(originally published April 12, 2015)
1982: My mom comes home from work, raving about a song she heard on the radio. The next album we purchase is Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, and so begins a lifelong fascination with unusual music for me. I was probably the only preteen in the audience for the concert we went to that year. I had no one to talk to about this kind of music/performance art outside of family. At dinner, we listened to Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Shadowfax, and a host of obscure New Wave/New Age LPs that are still an important part of the “soundtrack of my life.” Kids in school were bonkers about light pop like the Culture Club and an array of big hair bands. Laurie Anderson made me feel welcome in an alien world, though even at the time, I understood it wasn’t an alien world at all. Her performances were about our world, seen through keen observation, wit, and a tremendous amount of creativity.
As a family, we went to her concerts whenever possible. I can’t tally the number, but it was a lot. We went to French films and my dad and I revered every Werner Herzog film we could find. Being a teen raised in an alternative cultural environment shaped who I am today, as a writer, an artist, and someone who loves an unusual view of the world.
Laurie Anderson is enchanting on stage. When I saw she was giving the Louis C. Elson Lecture at Harvard, I was determined to go, regardless of my intense schedule. Honestly, she can talk about making grilled cheese sandwiches and it turns into an amazing tale. She has a dedicated following, and I swear, even after all these years, I still recognize the regulars from the audience. We never spoke, but certain people stand out. It’s a silent inner circle that gathers to appreciate one of the most amazing artists of our time.
She opened by polling the audience about their own interests: who’s a musician, who’s a painter, who’s a writer. She preferred “multimedia artist,” because it prevents the “art police” from pigeonholing her. And really, it’s impossible to do so. She only considers herself “a dedicated amateur musician.” She’s a master of storytelling. She sees the stories within a stories, and talked about a childhood diving accident that sent her to the hospital with a broken back. She was put in the burn unit, and the dark nights with were filled with tears and sounds of suffering. Over the years, the body and memory change and cleanse some of that imagery, and it took her decades to realize some of the empty beds she woke up to were the result of children dying in the night. The creepiest parts of then stories are the ones that go forgotten for time, she said. And as Anderson puts pieces of them together, and even the saddest or most disturbing of stories have a positive note. It’s part of her philosophy of life.
Anderson described her early years as a “self-righteous minimalist,” who delighted in creating spare components of performances. Though it was never explained to me growing up, this concept clicked with me as she talked about stage design for her concerts. The epic concert film Home of the Brave is probably the best example. People dot the stage in small groups or individually. Some wear costumes. Others move in an erratic dance. A film of animation and/or words plays in the background. There is dance, lighting, movement, none of which seems to fit together in a linear way. It’s all part of her master plan. Everyone has their own rhythm, she said. You have your own way of constructing stories, and you put together the components in a way that suits you best. It was an epiphany that tied together years of seeing her performances. Whether you watched the musicians, the shadows of people on the screen, or to see what unique item she’d use in the center of the stage—be it a glowing violin or goggles with lights like high beams, there is no one precious single meaning she wants you to take away from it. It’s all about how you want to enjoy what she offers.
Experimentation takes many forms, and “I appreciate the feeling of not being sure.” Getting out of your niche is key. She plays with tones and pitches of voices. Anderson has created countless films and art installations where the experience of sound is the feature of the work. “I love broken things,” she said as she described the studios where she uses old analog equipment and digital technology to fuse styles into experimental works. She used carpenter’s level to create a speaker system, depending on how it was tilted, you heard a male voice, female voice, or both. When setting up for a performance once, she told the crew to use the most broken-looking but functional equipment they could find. A photo of a keyboard and decrepit microphone stand that looked like it was set up in an old basement appeared on the screen behind her. “I loved it,” she said.
Ever the traveler, Anderson shares a wealth of experience from installations and performances around the world. Her stint as the first (and only) resident artist for NASA illuminated the connection between art and science. Truth and beauty are much more present in science than most people realize, she explained. Even Einstein didn’t accept some of his own theories because they were not beautiful enough.
Though she had many things she wanted to talk about, and surely the audience would have gladly spent the entire evening with her, time ran short. She shuffled her notes and decided which stories she wanted to tell the most before she opened it up to the audience for questions.
When asked about collaborations, she talked about working with Peter Gabriel on “Excellent Birds.” Each respective version has its own bass because they couldn’t agree on one together, she said. A perceptive member of the audience noted how a portion of one of her stories reminded him of Spalding Gray. She nodded, acknowledging they were close friends. “I’d like to think we keep the people we lost in the back of our minds,” she said. “You don’t lose the texture of someone’s voice.”
With time being finite, one person asked, how do you decide on what to work on with so many varied interests? The first criteria, she explained, is “Is it fun?” It’s best to enjoy as much as you can. Have the best time doing whatever it is at the moment. Everything else falls into place. “I choose to believe in progress because it makes for a happier life,” she said.
I walked home feeling lighter. It had been a stressful few months, and that brief session made me feel so much better. Art heals, it helps us reflect and learn, and while the pieces of the story shift, as she demonstrated with great eloquence, the story is ours according to how we want to make it. As I enter a new era of my own, I’m deeply appreciative for the artsy life my parents gave me, and that I’ve been able to carry this particular treasure with me for more than three decades. Laurie Anderson’s amazing work has become part of me too, and like her friend Spalding Gray, you never lose the texture of voices, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.