Laurie Anderson: musings of an admirer

Laurie Anderson: post-modern Renaissance woman, Houdini of artistic stereotype and 21st century iconoclast.

There is no ‘frame’ or ‘box’ in which Laurie Anderson may be contained – she is an idiosyncratic artist with a powerful, dynamic persona projected through her eclectic melting-pot of talents as visual artist, musician, poet, storyteller, dramatist, dancer, performer, philosopher, political commentator, producer, electronic gadgetry wizard and inventor.

Born in 1947 in Chicago to a large, close-knit and religious family, where education, expression and creativity were highly regarded, Laurie Anderson was encouraged from a young age to ‘tell stories’. She often attributes her penchant for words and verbal articulation to her childhood, and fondly recalls how every family gathering around the dinner table was a frenetic, almost competitive, hyperactivity of interaction, each one telling ‘stories’ about their experiences in the day. Music was another shared family experience and the young Laurie was a proficient violinist from an early age. However, she began her artistic journey in the visual arts, receiving formal training at Barnard College (art history) and Columbia University (sculpture). In the early years after graduation, Anderson worked variously as art teacher, critique and columnist. She also exhibited extensively as a visual, installation and performance artist and sculptor.[1] In her own words, she had initially thought of herself as an artist and sculptor, but gradually began to identify more with music through the mid-70s.[2]

Although already a performance artist of some note in New York at quite an early stage in her career, Laurie Anderson’s entry and prominence in the realm of music was gradual but inexorable. Music, as a language for expression, offers more scope and dynamic than visual art alone, but for music to wield its power more fully, it has to be deployed alongside other forms of artistic expression. In fact, Anderson had previously made the decision not to become a professional musician because she did not wish to become one-dimensional, “I didn’t want to be like that. I want to learn to talk.”[3] In any case, Anderson was far too eclectic an artist to exist in any one domain. She has repeatedly refused to make any distinction between her personal visual and aural experience, saying that for her, “they come totally from the same sensibility” of artistic articulation.

Anderson’s first performance artwork with a prominent use of sound was Automotive (1972) in which an ‘orchestra’ of cars were gathered outside the Town Green in Rochester, New York, and the drivers honked their horns on cue in a ‘symphonic’ cacophony as Anderson stood ‘conducting’. A simple example of Anderson’s wit and inventive ingenuity, she added a twist to a local custom, where drivers would routinely honk their car horns in applause to summer concerts taking place on the town green. Reversing the audience-performer relationship roles, she also took into account the fact that the new ‘performers’ were not musically literate. Hence, the artist designed a visual score of coloured bars, each colour assigned to a type of vehicle. These coloured bars were printed on large cards and mounted on the windscreens. Anderson conducted the ‘symphony’ from a similar score, holding her hand over each coloured bar to indicate which vehicles should play and the duration of the horns being sounded.

Then from 1974 to 1975 came the now famous Duets on Ice series, where she stood in a busy New York street corner playing her violin accompanied by an endless cassette loop, wearing a pair of skates encased in ice. When the ice melted, the show was over. Musically, this work indicated an early exploration into the issues of time and space, a subject of fascination for Anderson and one which she repeatedly explores henceforth. This first street performance was, in her own words, a personal ‘breakthrough’, where she performed for the man in the street, instead of the art aficionado. Duets on Ice was a reworked abstract from another work, As If, which, Anderson commented in a later interview, was a significant early multi-dimensional ‘cross-over’ work. In this work, she put together a narrative of selected stories written from her personal memories, presented with tape and rudimentary electronic equipment, film slides and basic theatrical elements. Throughout her illustrious career, Laurie Anderson would collaborate with artists from different fields of literature, performance and visual art and music. Some early influences were radical performance artist Vito Acconci[4] and minimalist musician Philip Glass.[5]

