Plain-Spoken Performance Art: A Conversation with Laurie Anderson

The first thing you notice about Laurie Anderson is her voice. Straight-forward and matter-of-fact, folksy and familiar, it is the voice of Middle America, earnestly asking what is happening to America.

Like many people, I first encountered Anderson’s voice in the song “O Superman.” Recorded in 1981, it features haunting snippets of plain-spoken electro poetry influenced by the recent hostage crisis in Iran. The song was as addictive as it was poignant, with Anderson’s heavily-processed voice saying “Ha” on a seemingly endless loop, layered over bird sounds and synths to create a hypnotic, almost childlike beat. Fellow artist B. George released the single on his small independent label, and it became an unlikely hit in the UK—and a favorite of the staff at WKCR.

Anderson grew up outside of Chicago and might have pursued a career as a concert violinist, but her curiosity brought her to New York, where she studied sculpture at Columbia University. In the 1970s, she began to make a name for herself with her experimental violin pieces and could be seen busking at the city’s subway stations, wearing ice skates attached to frozen blocks of ice while playing her violin. When the ice melted, her performance ended.

I met Anderson just as she was moving into a new loft space on Canal Street. Perhaps welcoming a distraction from unpacking boxes, she was warm and chatty, sitting crossed-legged on a temporary, fold-up chair. She was working on an upcoming project called United States, which she would stage as a vast, two-night, eight-hour show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


B. WENTZ: Before turning to music full time, you earned a graduate degree in sculpture here at Columbia.

LAURIE ANDERSON: I had a studio on 125th Street and was making stuff with polyurethane and polyvinyl. I got really sick doing it because of the fumes. It’s really toxic stuff. Lose a lot of brain cells that way. You have to wear a mask, gloves, and an asbestos suit, have exhaust fans going, and even if you are really careful, the fumes still get to you. So I stopped using that and started making things out of paper, crunching up the day’s newspapers and making it into a kind of brick papier maché—projects like that. I hated art school. I was asked to leave three times. Kicked out, reinstated. It was a really checkered career. I couldn’t stand it!

BW: You grew up in the suburbs west of Chicago, where you studied both visual art and violin. Did you stop playing while you focused on science in college and art in grad school?

LA: Yes, I started playing the violin when I was five years old.

Then when I was sixteen, I quit entirely. That’s one of the few things in life that I am really proud of—just being able to stop cold turkey—because I realized I was becoming a kind of technocrat, just learning to play accurately and very fast. It didn’t leave much room for anything other than practicing all day. There were other things I wanted to learn, so I stopped. Totally.

When I returned to the violin years later, I modified a lot of violins and used them as a kind of ventriloquist dummy or other kind of voice. I built one with a speaker inside and played it by itself. One has a battery-powered turntable on it, so I cut records for that. The needle of the record player is mounted on the middle of the violin bow and is lowered like a tonearm on a turntable.

BW: What does that sound like? Do you move it back and forth like a bow?

LA: It sounds pretty bad. Like barking seals. It’s very unpleasant. I also modified violins so they worked like tape instruments. I mounted a tape head on the bridge of the violin, and on the bow, instead of horsehair, there’s a strip of recorded audiotape, so you play that back and forth over the head. That allows you to create sounds that are backwards as well as forwards.

BW: What sort of music could you play like that? Is this the violin you invented?

LA: Bongos, saxophone, piano—whatever was recorded on the tape that I used as a bow. Generally, only a few phrases of those instruments. But by moving the bow, you can establish whole other kinds of rhythms. It’s just like editing tape—going back and forth until you find that sound. And I engineer a lot of my own tapes, so moving from that editing motion to the motion of playing a violin is not a great jump.

BW: It’s difficult to say what genre of music you make. You can’t say, “I make pop music” or “I make avant-garde music.” What do you call it?

