O Superman (for Massenet)
for voice, flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello
duration ~ 12 minutes
Commissioned by Standing Wave
Premiered on April 17, 2016 at The Annex
When I first heard Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, I experienced it as a song that came from the future. Today I think it's one of the most significant, genre-bending songs to come out of the 20th Century, and after spending time creating my arrangement of this song, I now considering it a masterpiece that still feels ahead of its time – a work that perfectly captures the pursuit to combine music and technology as an act of human expression. In eight and a half minutes of music, the song is a study of repetition and musical restriction, as well as an efficiently rich display of meaning, digital musical personae, and political and corporate commentary. The song’s humanoid voice, the voicemail message, the machine-like repetition of the syllable “ha”, are all references to both ourselves, and the apparatuses (technological and symbolic) that we have created around us.
Described by Anderson as a type of “national anthem” or “warped lullaby,” O Superman is a contradiction of sorts, a description of the experience of living somewhere between the soothing arms of mom and the military’s arms. Although the song was written in 1981, it is the acuity of its lyrics and its musical ambiguity that for me render the song as a form of timeless ode to ourselves, for contemporary times, and for our future technological selves.
At stake in the verbal text of O Superman are issues such as self versus other, home versus the public sphere, autonomy versus external control. As her performance splits her into multiple identities, as the security of Mom becomes indistinguishable from national security and human becomes indistinguishable from technological, many of the constants upon which we habitually depend are thrown into turmoil. In her music, as the structural is confused with the ornamental, as the musical semiotics of desire and dread, of hope and disillusion, of illusion and reality get mapped and remapped, inscribed upon and erased from the same two chords, the tidy structures of formal analysis — those assurances of unitary control — become hopelessly tangled.
McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings Music, Gender, and Sexuality. U of Minnesota, 2002