The 80s saw Anderson coming into her own as an accomplished musician, eclectic performance artist and multi-media wizard. In 1981, her unusual single O Superman became an international hit, rising to number 2 on the UK music charts. The DJ responsible for this phenomenon was John Peel, who first played Anderson’s track on BBC Radio. This almost overnight sensation catapulted the diminutive artist to fame, which, even if short-lived in the arena of popular music, significantly introduced the mass audience to the concept of ‘multi-media performance art’ and the ‘avant garde’. The ‘one-hit-wonder’ of Anderson’s also resulted in a contract with Warner Brothers. O Superman is to date one of Anderson’s most played and well-known works.[6] A stark satirical commentary on the Iran hostage crisis cum fiasco, familial power-struggle and tongue-in-cheek dig at technology, Anderson based the text on the famous aria by Jules Massenet, O Souverain in the opera La Cid.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music played fortunate host to a historical milestone in 1983 when Anderson performed her legendary eight-hour epic United States. Unfolding over a period of two evenings, Anderson pulled out all stops with her expert manipulation of mixed media for this event, bringing performance art to the forefront of American art and raising standards as never been set before. In this work, Anderson employed staggering visuals, intricately interwoven sounds and texts, which not only appealed to the sensorial aspects of art but also present artistry as a cogent channel for social and political commentary. It is a work of near mythical stature, whose scope of musical, visual and textual content and expert technical execution continues to fire the imaginations of young artists and preoccupy socio-political historians two decades after the work was first performed. O Superman was reprised in this epic performance, again captivating the audience with its mind-grabbing monosyllabic minimalistic basso-continuo (“ha-ha-ha”) and haunting lyrics delivered in an alternately lyrical and ‘spoken’ voice run through a vocoder and a series of stunningly simple but unforgettable visuals echoing the poignant lyrics, especially the sign of the raised fist against the backdrop of a red-rimmed moon.

Much of her later studio releases consists of material taken from the vast repertoire within United States. Even the simplest comparisons between the studio versions and ‘live’ audio versions of her works reveal Anderson’s grasp of both mediums as vehicles to present a similar work and message.[7] The earlier 1982 studio album named Big Science contains material later performed in United States. The title track, Big Science, is a sinister satire on the development and use of armed weaponry and war in general. In fact, the very term itself “Big Science” is a term used by scientists to describe the development of powerful modern weapons of mass destruction during World War II. In the album version, Big Science opens directly with two long, plaintive yet menacing howl of a wolf, which is, by now recognized by all Anderson fans as the aural ‘signature’ of the work. This is followed immediately by Anderson’s lilting feminine voice. The ‘live’ version from United States begins with the sound of an automobile engine, followed by a chunky at times overlapping drone intervals which sound like individual notes of a chord, and then just one but no less menacing wolf howl, before the voice is introduced. There is the intermittent sound of a hydraulic drill in the background (which is absent in the ‘live’ recorded version), reminding the listener of the subtle seemingly ‘everyday’ yet extremely portentous threat of war and it’s implications to our individual lives. The United States ‘live’ version features greater acoustic depth and breadth (possibly because of the acoustic environment of the performance hall) and changing dynamics. Especially hair-raising is the trenchant deep timpani roll, which, even if heard without the visuals in the CD recording, is extremely stunning as an aural effect. The text is beautifully evocative yet hauntingly threatening, supported by the elaborately interwoven sonic elements, which seem to physical ‘wrap’ the text in a thick, heavy ominous texture, bringing the entire message of the work to the foreground of consciousness.

The ‘live’ version of Blue Lagoon (in the United States recording) opens with a wistfully spoken introduction, “I had this dream….” whereby the theme is introduced alongside with visuals to the audience’s consciousness as a prelude to the music. The studio version, found in the album Mister Heartbreak, introduces the music immediately, as the work would be experienced in a purely aural environment without any accompanying visual allusions. Despite her phenomenal talent, the art of Laurie Anderson is nowhere near to being ‘chart friendly’. Although the studio album Mister Heartbreak is often cited as the most accessible or ‘pop’ albums, yet, it failed to remain in the Top 100 in 1984, and with this, her presence in the popular radio airwaves rapidly waned. Anderson is, after all, too much of an eclectic artist with depth and breadth which defies limitation to the ranks of pop music, and her music too visually evocative (almost to the extent of dependency, in some aspects) to be experienced solely in the auditory realm.