LA: I think performance art. I thought that term was very clumsy when I first heard it. But it has the advantage of being very nonspecific. Nobody has a clear idea what that is. The closest definition of performance art is to say it’s a hybrid of a lot of things: images, language, gesture, sound, not quite theater, and not quite other things. Each time somebody does something within that general area and calls it performance art, it redefines the term in interesting ways. So I like it because it’s loose.

BW: In performance, you use these tapes and then add your own voice as well?

LA: Right. For violin, some are just tape sequences. The tapes I make for performances tend to be very dry. In other words, I don’t add reverb, and I don’t mix them in ways that are complicated at all—they are very simple rhythm tracks in which to make combinations. Making a record that exists only on audio tape is a very different process than performing. It’s a different way of thinking. Because without the pictures and the spatial aspects of the performance, you make different decisions about the music.

BW: Were you influenced by electronic music composers like Milton Babbitt, who also worked with atonal rhythms but on synthesizers? Or Harry Partch or George Crumb?

LA: I don’t like music made by machines that much. I prefer some kind of real signal to a filter. But at the same time, I try to have a balance between something made with a machine—magnetic tape—and something made by a human—a violin.

Electronics has filters—I don’t have the same feeling about it as electronics straight from the machine. A filter will act like a window, which shifts all the way up and looks at those harmonics and exaggerates them and brings them into the limited range of human hearing, so there are things you can guess at that are suddenly within your range, and that function of electronics is wonderful.

BW: I was amazed to see “O Superman” released on vinyl after hearing it performed at The Kitchen in Soho. It reached number two on the UK charts. Do you see this sort of popularity as a step forward?

LA: It’s hard to say. In the last two or three years, I’ve noticed a change in the audiences that come to see my work. They tend to be a very mixed group. There are some kids now, which I like a lot.

In terms of performance art being presented in a more pop way, I think it’s a mistake to try to nudge it into pop culture if it doesn’t have any kind of place. On the other hand, it has always been my fantasy that American artists could think of doing something like that because the avant-garde has been very snobbish. The whole history of it is generally a kind of ghetto of museums and art galleries and publications and a downtown scene, whether it’s clubs or venues or things like that. A certain attitude that involved a certain snobbism. Artists haven’t wanted anything to do with pop culture because it’s typically made for a ten-year-old brain, and most artists aren’t interested in working on that level. Why do it? Particularly here in the United States. Take pop music. It’s just a very tight system that is regulated by what the average listener wants to hear or what the average listener will be willing to put up with hearing. It’s not a DJ reaching into a bin and saying, “Well, here’s a record I’d like to play for you,” unless it’s like a college station. And it’s not that way in Europe. European radio is much more open. Particularly in Germany and England, people are freer to experiment in terms of what goes on the air. That makes a big difference.

Talking is like improvisation, really, and those rhythms interest me much more than any kind of musical phrasing. So it is spoken language that dictates the shape of the music.

I’ve gotten letters from DJs from big pop stations here in New York that said, “I just want to let you know, I did play your record and I received this photocopied letter from the station manager that says, ‘There is no playing of unauthorized material, i.e “O Superman.” ’” It’s very strange. Unless it’s on the playlist, it is not on the air. So you can produce whatever you want, but unless it falls into a certain category, only a limited number of people will hear it.

BW: Has the response to your music been greater in Europe than in the United States?

LA: About half the work I do is in Europe, and that’s been the case for about six years now, since 1976. It’s much easier to work there. Europeans care about things in a different kind of way. The audiences tend to be more general than here. You could never picture an American audience made up of as many different kinds of people as you see in Europe. The New York crowd does not mix. In Europe, you can see the Peking Opera and Robert Wilson on the same night.

BW: Your music seems to be very conceptual, in an American kind of way, with the things you say and the phrases you use. Avant-garde music tends to be conceptual too. But you use phrases that appear in everyday language—very direct and very American.

