(Originally appeared in Mutant Renegade Zine #7, June 1996)
I’m surprised to find that a lot of the people I’ve talked to have no idea who Laurie Anderson is. In my opinion she is one of the greatest performance artist. The way in which she combines music, words, images and ideas is astounding.
One of her earliest performance art pieces was called “Duets on Ice” in which she would accompany a cassette recording (mostly cowboy songs) with her self-playing violin. But since the recording was looped, there was no definite way to end the concert. So what she did was play while she was wearing a pair of ice skates with the blades frozen in a block of ice. When the ice melted the concert was over.
I got the chance to see her speak a few years ago at a college radio conference in Rhode Island. I spoke with her again on her latest tour and the following came out of that conversation.
MRZ – Your know mostly for your use of language, a word artist. What drew you towards the combination of language and art?
LA – In this show that I’m doing here, “The Nerve Bible,” I would say that even though there’s a lot of words in it, there’s even more pictures. In a piece like this I like to see how all he stuff combines Mostly in terms of time signatures. So you get the rhythm, a big low loopy kind of Boodoo boo, the image, and the sound, which might be chauka chaukada dit dit cha. Then you have the words over that. It’s all about counter rhythms really.
If you’re asking about what do words mean, I think they mean such different things on a piece of paper that when they are spoken in a context. It’s very hard to sum that up. That’s why I don’t, unlike some other artist, white it down, Xerox it and send it out. That’s why I fill up these trucks with 77,000 pounds of stuff. You would think “if you’re a word artist, why do you bother with that?”
So for me, it’s the context. Not to say that you can’t make the worlds greatest work of art out of just a pencil, or out of just a few words that are put together. It just depends on what the words are. I think that they way things are said are almost more important that what is said. I may live to regret that statement, but that’s what I have to say at the moment.
MRZ – You always use a lot of electronics in your shows. Do you have any new toys on this tour?
LA – I have a new violin that was designed by Ned Steinberger and it’s a very beautiful instrument, a five string thing. The electronics in it are very pristine. The sound of the show is a lot rougher that the records. It’s a lot more chaotic, which I like. And I find that in live situations it’s a better way to go anyway. It’s just wilder. Because of that, it’s more fund to do.
MRZ – Is your current tour a solo one, or are you joined by a band like on your “Home of the Brave” tour?
LA – I spent a lot of time at my computer doing computer animatins, and one of the things I was drawing was back-up singers. So there are two large cartoon back-up singers with computer voices. They don’t sing back-up very well. THey’re pretty lame really. So at the last minute I kind of cut their roll down a bit. They’re half alive, so I suppose there are half lifes on the stage. I’m the only musician.
MRZ – How long did it take to put this show together?
LA – For this performance, about half the material was written just for this show. The rest consist of rearrangements of songs from the “Bright Red” record and a couple of stories from the new record coming out, “The Ugly One with the Jewels.” There are a coupld of short older pieces as well that I put in because they kind of support the general idea of the performance.
There is a lot of teck in the work, which I feel a little sheepish about. Sometimes I feel like an electronic salesman. It’s like I come to town and go “Look at all this stuff, it really works.” So what. Look around at all the trade shows or mulitimedia shows with their lasers, digital sound, great hallaphonic sound, great graphics and really it’s all use to sell cars, silverware, shoes or something like that.
This particular show is a very weird hybrid. It’s kind of a combination of the electronics and very personal stuff. It’s something that I really haven’t tried to blend together before, a lot of the show jumps from high-tech to no-tech pretty quickly.
MRZ – since you’re signed to a major record lable, Warner Brothers, do you feel any pressure when you work on an album?
LA – Fortunately, they just completely leave me alone. I suppose they wouldn’t if I sold a lot of records. But since I don’t, they do. And also I’m not the kind of artist where they stop by the studio. You know sometimes you have people from the record company in the studio sitting back there going “more bass.”
I don’t have a lot of bass in the stuff that I do, and the parts are so tangled. I have a lot of birds, but I thinkt hey would feel pretty stupid going “more birds.” They would feel silly. So they don’t even bother to show up, which is great. On the other hand, they are a great record company because they do tolerate people like me.
MRZ – Why did you break down your latest release into two parts, “Bright Red” and “Tightrope”?