Even in this seemingly ‘pop’ album, Anderson employed a host of remarkably high-tech effects. These include the famous ‘Fairlight Emulator’ by Moog, which was an elaborately designed early digital keyboard employing ‘wave table synthesis’ which allowed a sample sound to be played back at different pitches according to the key being pressed. Again, Anderson showed her technical know-how by utilizing this piece of gadgetry to its fullest advantage. Instead of the usual preset sounds heard in the pop albums during that time, Anderson introduced the relatively erstwhile unfamiliar sounds of ethnic musical instruments and created vast, atmospheric sonic soundscapes.

Far from being merely a shallow auditory experience, Anderson’s texts in this so-called ‘accessible’ album were full of rich imagery and strikingly insightful commentary. One example is Langue d’Amour, in which she ‘retells’ the Biblical story of Adam and Eve from an ethnographical perspective, instead of the popularly known ‘western’ take on what is in any case a story from an ancient middle-eastern (Hebrew) culture. Parts of the spoken text are delivered in French, a language which Anderson does not speak nor understand. Anderson revels in pushing the boundaries of the experiential realm of each listener with the use of spoken words. For some, this device offers a transcending of linguistic boundaries where the spoken word are experienced as sonic effects, for others the text would offer actual recognizable meaning in addition to its sonic effects.  In an instance of Anderson’s affinity for and collaboration with literary figures, Sharkey’s Night features author William S. Burroughs’ voice as the narrator. In Kokoku, she employs a similar approach, this time using a series of nonsensical ‘words’ as sound painting, with ‘Japanese’ occidental musical influence. Excellent Birds is an essentially rock piece with the use of ethnic instrument sampling. Another instance of ingenuous use of sampling is Anderson’s sample of her own heartbeat employed in Sharkey’s Day.

Mister Heartbreak was the precursor to Anderson’s 1985 full-length feature film Home of the Brave,[8] which was based on the music and themes in the studio album. The film was a slick, polished, high-budget foray into yet another medium for this eclectic artist. Here, Anderson employs her signature technique of manipulating special and physical representation through the use of clever technology.  The artist emerges onto the stage through a trap door, while at the same time an image of her face is projected onto the screen, juxtaposing the three-dimensional body with a two-dimensional image or projection. Another instance of Anderson’s inventive genius coupled with a fascination with multiplicity of identity (the human-puppet-electronic relationship) is the Drum Dance sequence. Here, Anderson wears a suit she designed with attached electronic drum sensors, which sound when struck. She ‘plays’ the drums while performing a marionette-like dance of sweeping gestures and movements dictated by the placements of the sensors in the suit.

True to Anderson’s penchant for constantly re-inventing her own work, Home of the Brave spawned a series of exhausting ‘live’ performances throughout the world, bringing the work to major cities in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.

Although the studio recordings of her work gained her a wider international following (because as a medium the recordings were physically available to a much wider audience than that limited to ‘live’ shows), the film, a separate work in itself, acted in tandem with her ‘live’ performances to introduce a more complete sampling of the scope and depth of her art. In the fall of 2000, Talk Normal, a commemorative box set of selected recorded works by Laurie Anderson, was released by Warner Brothers (Warner Archives / Rhino), bringing the work of the artist into the new millenia. Included in the set of two CDs is a fifty-page booklet containing photographs, illustrations and biographical details put together by author Gillian G. Gaar. While this collection is quite an extensive representation of her vast oeuvre, it excluded all earlier material released outside the jurisdiction of the record label.

