ARTICLE: Laurie Anderson

If I open my mouth now, I’ll fall to the ground…

Laurie Anderson

Once upon a time there was a brilliant young woman who decided to become a performer. So she took her violin and her ice skates and went out into the streets of New York and stood on street corners – on two big blocks of ice – and played her violin. And when the ice blocks melted the performance ended. It sounds like a story from one of her dream sketches but it’s not. What it is, is quintessential Laurie Anderson. On her most recent album, Life on a String, the most remarkable track is an achingly beautiful piece for solo violin. A little string goes a long way.

The singer-performer as tightrope walker, suspended above the world, struggling to keep her balance – on the songline, the shout, the tightrope made of sound, the thin line made of her own blood – the only thing that binds her to the turning world below.

LOOK AT IT THIS WAY…
In 1993 she visited Tibet where she joined an expedition to reach a remote mountain lake. At 22 000 feet she fell prey to high-altitude sickness. After two days – delirious, her head pounding and her temperature running at 104 degrees – she was sent back down the mountain on a donkey, accompanied by a local guide and a diffident young American student named Lee Eastman. The sherpas told the rest of the party that she would die on the way down. For the next three days she was kept alive by Eastman, who in Anderson-like fashion, forced her to pay attention to the minutiae of life around them.

As we were going down
at an almost vertical angle
He kept saying
‘Look at the stars
Look at the rocks…’(1)

“All of my art has been about that – trying to notice something small, not a big deal, something quite small. And just turn it ninety degrees.”(2) Laurie Anderson’s perspective on modern life is unique – and her speciality is the particular way of life that America has bequeathed to the world. United States Parts I–IV, an epic multimedia performance that was turned into a boxed five-LP recording, consisted essentially of sketches of life in the USA in which she drew attention to the peculiarity of the everyday, and lovingly teased out the absurdities of our surreal age. In Say Hello she casts a crooked glance at the diagrams of waving human beings that were sent out of the solar system on the Pioneer and Voyager space probes:

Do you think that they will think
That his arm
is permanently attached in that position?
Or do you think
that they will read our signs?
Where we come from
Hello and goodbye look the same
Say: ‘Hello!’

“What I’m going for is trying to see things from a slightly different angle, and doing something where people go, ‘I know what you’re talking about, but I never quite thought about it that way. And I see what you mean.’ That, to me, makes it worth it.”(3) Arthur Koestler has pointed out how this ability to see things differently is one of the of the essential characteristics of the creative mind: “Discovery often means simply the uncovering of something which has always been there but was hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit. This equally applies to the discoveries of the artist who makes us see familiar objects and events in a strange, new, revealing light – as if piercing the cataract which dims our vision. Newton’s apple and Cezanne’s apple are discoveries more closely related than they seem.”

Where I come from
It’s a long thin thread
Across an ocean
Down a river of red…

“[The tightrope] is also a lifeline that someone else is holding onto. For me it was Lee [the student in Tibet] who was holding on to the other end. We were literally using ropes to get down.”(1) During the Nerve Bible tour that followed this experience, she made her appearance dangling from a rope. The show included a laser-generated tightrope. More recently she has described Life on a String as being mostly “about the precariousness of life that can be so easily cut.”(4)

FALLING
At the age of twelve, she broke her back when she leapt off a high-diving board and landed partly on the concrete -surrounding the pool. For three months she couldn’t move or talk and doctors told her parents she would never walk again. She never did believe them but the theme of falling recurs throughout her work.

You’re walking
And you don’t always realize it
But you’re always falling
With each step, you fall forward slightly
And then catch yourself from falling
Over and over è You’re falling
And then catching yourself from falling
And this is how you can be walking
And falling at the same time

In 1989 she fell into an open manhole.

JUMPING AROUND
A few years ago Laurie set out to create a performance around Herman Melville’s daunting mid-nineteenth century novel, Moby Dick. She identified very strongly with the book’s modern narrative style: “I liked the jump cutting around, and the way he was so free about saying, all right, now I’ll tell you a story about these old bones, now I’ll tell you a story about a pyramid and now I’ll tell you a story about something else. And I thought, ‘This is my guy.’”(5)

Her own approach involves digressions, leaps of imagination, wacky metaphorical correspondences and links by association rather than linear logic – all essentially poetic structuring devices, despite her reputation as a story-teller. “Say who are and then make a leap. I try to make it fun and worth it to take a leap. I also pay attention to what happens in the first minute. I make the jump-cut wide enough in that first minute, so that people know how far they have to jump to get it. If you make a connection that is really wild, then people will see that they need to make wild leaps of faith in terms of the logic. If it’s funny enough, or moving enough, or interesting enough, then you have made a template with which you can do daring things. But if you try to use logic to move people in slowly then I find that it doesn’t work as well. You’ve got to be crazy from the word ‘Go’ is what I’m saying. I want to make people understand that this is going to be a different kind of experience. It’s not going to make the usual type of sense.”(6)

It comes as no surprise to discover that she has met and actively collaborated with the granddaddy of cut-and-paste, William Burroughs. At one stage she took to reading the news by cutting up reports from different papers and pasting them together to create her own multi-faceted version of events. Her acrobatic intellect is evident in her everyday speech patterns too. A number of writers have commented on the way she talks in interviews – jumping around from subject to subject in a kind of ‘free-associating’ conversational style that one journalist likened to a wild loopy ride in an amusement park.

