Music

Yeats in the Digital Age

Paul Muldoon and Laurie Anderson at “Against the Grain” (Jill Steinberg)
A literary-music series commemorating the poet attempts to appeal to a modern audience.

The interior of National Sawdust, a music venue in north Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has a “Humpty Dumpty” look to it, as if it had splintered into gray shards and was patched together with electrical tape.

For a first-time visitor to what was once a sawdust factory, reopened as a performance hall and “arts accelerator” in 2015, nothing quite makes sense: Corners meet at odd angles, a projector advertises upcoming shows on two irregular shapes that double as split screens, and the seating is six or so rows of vinyl-covered black chairs that keep catching on one another as the audience filters in from the bar near the entrance. The New York Times has called the space “devotional,” and the whole thing has the air of a nondenom church gone slightly screwy, having replaced its pulpit and vague religious symbolism with soft fluorescent lighting and a dazzlingly expensive Bösendorfer piano.

But National Sawdust is definitely chic, and it brings in some of the most cutting-edge artists in New York. On Thursday, January 24, the venue hosted the second installment of Paul Muldoon’s “Against the Grain,” a literary-music series sponsored by the London Review of Books and loosely centered on the 80th anniversary of Yeats’s death on January 28, 1939. Moderated by Muldoon, the former poetry editor of The New Yorker, the event featured the poet Jorie Graham, the novelist Colm Toíbín, and the “multimedia artist” Laurie Anderson, who provided the music and a general air of charming eclecticism. Multimedia events like this one are supposed to help audiences make “surprising connections” between art forms, according to the program notes.

To my left, a woman with dyed white hair was washed in a rainbow of lights as she sucked down the last of her pre-performance gin and tonic. Onstage, the 71-year-old Anderson, majestic in a flannel shirt twice her size and checked pants, looked out from a sea of blue lighting on her audience of mostly forty-and-overs and began playing an instrument that looked like a violin with all but its bridge cut away.

Laurie Anderson (Photo: Jill Steinberg)

Anderson, an artist trained as a violinist and sculptor, has spent 50 years at the forefront of the pop avant-garde, experimenting with and designing her own instruments and writing strange, free-wheeling compositions that make no sense but their own. (She used the popularity of her surprise hit “O Superman,” which hit No. 2 on the British singles charts in 1981, mostly to do whatever she wanted for the next four decades before a bemused international audience.) Last Thursday, her “violin” harmonized with itself, making sounds alternately sweet and ominous, like an invisible orchestra tuning up—not quite successfully. To this music, Anderson told a story about a dream her mother once had about a hamster, through a microphone that filtered her voice to its signature spacey sound. The audience laughed and settled in. Literature and music were successfully hyphenated.

After Anderson’s performance, Muldoon interviewed her, New Yorker poetry podcast–style, about her reputation as a versatile artist who has been on the cutting edge for half a century. Anderson sees herself—with her fascination with virtual reality, her love of strange musical instruments, and a recent book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood, that is mostly a catalogue of possessions that she lost from her basement during Hurricane Sandy—as “a total geek.” And the label “multimedia artist”? It doesn’t mean anything, she says: “How obnoxious.”

Still, Anderson, with her easy-going personality and her immortal literary-musical coolness, held the program together, certainly more than Yeats did. Next, Jorie Graham brought the man of the evening onto the stage with a reading of “Easter, 1916,” a poem that Yeats wrote when grappling with the role of poetry during the revolution in Ireland. Yeats worried that those around him had become inflamed with the spirit of revolution and had died for nothing. “What does it mean to write inside a political predicament?” she asked. Graham, a serious poet and an ambitious and politically invested one, wondered how poets can keep from “betraying this ancient art” by lowering it to the concerns of the age; after all, in the program notes, National Sawdust asked for “art that is equal to the contrariness and complexity of our moment.” Politics, poetry, a dash of religion in her references to Mary in Yeats’s poem: Graham always adds big ideas to the mix.

Jorie Graham (Photo: Jill Steinberg)

The trend toward the maximalist and the multiform—in ideas, art forms, and crossover performance spaces—has been building throughout New York. Last month, National Sawdust sponsored “Glass Handel,” a “live interdisciplinary installation” featuring Opera Philadelphia on a musical program of the classical composer George Frideric Handel and the contemporary minimalist Philip Glass, along with choreography by the dance phenom Justin Peck, a visual-art exhibition, music videos, and more in a performance organized by Anthony Roth Costanzo, at the Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.

Yet one wonders if multiplying sensory experiences really cancels out the distractions that (the story goes) keep today’s audiences from paying attention. When Graham read “The Second Coming,” the twenty-something woman to my right added a line to the to-do list on her phone. The center may not be holding, but she needed 250 napkins, cups, and plates by Monday.

Still, Muldoon moved easily from Anderson’s synth-accompanied stories about Amish people to Yeats the revolutionary to the novelist Colm Toíbín’s bad dad jokes. An Irishman who wrote the book on Irish immigration to Brooklyn (or at least a popular novel-turned-movie on the subject), Toíbín also recently released a book, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, about the fathers of Wilde, Joyce, and Yeats. With his reedy tenor brogue, distinguished double-chin, and infectious laugh, Toíbín told the story of John Yeats, the man who made W. B. into the man he was. Yeats Senior was a no-good Irishman who moved to New York on his children’s money. Yeats’s publisher in New York, instead of sending Yeats a paycheck for a new manuscript, would visit John’s boarding house on 29th Street and pay his rent. In America, John became one of the greatest letter writers of the age—and a perpetual pain in his son’s ass.

While Graham used Yeats for ars poetica, Toíbín brought the audience a Yeats constantly—and hilariously—annoyed with his feckless father. When John Yeats died, W. B. gave him a barbed compliment, saying his father, more than anyone, knew how to “live in the happiness of the present moment.”

Toíbín revealed the “multimedia performance” for what it truly was, behind all the swirling lights and modish messaging: an evening with some of the most venerable oddballs in New York culture, familiar faces and bylines whom the audience have read in The New Yorker and the London Review of Books for decades.

The success of “Against the Grain” lay in the way these artists maneuvered around the awkwardness of a program built on the well-meaning but desperation-tinged belief that their art forms must be dressed up to “appeal to a modern audience.” Yet there was nothing especially non-traditional about the demographics of the audience or what they enjoyed about the program. The woman to my left “mmhmm”ed and “amen”ed to Yeats’s lines in “The Second Coming” that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Everyone laughed at Toíbín’s jokes about dealing with British editors at the LRB, and the young woman to my right checked her phone five more times.

Muldoon closed out the program with a reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” accompanied by Anderson’s electric violin. The art world in the digital age may seem no country for old men, but my, Muldoon can read a poem. Anderson’s accompaniment gave an eerie tone to Yeats’s poem about art and eternity, what lasts and what goes the way of the old sawdust factory: “What is past, and passing, and is to come.”

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended to clarify that Paul Muldoon is no longer the poetry editor of The New Yorker.

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Hannah Niemeier is the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at The New Criterion.

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