The CD entitled Life On A String released in 2001, stands slightly apart from most of Anderson’s oeuvre as an intensely subtle, tender and personally revealing work. The music is beautifully lyrical, far more melodic than all her musical works to date. In this album, we hear Anderson’s singing voice in at last, singing lengthy passages without much spoken interjection. It is a surprisingly feminine, almost childlike, whimsical and expressive voice, which carries each track along with an expressive almost aching sensitivity. Anderson is the perennial master of sensorial effects and the hauntingly lovely lyrics and melodies in this album are wrapped in colourful sonic paints and rich, diverse hues and undulating textures, at times sparse and other times luscious. This may also be the most ‘acoustic’ of her albums, with a generous pervading use of strings throughout. Particularly striking in terms of emotional content, lyricism and mesmerizing aural effects is the track Slip Away, written in response and with direct allusions to Anderson’s father’s death. In this track, she employs her spoken voice to narrate the poignant story and sings the lyrical sections, especially the repeated refrains. Interwoven in the texture is the exotic sound of the erhu, a Chinese bowed stringed instrument known for its melancholic and expressive, almost vocal properties. Life On A String is also known for its literary reinterpretation of the author Melville’s book Moby Dick, a sad, evocative story of a great white whale, redolent with themes of loneliness and being misunderstood. The opening track One White Whale is a lusciously atmospheric piece. This album led to a series of live performances, Live At Town Hall, which also included new material apart from the album.

In 2002, Laurie Anderson was selected for a two-year stint as NASA’s first artist-in-residence. This experience spawned a series of performance tours in 2004 across the USA. Entitled The End of the Moon, the work is a sparse, stark setting in which Anderson has whittled down the previously rich visuals and sets to only her lone storyteller figure on stage and a poignant message to relate, yet still accompanied by her signature bevy of high-tech equipment. In a 2004 interview with the Miami New Times, Anderson reveals, “The piece looks at beauty, fear, the perception of time, and some other things”.[9] Andersons’ most recent activities in 2007 include the celebrated re-release of Big Science under Nonesuch Records and a series of tours entitled Homeland. The new release of Big Science includes a re-mastered and upgraded version of all the original 9 tracks, plus a bonus track of Walk the Dog and a video clip of O Superman. Apart from a technical glitch in which the signature wolf howl at the beginning of the title track was missing,[10] this new 25th anniversary version has met with largely positive response from Anderson’s fans as well as introduced her work to a new generation of ‘discerning’ listeners.

Laurie Anderson’s vast and eclectic oeuvre seems to seriously challenge and nullify existing methods of artistic ontology altogether. Although a few brief comparisons were made earlier of the tracks in the studio release Big Science and their corresponding versions in the ‘live’ show United States, the actual exercise of comparing the music in Anderson’s numerous studio releases and the ‘live’ shows itself demands far more exhaustive study. However, while it may be a fascinating foray into musical analysis which guarantees many surprising findings and insights into her musical (compositional as well as technical) expertise and originality, such study cannot stand as fair analysis of Laurie Anderson’s art. A purely musical analysis would exclude the essential visual element and literary nature of her work, not to mention the sheer energy and dynamism of her stage persona. For a figure so petite and usually solitary or set apart on stage, her presence is remarkably powerful and compelling. Studying Laurie Anderson’s work from just one perspective alone, will no doubt yield valuable findings, however, it would be akin to a zoologist meticulously examining the tusks of an elephant and declaring his findings as the embodiment of the entire animal itself.