VOICES & MASKS
“I loved the crazy stories Melville told in the hundreds of voices that he invented: historian, botanist, dreamer, chemist, -librarian.”(5) Once again the empathy stems from affinity: Anderson is equally adept at adopting different voices, roles, and masks in a manner reminiscent of the literary dramatic monologue. Her many voices chant, whine, joke, do officialese and often just make sounds that become instruments in the musical mix. She even duets with a male version of herself sometimes – by altering her voice electronically, a trick she started deploying while on tour in Germany when she realised that people pay more attention to the male voice as the voice of authority.

Her taste for characterisation has led her to try out different roles in real life too – something she ascribes to a desire to see things from a different perspective, “because you can.” These dalliances with alternative lives have included living in an Amish rural community and a brief stint working at MacDonalds – where, she says, people were so not-expecting to see her that even friends failed to recognise her – and adds dryly: “For the first time in my life I was able to give people exactly what they wanted.”

Many of her adopted personae derive from the impersonality of the techno-age in which we live. She fools around tellingly with the bland assurances of announcers and flight attendants, or the disembodied virtual presence of speakers on recording and -answering machines.

Hi. I’m not home right now. But if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone.
Hello? This is your Mother. Are you there? Are you coming home?
Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don’t know me, but I know you.
And I’ve got a message to give to you
And I said: OK. Who is this really?
And the voice said:
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes.
Made in America…

O Superman (1981)

EMOTIONAL SWITCHBACK
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still function.” (Scott Fitzgerald) Anderson has an entrancing ability to shift seamlessly from light witty banter to emotionally-charged seriousness with a deftness that makes the scalp tingle. This is typically achieved by introducing a subtle chord change underneath the voice, subliminally preparing us for the narrative’s searing plunge into a deeper emotional key. Her humour itself is not exactly conventional – one commentator called it sombre whimsy.

In my dream
I am your customer
And the customer
is…
always…
Right.

Poetry and song it might be but the glue that holds it all together is her spellbinding skill as a story-teller. And like any good story teller, she is a master of timing and emphasis, often dispensing both with a distinctive ‘on again, off again’ style of digital delivery. Her voice is an instrument that she plays with great virtuosity. The full-stops bite, the plosives become percussive; she can be breathy, conspiratorial, ridiculous – all the while nudging you knowingly towards a new take on something, towards the funnier or deeper meaning beyond the obvious.

GETTING SERIOUS
“Artists have not all come to make art that cheered people up. Sometimes the most uplifting artistic expression is the kind that articulates the white noise of anxiety that runs in our subconscious, the anguish people in times of stress manage to keep to a low hum, but are often relieved to have brought to the surface… It’s not that I’m trying to make work that is desperate, and that brings people down. But on the other hand, what’s wrong with a little bit of terror, a little bit of sadness, some sense of loss? We’re human beings. We’re not just about eating gourmet food and having a nice ride in an SUV.”(7)

Yet another one of the things that she liked about Melville was his willingness to ask really big questions like ‘What do you want?’ and ‘What are you looking for?’ In her programme notes to the Moby Dick show she wrote: “The mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.” She -frequently treads a thrillingly fine line between profundity and pretension taking risks that few other performers have the -stomach for. Witty, whimsical, and switched on (O Superman reached no 2 in the UK charts) she might be, but her ironic intelligence and -literate allusions are not to -everyone’s taste.

RAIDING HISTORY
She has set Shakespeare and Longfellow to music, managed to re-interpret Hans Christian Anderson and Edward Lear, and breathed new life into Herman Melville’s mangum opus. In an essay on the German filmmaker, Hans Jurgen Syberberg, Susan Sontag described this exhaustive magpie-like tendency to gather fragments and quotes from diverse sources and then stich them together, as one of the key characteristics of the expressionist artist type. In The Creative Act, Arthur Koestler goes further, suggesting that it is the essence of all creative activity: “The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.” One of the art objects Laurie has made is called Tilt. “It’s a music box that was originally going to be a duet between a man and a woman. I love using -pre-existing tools, and in this case it was a carpenter’s level. I was originally a sculptor. But I thought, ‘There are enough forms in the world.’ -Everyone wanted to make more shapes and I thought there were enough shapes; I figured, let’s take existing forms and make them mean something else. So in Tilt, the carpenter’s level becomes a music box. It tilts one way and the man sings, it tilts the other way and the woman sings. When it’s level they sing together.”(8)

WORDS – AND MUSIC
“Language is a virus from outer space.” (William Burroughs) “More than anything, I love words. They animate everything I’ve done. No matter how many times somebody asks me, ‘Where do you start: with the word or the image or the music?’ I come back to the fact that what really moves me about other people’s work is their language.”(8) In order to construct the Moby Dick stage show, she used this as a procedure. “I initially wanted my piece to be a dream about the book, a dream dealing with some of the ways it made me feel. I would take a phrase or a word and build a song around it, using things that I like from the book.”(8) During the performance, words form the novel were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. In all her work, the intricate web of words floats on a sea of deceptively simple sound – pure pared-down ‘skeletal funk’, it has been called – flecked with aural quotes that gently jog the memory or caress the emotions – surreptitiously, the way perfume ambushes the unconscious.

