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FFC: Concert for Dogs

Our dogs love us, but do we really know what’s in the “Heart of a Dog”? At a recent dog concert and screening of her documentary, Chicago-native and performance artist Laurie Anderson is on to something that other canine lover may have missed.

There’s no doubt that my life is very canine-centric. My weekend schedule, my recent fund-raising activities and my daily life are all very much focused on my two current dogs, Kirisame and Kaminari, both purebred blue merle rough collies. I can usually tell what they want and what they need, but last month, I found I didn’t really know them at all, not like I’d know my friends and dance partners. I don’t know their taste in music. 

Laurie Anderson does know something about dogs. As a prelude to a special screening of her “Heart of a Dog,” Anderson led a special concert at the Cinefamily theatre in Los Angeles. The sold-out event was a last-minute addition to the Cinefamily schedule, only organized in a about two weeks. The dogs went through a screening process; our collies had Canine Good Citizen titles.

The dog owners and their dogs queued up in a separate line from the non-doggie attendees. Dogs and owners were allowed in first, but asked to give up their doggie treats into a bucket. The reasoning was the same as in a free-for-all dog park: Dogs might fight over food.

Yet after we were led into the back patio area, we saw there were doggie treats high on top of tables for pet owners to give their furry friends. All kinds of attendees came, from family who had just recently adopted an All-American mixed breed dog, to couple with an enthusiastic Bernese Mountain Dog to a self-assured slate grey standard poodle whose owner was dressed to color coordinate.

The dog owners were allowed to be seated first. In the front rows of the theater, were various leather love seats, covered with blankets. Those sofas were given to owners with medium and large dogs. Small dog owners were seated at either side of the theater with their laps dogs occupying their laps. Cinefamily counted over 40 dogs; The Hollywood Reporter reported 60. 

Dog treats might not have been allowed, but human food was.

Anderson is an American experimental performance artist and a dog lover. She has a short shock of brown hair and she wandered around the theater meeting the dogs with an open smile. She was willing to take cellphones and take photos of the guests and their dogs. This was her second concert for dogs. Her first had been an outdoor event in Sydney, Australia. 

Before the concert began, Anderson recalled how she once mentioned to Yo-Yo Ma, “I have this weird fantasy that when I ‘m going a concert, I look out and the whole audience is dogs” and he responded, “That’s my fantasy, too.” Anderson apologized that her electric violin was broken and would not be part of the dog concert. Her violin is one of her own creation, and uses magnetic tape instead of horsehair in the bow. I’ve never heard it but sadly, Anderson confessed, “A violin can become just an old piece of wood so fast.” 

Anderson studied the violin and played in the Chicago Youth Symphony, but she graduated from Barnard College in New York and then studied sculpture at Columbia University. 

We would have to settle for harp, sax, bass and drums. The sax played a piece that might sound familiar to marine biologists because it was “an invocation of whales” Anderson later explained. “Dogs like high-pitched sounds.”. I knew this. That’s why my voice is more attractive to dogs than humans. What I didn’t know was what melodies would make my dogs react. 

In Chinese philosophy, Kirisame would be yin, the more passive and laid-back of the two while Kaminari would be yang, bold and active. At one point, Kirisame sat with eyes focused on the band on stage, ears pitched forward and sitting straight up instead of his usual relaxed slump. Was it the sax? Was it the harp? I don’t know. Then on a particularly percussion heavy piece, Kirisame was relaxed and perhaps even bored, but Kaminari, who’s very name means thunder, joined in and barked in rhythm. No one frowned at this reaction. At the end of the short concert, we were encouraged to join in and howl. Anderson smiled and complimented Kaminari’s enthusiasm.

Anderson had been asked to make a film about her philosophy of life. “I didn’t see how that would be interesting,” she related after the film. She confessed, “The film was made in a very casual way” and called it “an essay film.” Most of it is true, but what is truth because we don’t always see things the same way and she related, “This so-called real world is so bizarre, you don’t have to make things up.” 

“Heart of a Dog” is not just about her  beloved companion, a rat terrier named Lolabelle, but also about the deaths of her husband, Lou Reed ( in 2013) and mother. We only see Lou Reed briefly in the 75-minute art film, and other rat terriers stand in for Lolabelle. Lolabelle had ordinary dog adventures and extraordinary, such as being threatened by a circling hawk in California. Perhaps that doesn’t happen to small dogs in large cities, but in California birds of prey and coyotes are known to view lap dogs as potential snacks. The movie also reminds us in a free flowing way that humans were also threatened from above with mention of the World Trade Center. 

Lolabelle also learned to play piano. After the film, Anderson explained, “I didn’t necessarily want a piano—playing dog.” Lolabelle was one of those dogs who liked people. As she grew old and stiff, she also became blind. “When she went blind, she didn’t do well. She would not move. She panicked.”

There were people who told Anderson, “You just are going to have to put her down,” but Anderson resisted and explained, “It’s important to know your animal” and deciding to have your dog euthanized “is a very personal decision.” By playing the piano, Lolabelle could again reach out to people and “feel them around.” Lolabelle found a different way to play the room.

According to Dog Relations NYC Lolabelle needed occupational therapy. If you look at the website for this "common sense counseling for dogs and their humans," you'll see Lolabelle as well as other piano-playing dogs. 

“Heart of a Dog” touches on memories, shared but different. It might disturb some because it has not plot, no real story line, but Anderson noted, “My life doesn’t have a plot.” 

The Cinefamily in Hollywood ordinarily seats 175 and executive director and head programmer Hadrian Belove, commented via email that “part of what made it so incredible was the incredible intimacy for such a high-level show. Those of us lucky enough were treated to a living room concert by the one and only Laurie Anderson.” Belove was surprised at “how quiet the dogs were—they really behaved during the show, until the end when she sort of encouraged them to sing along.” He added, “the music she played was really inspiring to the canines, and they really seemed to be singing along.”

In the weeks following, we’ve tried different radio stations and various YouTube videos of tango and swing variations by violin, saxophone and harp. None have engaged our dogs like Anderson’s live concert. Anderson and Lolabelle had played dog concerts together and Lolabelle undoubtedly helped Anderson understand what sounds appeal to dogs. 

Belove is open to the possibility of having another concert for dogs. “We would be delighted and honored to do it again. I would have liked to do it outdoors in the summer.” Dog owners stay tuned. Anderson has since given a concert for dogs in New York at Times Square (Jan. 4th) and her "Heart of a Dog" will air on HBO on April 25th. The film is screening at Gene Siskel Film Center Jan. 25th at 7:45 p.m. 

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