Unlike the majority of performance art, the nature of Laurie Anderson’s work in this field is not at all ‘free-form’, ad-lib or based on spontaneity, nor are they of simple dimensions to say the least. Much of the material in her ‘live’ performances is prepared in her studio and every performance is meticulously planned and structured. There are even detailed visual storyboards and elaborate, meticulous illustrations of stage sets planned and executed by Anderson herself. The artist confesses that she much prefers to work alone, not depending on collaborations. Anderson thus wields an almost omnipresent control over every aspect of a performance, putting her unmistakable ‘stamp’ on the minutest detail – from the recordings (done almost entirely by Anderson in her home studio), narrative or sung text, visual elements, body movements, to the stage set and design. Mostly a ‘one-woman show’, Anderson minimizes the need for or reliance upon any significant input from others. The composer is the performer, the visual artist, and also the producer and technical designer – an almost omnipotent creator of the entire work. Anderson is, in many aspects, the embodiment of post-modern, contemporary, 21st century culture of ‘absolute creativity’. While the concept of ‘recycling’ may not be new to the artistic realm, she has certainly exploited every aspect of her breadth of talent to the fullest and in ways most beneficial, not just artistically but commercially as well. Many of her visual plans or notes for performances and music are re-invented or re-packaged and published in printed form. Her music from ‘live’ performances are reworked into studio versions and released as stand-alone music albums. The stunning visuals created for performances have been edited and released in the video Laurie Anderson: collected videos 1990 and thanks to loyal and enthusiastic fans, they also appear as ‘MTV’ type short video clips all over the internet.[11] Adding to the difficulty in categorizing her artistry is her reputation as a technological genius and no less as an inventor of new instruments or sound-production as well.[12] Laurie provokes once again, shaking the fences of preconceived notions of art and the persona of the artist. Is this science or art? How much of science exists in art and how much vice versa? This question alone has the potential to spawn many a doctoral dissertation, but how many are brave enough or well versed enough in both seemingly conflicting fields of study to embark upon such an examination of this modern-day iconoclast?

This brings the discussion to the issue of documentation. How can work such as Laurie Anderson’s be properly and accurately documented by a third party for the purpose of study and archiving? Can such work be disseminated in the traditional ways or is a major paradigm shift in art documentation required? How about re-enactment by other artists? The capturing of live art events of any kind is a complicated and involved technical process because of the many extraneous and unexpected occurrences and demands of a ‘live’ setting. Not only is expertise required in terms of adeptness at handling the myriad of technical equipment but, in addition, artistic ‘live’ performances of any kind demand discerning eyes and ears. Once a ‘live’ event has occurred it can no longer be repeated and an accurate, optimal recording of each moment unfolding in time and space is of the utmost importance.

Serious problems abound in the field of documenting performance arts. How can performance art, especially such as eclectic and complex as that of Laurie Anderson’s, be accurately documented? Are written descriptions apt and adequate documentary representation of the event and work? Can a series of still photographs encapsulate the crucial moments in time and space as it unfolds? Video may seem the best medium for the documenting of performance arts, as it includes the capturing of movement together with sound, a visual and aural archive of the event. However, video is not able to arrest, recapitulate or represent the actual experiential aspects of the event. Hence, many important and pivotal elements are lost in the process of documenting such art.

Anderson herself constantly re-invents and re-enacts her own work, but these performances are not actual ‘verdic’ re-enactments but rather new works in their own rights. While scholars and historians grapple with the issue of re-enactment in performance art, it is a ‘case-closed’ conclusion where Anderson’s work is concerned. In one word: impossible. Apart from the fact that Laurie Anderson would not permit any other artist to re-enact her work, a more fundamental reason lies in the uniqueness of the artist’s oeuvre, the intensely personal nature and the inimitable combination of talents amalgamated in this one figure of genius. While it is a noble and worthy to doggedly pursue the issues of documentation and re-enactment in performance art, the art form itself ought to be appreciated for its unique inherent character. Such art is meant as a series of events unfolding across time and space, to be experienced in the present tense, in the flesh, and not as a recording or document of any kind. This is not to make a facetious claim that performance art should not or cannot be documented in any form, since even static photographic records of a creative and innovative artistic event can be enjoyed for their own artistic value – as a separate works of art in their own right. Likewise, video or audio recordings may yet serve as powerful creative expressions of art. However, unlike in the case of an orchestral score of classical music or a pop music CD, none of these mediums may properly or completely constitute valid methods of documentation claiming to embody or represent the original artistic work of performance art itself.