TECHNOLOGY
“The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity.” (Marshall McLuhan) Ms Anderson has a reputation not only for being one of the pioneers of multimedia performance but also for being a hi-tech artist. Her unabashed enjoyment of state-of-the-art equipment is accompanied by a cool lack of obsession or addiction and a very realistic view of what it can and cannot be expected to do for us. “I look at it as pencils, more or less. Slightly stupid pencils. That said I use technology for everything.”(3) Her quest for new sounds and ways of manipulating them has led her both to embrace new tools and to concoct a few of her own. Over the years she has been responsible for some pretty off-the-wall inventions including, most-famously, an electronic tape bow violin, a musical body suit, drum glasses and most recently a harpoon-like talking stick. “The thing I love about it is that it’s very musical. It’s not like a lot of MIDI instruments where you just push a button and there’s a sound. It’s very physical, which I really like, because it’s about getting away from typing. And it’s just great fun to play.”(5) Brian Eno – who produced her excellent 1994 album, Bright Red – would have approved: he once famously called for a more physical approach to computer interface design by declaring that computers don’t have enough Africa in them.

Laurie confesses to being something of a computer nerd – along with boyfriend Lou Reed, who is deeply impressed by the fact that she can not only write, perform and record a piece of music but even engineer it. She shows little sympathy for the fear and hysteria that surrounds much of the debate about technology. “It’s about saying, ‘Let’s all worship technology.’ Because it’s so powerful and because we don’t understand it, we have a ruling relationship to it. We give it moral power and we give it the power to say it’s a great thing that’s going to help us with our lives or it’s an evil thing that will separate us more. We give it these moral dimensions it just doesn’t have. It’s just pieces of plastic. Obviously you’d never pick up a pencil and say ‘This is evil.’ But people say that about technology. It’s going to separate us, it’s going to turn us into nerds, we’re all going to be in our houses, lonely, tapping on our computers. Or people who say computers are deeply antisocial; reading a book is antisocial è many things are antisocial. It’s sort of an anti-intellectual movement that’s going on here that is pretty powerful.”(2)

REACHING AN AUDIENCE
The great American poet, Wallace Stevens, maintained that all serious writers are essentially elitist in that they write, not for a chamber of commerce, but for people like themselves – ‘a gallery of their own’ as he called it. Laurie Anderson concurs completely: “It doesn’t make me feel bad if somebody says, ‘You’re just -playing for your friends.’ I’m going ‘Yepp, that’s who I’m playing for.’ At the same time she believes that the creative process is incomplete without an audience. “You can sit around and think, ‘I’ve done the most beautiful song that’s ever been made.’ But it needs to jump across to somebody else. To me, that’s pretty much 50 percent of making work. Other people don’t feel that way. I don’t think, on the other hand, that the more people it jumps across to, the better it is.”(3)

THE END
“Not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; however, if the melody has not reached its end, it would also not have reached its goal.” (Friedrich Nietzsche) The album Tightrope closes with a song that ruminates in typically profound yet playful fashion upon the one-way flow of life. Music, performance, story and life itself all move relentlessly forward. There is no rewind button. Eventually, the line runs out.

So here are the questions: Is time long or is it wide?
And the answers?
Sometimes the answers just come in the mail.
And then one day you get that letter
you’ve been waiting for forever.
And everything it says is true.
And then in the last line it says:
Burn this.
We’re in record.

And what I really want to know is:
Are things getting better?
Or are they getting worse?
Can we start all over again?
Stop. Pause…
We’re in record.

Good morning. Good night.


REFERENCES:
1.
To the Mountaintop and Back by Stephen Holden
2
.
Laurie Anderson—The Grand Dame by Ted Grossman
3.
Laurie Anderson by Keith Phipps
4.
An Order of Cultural Spying, Supersize by Lynda Richardson
5.
Call me Laurie by Stacey Kors
6.
Artistsspace Interview with Laurie Anderson by Claudia Gould
7.
Truth and Daring: Reconstructing Laurie Anderson by Judith Lewis
8.
The Laurie Anderson Interview by Clifford Ross

WHO?
Musician
Recording artist
Multimedia Pioneer
Performance artist
Story-Teller
Singer
Composer
Writer
Sculptor
Curator
Performer
Renaissance Woman
Experience Designer
Wrote Enyclopedia Britannica entry on New York
Movie sound tracks – eg Wenders and Demme
Trained Violinist – Chicago Youth Symphony
Art consultant for Silicon Valley think tank
Teacher – poetry, art history, sculpture
BA in Art History, MFA in sculpture

© Raymond Oberholzer

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~ by Raymond Oberholzer on April 4, 2007.

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