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There may be a lot of concerts that feel like interspecies events, but Laurie Anderson still has something of a premium on literally putting that concept into practice.
More than five years after she performed her first “concert for dogs” outside the Sydney Opera House, Anderson did a much smaller-scale version of that event Sunday for L.A.’s Cinefamily, as about 60 prescreened pooches joined 100 or so humans for a short band performance before a screening of the performance artist’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary, Heart of a Dog.
“I just wish everyone had my view,” Anderson told THR after the show, remarking on the uniqueness of looking out at a largely canine audience. “I was really nervous about them being inside, because the one time I’d done it before, in Sydney, they were outside. I know dogs like to sort of surveil the situation and not feel trapped, so I thought it might be scary for them. But they were great, this group of dogs. They were just like, ‘We’re at the movies,’ sitting down and watching. Although my favorite part is when they all decided at once to just bark,” she added, breaking into her own appreciative howl.
Although tickets for the show were sold to all comers, anyone bringing a dog had to submit to an online screening process, and everyone entering, dog owner or non-dog owner, had to sign a waiver.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to send in pictures,” said Alysa Creaser, as she and her blue-eyed “border collie mystery mix” waited for the show to star. “I sent in three pictures — one with him in a beret, one wearing a bonnet, one with pompons.” Why did the Cinefamily ask for photos? “Good question,” said Creaser. “Maybe it was profiling? These are all pretty good-looking dogs.”
The first version of the concert was conceived years before Anderson decided to make what she calls “an essay film” with the life and death of her own beloved dog as its through line, although the two made for an obvious combo platter in late 2015.
Anderson recalled being backstage waiting to be honored alongside Yo-Yo Ma: “I said, ‘You know, Yo-Yo, I have this weird fantasy that when I’m doing a concert I look out and the whole audience is dogs.’ And he said, ‘That’s my fantasy, too! Are you kidding?’ ”
When she was asked to be artist-in-residence at the Australian event, “I got to invite my favorite painters and sculptors and playwrights and musicians and poets, and I said, ‘Also, I’d like to do a concert for dogs.’ And the promoter wrote down ‘concert for dogs.’ So we thought a few hundred would show up. There were thousands of dogs. A lot of vets were there. They parked their vans all around, ready for a dogfight or whatever. I have to say, you dogs here are so incredibly polite.”
Anderson and her band — playing together for the first time, except for a past partner, the renowned bassist Rob Wasserman — played several mostly instrumental pieces, including one with high-pitched sax meant as “an invocation for whales” (per the original Sydney setting), and another, bouncier number intended to suggest the rhythm of dog walking.
Her famous electric violin had given up the ghost before the sound check (“A violin can become just an old piece of wood so fast,” she lamented). But she was still able to put her voice through the masculine electronic filter heard in her bigger performance pieces, which was apropos for a dog show, she noted, because with canines, “You have to use another voice than the one you actually have, like ‘Don’t do that!’ Then you realize, that’s not even me!”
Contrary to expectations, Anderson didn’t attempt to play anything beyond the range of human ears.
“We played a lot of high-pitched stuff, but not way, way up,” she explained after the show, “because we didn’t know really what would happen if there were lots of dogs listening in that super-sonically high range, so we decided to lower the ceiling a little.”
The concert portion ended with Anderson encouraging mass howling among the eager-to-please crowd.
Things got far more meditative during the film, an only partially dog-themed exploration of ideas ranging from the nature of storytelling to Buddhist approaches to death.
The documentary’s focus on mortality and spirituality struck Lori Pike, watching from a couch in the third row with her mammoth Bernese mountain dog. “It was a strangely meditative thing to just sit there with your dog on the sofa for two hours, between the music and the movie. Our breed is known for living eight years, if you’re lucky, so to be holding onto your dog while she’s telling about the sadness of losing hers was powerful.”
Anderson paid special attention to some individual attendees before and after the show, including “the droolers in the front row. They’re like…” She tilted her head and hung her tongue out of her mouth, in homage, “because they didn’t know why they were there. Who ever knows why you’re there?”