Many wonder why there seems to be so little visual documentation for such a vast and extensive performance oeuvre as Laurie Anderson’s. However, since the artist is an expert at all aspects of technical reproduction who wields extraordinary control over every facet of her art, this anomaly may well be a carefully calculated strategy of Anderson’s. While this may prove extremely frustrating to those who wish to study her work without actually being present at the events, this lack of visual archives serve to augment the experience and appeal of every Laurie Anderson production. In addition, rarity is a phenomenon that piques the interest, often orchestrating a frenzied stretto of curiosity, which leads to more inquisitive search for the commodity and greatly increases the value of the product. It is impossible to study Anderson’s artistry while focusing on any single aspect of this multi-layered omni-dimensional character. She is not merely a performance artist, and although she may be discussed and interviewed in almost every field of art – musical, visual, literary etc – yet, everything she does seems to be interrelated in entirety as an integral, intuitive expression of herself. At the core of all the elaborately woven multi-coloured, multi-textured and multi-dimensional threads used in her artistic output, Anderson sums up her raison d-etre thus: “My work is always about communicating”.[13]


[1] A detailed general account of Anderson’s visual art works can be found in the lavishly illustrated book, Laurie Anderson by Goldberg, RoseLee, published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000.

[2] William Duckworth, Talking Music: conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and five generations of American experimental composers (Schirmer Books, 1995).

[3]  Ibid. (Duckworth)

[4] Acconci chose Anderson’s first exhibition in New York City, O-Range, for the ‘Artists Select Artist’ series.

[5] Anderson collaborated with Philip Glass on a number of works, including the 1986 collection Song from Liquid Days, Sony Masterworks. Webpage: http://www.philipglass.com/html/recordings/songs-from-liquid-days.html

[6] O Superman was such a phenomenal popular success (rare for an avant garde artist), that it was covered by various other artists, including pop icon David Bowie in a series of concerts, including Bowie at the Bush (1997). Another remix version by DJ Crackman can be heard here at: http://www.yamelo.com/detail.php?chartitemid=7443&alt=Q1Cxzj6YZFQ&

[7]  All discussions and examples of tracks found in United States are based on the ‘live’ audio recording. Regrettably for students and fans of Laurie Anderson’s epic work, there is no available full-length video or film archive of United States and recordings exist only in audio form, a 4-CD set entitled United States Live (I-IV), Warner Brothers.

[8]  The video is now out of print and only available second-hand on websites such as Amazon.com or eBay in either VHS or Laser Disc formats. However, the long-awaited release of this work included in a dvd film/video obx set is stated as in the pipeline on the official Laurie Anderson website – http://www.laurieanderson.com

[9] Michael Alan, “Deep Space,” New Times, October 21, 2004. Webpage – http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2004-10-21/music/deep-space

[10] This mistake was quickly rectified by the record company and recalls were announced. However, quite typically of the avant garde fan base, many fans who bought the ‘defective’ albums chose to hold onto them as souvenirs and buy another copy of the rectified album instead.

[11]  Hence, apart from bootleg recordings made by enthusiastic fans at ‘live’ performances, any official recording of Anderson’s work, whether studio or ‘live’ are works in their own right, often apart from the actual performance itself. If one employs the terminology introduced by Fisher in Rock ‘n’ Recording – The Ontological Complexity of Rock Music, the many bootleg video clips being shared by fans on the internet may well represent the only available ‘verdic’ recordings of the performances, while those released officially are separate works of ‘constructive recordings’

[12]  A detailed account of Anderson’s inventions can be found in RoseLee Goldberg’s book Laurie Anderson, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000.

[13]  Ibid. (RoseLee Goldberg)

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