By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
"Greenwich is my street," she says, "and one of the planes basically used it for a runway. And after that, I took a complete U-turn. It was staggering how much differently I saw everything, from the most mundane to the biggest things. For instance, there were a lot of phone calls I didn't return, because I thought 'I don't even likethis person.' But I also found myself walking down the street noticing how I used to be so judgmental, like if I'd see someone coming toward me that I found unsavory or unpleasant, someone who before would make me cross the street, I'd be thinking instead, 'That person's innocent. And thatperson, and that one and that one and thatone -- none of these people did this thing.' And before, when I'd fly into Boston, I'd think, ugh, Logan Airport, what an awful place. But after nine-one-one I was like, 'Look, lookat this architecture! This civilization!' It was like that for me in Philadelphia and New York, too; I felt like, here they all are, these amazing cities, this beauty. Suchbeauty. Terror opens your eyes."
It also gets better art out of her: "I had a teacher once who said, 'I do my best work when I have a good personal relationship and my life is happy.' But for me I work best if my life is a wreck, if there's something that has really challenged me personally, that has shaken me up and I don't know what to do about it. I do my best work when I feel desperate."
Happinessis the seventh full-length performance work Anderson has created in the two decades since her first single, "O Superman (For Massenet)," became the Western world's unlikeliest No. 2 single in the U.K., with its odd, prophetic verses about coming planes and departing justice incanted over a breathy pulse. It's also the warmest and most accessible, even with its post-9/11 edge. Memories of watching the towers fall on TV -- "They fell in silence," she observes -- play against comic accounts of a parrot's existential torture, dreamlike urban legends and an utterly exuberant account of her brief but rewarding career serving Big Macs and fries under the golden arches. ("For the first time in my life," she says, "I was able to give people exactly what they wanted.") Standing alone before MIDI sequencers and digital processors -- a setup that allows her to improvise, but also seems to mediate her uneasy relationship with an audience -- Anderson seems less cool, less ironic and less steady than she ever has before: The night of the premiere, she even seemed a little bit scared.
WHEN ANDERSON WAS AN IMPOVERISHED ART STUDENT in her early 20s, she remembers, she would spend her last pocket change on two newspapers and a cup of coffee, and then proceed to cut the two papers into strips and weave them together in a physical manifestation of William S. Burroughs' cut-ups, "so you'd get The New York Timesand the China Timesintertwined, and read the news like that." She made sculptures then, but other things, too -- from the very beginning, labels have failed to adequately describe Laurie Anderson. "Performance artist" implies someone more limited and tendentious; "composer" seems too serious. Poet, musician, artist, writer -- all seemed inadequate to contain a woman whose first glimmer of notoriety came in 1972, when on the summertime streets of Manhattan she played her talking violin for an audience until the blocks of ice that had encased her feet had melted.
Since then, it's been a dizzyingly prolific career with sporadic bursts of mainstream visibility, including a 1984 collaboration with Peter Gabriel on the single "Excellent Birds," to which Alvin Ailey choreographed a work that remains in the company's repertoire; a stint as a host on the PBS series Alive From Off Center in the late '80s, on which Anderson introduced experimental video in the days when video itself was experimental; and 1999's Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick,Anderson's spare meditation on Melville's classic. To the general public, or record buyers, there would seem to have been lulls in Anderson's career. Warner Bros. considered her a â vanity artist and relieved her of the pressure to crank out records. Four years passed between Empty Places in 1990 and her collaboration with Brian Eno, Bright Red; seven more before she made her first record on Nonesuch, Life on a String. But those were not lost years. As a retrospective of her sound art scheduled to open at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon on March 6 will show, she has invented instruments, a jukebox and at least one mechanical parrot who now speaks bad French. She has consulted with software designers; scored films and plays; written books. Most recently, she wrote the music for Robert LePage's The Far Side of the Moon, designed a pavilion in Switzerland, and explained New York City in a blurb for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Perhaps the best way to describe Anderson is as a storyteller, one who has used whatever media and resources have been at her disposal over the years -- Ned Steinberger's digitized violins, synthesizers, video, a swirl of famous collaborators and her own human form -- to explain whatever needed explaining. When she found, while performing in Germany, that audiences responded differently to the authority of a male voice, she made a habit of distorting her own deep female sound with a vocoder. When it became possible in the late-'80s to use video to immediate, imaginative, inexpensive ends, Anderson used it to project her own cartoon-character head over the proceedings (or to reduce herself to a speck against the history of the United States, in United States I-IV). Because invoking the spirit of Melville required textures of sound beyond the capabilities of ordinary instruments, she invented a "talking stick," an aluminum tube grooved with the clanging of bells and the clicking of whales.