LA – The idea in making that cut is partly nostalgia for vinyl, you know A/B sides. It’s also that I really feel CDs are way too long. Ten years ago records use to be 32 minutes long. Now they’re more that twice that. So artists put a lot of filler in for the most part, or else just long instrumentals. And thos are find, but in my kind of music it’s uhmmm… I suppose you could dance to it if you dance like I dance, but generally people don’t. It’s good to drive to, but it’s also demanding. So I try to make it shorter.
Because of my attention span, I can’t be in a certain mood for that long of time. So I thought I would call them sort of two chapters. Also at the end of the mix there were two beginnings, two middles, two ends and I thought that means two parts.
MRZ – Your co-producer on this release was Brian Eno, with who you work with in the past. You also worked with Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Dave Stewart… Who is your favorite person to work with?
LA – I enjoy collaborations and I co-produced “Bright Red” with Brian Eno. Both of us really like to talk and so that was a lot of fun. ANd we also talked not just about sound, but a lot about smell.
Brian, when he was an art student, collected a lot of little glass bottles. He was just a pack rat. He liked them, but he didn’t know what to do with them. So he began mixing things up, different pigments and creating different smells. Now one of his sidelines is making perfumes. He goes to big factories and makes Opal perfume, which is the name of his company. He does a lot of those kinds of things.
While promoting his last record, he was talking to a journalist. He really hates talking to journalist. You know “Who played on your last album?” Yeeuh, it’s so boring. So he said to the journalist, “let me take you to a perfume factory and we’ll make some perfume.”
By the way, he also designed a repellent which men can smell a hundred yards away. It’s nauseating to them, they cannot bear it. You put it right under a woman’s nose and she can’t smell a thing. So this could have a future.
Anyway, this journalist is at the perfume factory and Brian’s saying “I’m going to tell you the secret of a good perfume and that is that at the very middle, at the center of it, is a big stink. Because your nose is your most primative sense, it’s what wakes you up. It’s what tells you there’s a fire in the forest. It alerts you if there’s a house burning down next door. Once you’re awake then you can put in all the pretty smells, but not before.”
Then Brian would talk about the function of dissonance in his music. So for us a co-producers, the centeral stink is the position of the vocal, which was very, very loud. It’s a very bare record and the vocal was the thing that was the kind of wake up call in it. It’s not a lush or pretty record. It’s a bare record, very stark.
We recorded a lot of other tracks that we didn’t use. You know, other sounds in each song. One of the reasons we didn’t use them was that Brian kept saying “look, there’s so much music in the world you know, it’s everywhere. But there are a very few words that mean anything. So why don’t we make this really bare.”
That was scary to me because it was like where did everybody go. But I did it, and I’m glad. It does have a starkness that I think is appropriate for the material.
MRZ – So Brian Eno is into smells. What other things are you into?
LA – I spent the last twelve hours trying to breat my CDRom. We are still having code problems with it. It’s very cool though. It’s a really strange thing. It’s got lots and lots of music and lots of places you can just wonder around it. You can do a lot of stuff in it as well.
Many CDRoms are about, sort of fake work. You know, push a button and that’s interactive. That just seems preposterous to me. Interactive to me is that you hear a piece of music and it changes your life forever. Or you read something and you go “I’ve never thought of that before and now I know,” and it changes you.
Pushing buttons, that’s just insulting to people. Besides it’s only finding what programmers have put there for you.
The trickiest thing in designing this CDROM was to really give, what’s unfortunately in CDROM language called ‘the user’, what used to be called the listener or the reader, the user some real power. This is not for every artist. A lot of artists don’t want you tampering around with their stuff. Or if you’re a writer, you know you write something and you have one editor. That’s a form of torture for some writers. It’s like, “take out that line or that sentence.” And you go “over my dead body you’re going to take out that line.” This way you have 5,000 editors and they’re taking your material and rearranging it and doing all kinds of stuff to it. You gotta want that to happen to make a truly interactive piece.
It’s also such a baby art form right now. We don’t really understand it’s potential yet. I don’t think anybody has, myself included. I think we’re all trying, but it’s such a brand new way of thinking about who’s going to be ‘using’.
MRZ – What’s most satisfying to you about your art and what do you hope audiences will take home with them from your performance?
LA – It’s the same reason I do them. It’s to really feel I’m free. And that’s what I hope most people get out of it as well. To kind of go “you don’t have to look at it from this point of view, you can look at it from THAT point of view.” Turn things around and look at them from a very different angle, ordinary things. It’s nothing like surrealism or anything like that. And I’m just thinking in terms of let’s say models. When you design your own personality, like we all do, like who you’re going to be and how you’re going to act.
