caring, just the quality of it. Which is really useful because John can become a machine when things are not real, when things are dream-like; there’s a withdrawn quality.”
A few weeks later, Weisbrodt took Anderson, a friend of long standing, to see Ponifasio’s acclaimed production of Birds with Skymirrors at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Meeting Ponifasio backstage, Anderson offered kudos and, quite naturally, asked what he was doing next. Seizing the moment, Ponifasio talked about Apocalypsis, his various ideas for its Luminato showcase and … and … would Anderson like to be John the Revelator?
Anderson quickly assented. But consulting her schedule soon after, she discovered “I was to be gone almost exactly the time I was supposed to be here.
“I have a habit of doing that,” she confesses during an interview, “of saying ‘yes’ too fast.” What to do? “I didn’t want to back out of it because I loved it and it’s difficult to do that with people: ‘Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t read my calendar right.’ That’s so obnoxious.”
Then Ponifasio and Weisbrodt “came up with this wacky idea and I thought, ‘Well, that could work.’” The idea being: Find a gap in Anderson’s schedule, fly her to Toronto, get her to record John’s lines in a studio here, then play the results in the Sony Centre. Remarks Ponifasio: “Hers was the right voice for John. But because it’s a vision, I thought disembodying it would be an interesting thing to do. To allow the voice not to come from a person acting as John from a physical point on the stage, but to treat the sound in such a way that it moves around the auditorium, so that it seems to be in the audience’s head, so to speak.”
(At the same time, Ponifasio wasn’t interested in going entirely body-less. So as Anderson’s voice caroms around Sony Centre, Toronto dancer/choreographer Denise Fujiwara will perform a series of discreet movements inside a glass box on-stage. Observes Ponifasio: “Denise gives another dimension to the performance where we concentrate on the decay of life, the body, the transformation into another dimension. Which is what John is talking about – ‘Fallen is Babylon the great.’ When we first started talking about Apocalypsis, there was a lot about Ebola in the news. And I thought about the utter sadness of the disease, that you can’t say goodbye once you’ve caught it; you’re always in isolation somehow. I thought about the loss of humanity, about how, even in a very big gathering of community, there’s always someone who can’t be touched.”)
Anderson confesses she didn’t have to bone up much on Revelation for John’s Vision. Her grandmother on her mother’s side “was into that. Hellfire. End-of-the-world stuff. Speaking in tongues. She even went to Japan as a missionary.” Her father’s side, by contrast, was “Swedish Mission Evangelical Covenant, which is basically all about coffee more than Jesus or Revelation. The sermons would be, ‘You should be nice to people, reasonable; let live,’ and we’d say, ‘That sounds good,’ and then we’d go to the fellowship room and drink a lot of coffee and have coffee cake.” As a child, Anderson was briefly spooked by talk of “Satan’s hateful dominion” and hellfire. “And then I thought, ‘It’s a cartoon.’ And I do still see it that way, I have to say. Occasionally, I try to conjure up something truly evil, but I’m not sure that I see the world that way any more. Maybe when I was 11. Maybe now I see more it’s ignorance as opposed to evil. … That sounds really naive, but I really do feel like that.”
Asked then how it feels to be John the Revelator, seer of the end times, she replies: “Feels good, feels really good. ’Cause you’re crazy, right?”
Anderson’s arrival in Toronto is coming after doing “a month or so of shows in all sorts of places” – Brighton, Stuttgart, Buenos Aires, San Francsico, among them. Loosely gathered under the title The Language of the Future (“It’s a meaningless title,” she says. “I just dug it out of an old show and pasted it on”), each of the shows was decidedly different, but all featured her trademark mix of text, music and electronic effects. In Brighton, for instance, she presented a collection of her animal stories and songs. (“Turns out I’ve written a few things about animals. I hadn’t realized that. It’s like I’m an Aesop’s Fable kind of person.”) In San Francisco, she performed a largely improvised program over four nights with a different artist each time. One, a long-distance duet via Skype with legendary Chicago-based word-jazz performer Ken Nordine, was a reprise of sorts of the Skype “rant” Anderson did at Luminato 2013 with Beijing’s Ai Weiwei.
Earlier this year, she completed a feature-length film, Heart of the Dog, that’s going to make the festival rounds in the fall. In part, it’s about her deceased dog, Lolabelle, “and, in part, it’s about … well, I’d call it Love and Death, but I’m not Woody Allen.” A “personal essay film,” it was originally commissioned for TV by Arte, the French-German cultural channel, as part of a series on artists. “Many things in the series are about, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have one.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, you do.’ And I said, ‘I don’t and if I did, I wouldn’t put it in a film and try to show it to you.’”
On Anderson’s more immediate to-do list are two things. One’s a so-far large, untitled, site-specific work she’s supposed to have installed in New York’s Park Avenue Armory in early October. (“A weird top-secret project” is the only thing she’ll say about it.) The other is a score for Figure a Sea, a collaboration with Deborah Hay, choreographer of Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet. That piece has its world premiere in September in Stockholm and, says Anderson, “I think the score was due two days ago.” Hay’s “a wonderful choreographer, but she has a reputation of not using music.” Anderson chuckles. “She seems to be interested in music in the beginning – I like her; she’s a fan; I wanted to learn something from her – but I didn’t know at the time she asked that she doesn’t use music and, in fact, doesn’t need it. So we’ll see what happens.”
Apocalypsis by R. Murray Schafer is being performed at Sony Centre, 1 Front St. E., Toronto, June 26 (8 p.m.), June 27 (8 p.m.) and June 28 (2 p.m.). Tickets and information: luminatofestival.com; 416-368-4849; David Pecaut Square box office.
Editor's note: Heart of the Dog is, in part, about Laurie Anderson's deceased dog, Lolabelle. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.