LA: Most of my phrases come from eavesdropping. I travel a lot, so I meet a lot of different kinds of people. My main goal is to use ordinary material so you can feel somebody is really talking to you, and not through any kind of music filter or lyric filter. One reason why I don’t typically use ABAB in verse-chorus arrangements is because real speech doesn’t fit very well into those structures. I like to create a stable, rhythmic ground that doesn’t move. It moves in a very limited way, over a very static ground and over which the language travels at its own speed. So you feel all the hesitations and riffs that you do when you talk. Talking is like improvisation, really, and those rhythms interest me much more than any kind of musical phrasing. So it is spoken language that dictates the shape of the music.

BW: In the seventies, you wrote art criticism for magazines. Do you still do any writing? I saw your book Hotel, which seemed to be excerpts from dream-like states.

LA: I have published a few texts from performances, and I have written things that are more or less notes for performances. I used to write the work first and then incorporate it into the performance, but I found it very static. So I tried to figure things out just by talking through them and then see how that felt. I worked on them by speaking through them.

BW: What are you working on now?

LA: The piece that I am working on now is called United States. It’s the result of being in Europe a lot. You sit around and have dinner with people who are going, “How could you have elected that guy president?” And you go, “Well, uh . . .” You have to come up with an answer, and I try to make up some good answers, but I realize that I have to think about it a little bit more. The final version will be produced next fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I wanted to play with some of the parts since I’ve been working on them since 1979.

BW: Some of us have seen parts of that piece at The Kitchen. I recall some visuals—big maps and lights. Will those be included in the BAM performance? Or will that strictly be a piece of music?

LA: A combination of both. And I hope that it doesn’t seem to be more of one than the other. I try to work sort of simultaneously on things, so for me, the danger is in being illustrational. You write a song and then you realize, wouldn’t some pictures be nice? It’s very tempting to just sort of illustrate the song rather than let the pictures have a whole other meaning that will add to the song rather than just sort of repeat it in the visual world. For me, that means working a lot slower because I go back and forth a lot between how the song looks and how it sounds. I’ve been working on United States for three years, and I had hoped that this would be the final version of the work, but I’m finding that I’m really more interested in adding parts to it than in sort of going back and perfecting things I’ve already done. So I’m frantically writing some new things for it now. I guess the best way to describe it is songs and stories with pictures. The whole thing is an attempt to describe a country, really.

BW: What will you use on stage?

LA: There will be a great big screen, 30 x 40 feet, because, to me, it’s very important that the image is very bright and visible from every place in the hall. So there’s a whole barrage of projectors: one that turns around and one that goes up and down, and a film projector and several slide projectors that have other kinds of motions to them. It’s a way of making a still picture move in ways other than you would normally do with film so that it has a kind of slower movement. If I take longer with a song, I’m not locked into the length of a film that accompanies it. So the technicians can, in a way, do a kind of collaboration with me in terms of the timing of it because it’s all done live and not in a studio and then put on film.

BW: Will there be any electronics involved? Or actors?

LA: I’d like to sort of feature the electronics rather than hide them, so they all sort of sit in a mound in the middle of the stage. And I do a lot of the turning of the dials myself, which is good because sometimes you can feel a little bit like a puppet if suddenly the whole electronic situation changes. So I like to have a certain amount of control of that. And there will be, I guess, ten people who will be in it, as well as me. There will be two saxophone players, a percussionist, and a bagpipe player. And a soprano, a keyboard player, and some people who talk, and some people who walk.

BW: How would you define avant-garde or /new music today?

LA: The nice thing about the word avant-garde is that it is constantly updating itself, and so is new music. For me, in a totally personal way, what I like the most is music that makes me feel most awake. I don’t care whether it’s new or not. An old Captain Beefheart album sounds newer to me than something I heard in a club last night.


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Excerpted from Transfigured New York: Interviews with Experimental Artists and Musicians, 1980-1990 by Brooke Wentz  Copyright © 2023 Brooke Wentz  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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