A lot of times like this morning, I had a meeting and thought I’d like to go in my pajamas. I didn’t feel like getting dressed. But I have the kind of personality that says get dressed, don’t go to the meeting in your pajamas. So I didn’t. But you know, I wish I had. At least I know I’m trapped.
I think that in a country like this where roles are so defined. I mean living is such a pre-programmed society and after watching culture in the last five or ten years, I’ve noticed that it has become incredibly corporate. You look around and it’s all the same stuff. It’s not jsut the movies and records, it’s also the cloths. And it’s not our fault. It’s all about marketing. It’s easier to make the same thing for everybody, it’s cheaper. And so we all look the same, so what. Then we start thinking the same and that’s the real scary thing.
That’s why I’m out on the road. I’m looking for the underground. I got very depressed about that for awhile. That’s where I’m from. We use to work in a whole network of places that were alternative places. They have mostly disappeared. They’ve collapsed through a lack of funding. Now I find them sometimes on the net, which I still think of as a free zone, or on the road. People hand me their novels and cassettes and I think “you have no chance of getting this cassette out,” because you know. ANd one of the reasons they are geat, in my opinion, is that they’re unusual.
I like people thinking for themselves. Who are not out just to get a number 1 hit or something. That to me seems so incredibly sad, because it’s so fragile. It disappears in a couple of months, that kind of mentality. In terms of the underground, I’m talking about people who just aren’t buying into the mainstream, that’s all I mean. People are going, “is this it,” “this is it?” There are plenty of people like that and I’ve been seeing them, meeting them. That’s made being on the road worthwhile for me, because otherwise it’s a pretty grungy kind of life.
MRZ – The current wave in congress is to cut the amount of money going to fund the arts, public broadcasting as well as other social programs. What’s your opinion on this?
LA – I think this is a very fascinating time to look at these issues. Politics have become totally personal, and by that I mean that if you are interested in politics it’s not the European trade agreements. It’s Newt’s book or Bill and Hilary or O.J. Simpson. So you have a case like the Simpson case in which we all know the issues. You know, fallen hero, revenge, men and women, weasely lawyers, rich people, poor people, racism.
I saw a very interesting headline connected to that case which was “Let the Punishment Fit the Anger,” and I think it’s very fitting because there’s a huge amount of anger in this country, huge amount and it’s very unfocused. So people kind of glom onto that case and go eh au uh eh.
Also issues like family issues. What used to be thought of as personal things are now being fought on a political arena. People in congress trying to decide if there is such a thing as a perfect family, or is this just some kind of finction we all keep holding onto because we just can’t let it go. And if there is that family, who’s dad? Who’s mom? What are the responsibilities? Who wins, who loses? And of course it will be the powerless ones.
What do we do with girls who have babies? What rights do women have? A lot of our social policies spin off the answer to these questions, in an era like this, where we’ve swung again to the right.
Artists in this scenario are the kids. Sit down and shut up! That’s it. That’s the real story about public radio, why it’s disappearing. Why public television is disappearing. It’s an authoritarianism. It’s always around in this country, but occasionally rears its head.
I think this is a really great time to be an artist and look at that stuff, because it’s really important. It affects everybody’s life. We don’t really quite understand how, but it’s really happening. So that’s why when I see young artists, and I think it’s very hard to be a young artist starting out now, making something original I almost start to cry.
I’m like “please don’t join a multi-media corporation and start doing their graphics. Don’t join AT&T and start doing their sound. You just go and make something really original and dangerous yourself. Okay.”
I think there’s nothing like free speech and it seems that sometime to me artists are the only ones left ath are doing it. So when issues come up like the National Endowment for the Arts when people are scrutinizing it because one or two people are saying things that outrage them. I think if you want to scrutinize the governments budget one should look at the larger items in the budget like the military items and see if you agree with every single tiny item.
It’s very hard to earn money and I agree I’m grudging with that too. And in principal I think, yeah it’s a great idea to protect the interest of this country and it’s a good idea to have a military. I don’t think I find a problem with that. But I don’t go scrutinizing around because it would drive me crazy. It would really make me very crazy to know that most of my money is being spent on destruction. That’s just the bottom line.
I’m an arist. I wish the National Endowment had a hundred times it’s budget, so that people could learn to be really free, not to just have this false sense of power. That’s just an illusion anyway. And freedom isn’t. Freedom isn’t.