Laurie Anderson Essay, Research Paper
Anderson earned an international reputation as a high-tech magician of
multi-media performance art. Her legendary shows, combining computer synthesized
music, videos, slides, and provocative monologues, have challenged and
delighted audiences for over twenty years. A self-described "story-teller,"
Anderson’s art stems from a deeply personal vision.
Once the l’enfant terrible of New York’s
avante-garde, Anderson has evolved into a kind of electronic folk artist;
an urbane Will Rogers speaking to the artist in everyone. Daring to discuss
thoughts and feelings that many rarely verbalize, Anderson strikes a resonant
"Try to break as many [rules] as possible if you can," Anderson
told Rolling Stone while
preparing for her 1995 Nerve Bible Tour. "Not just for the sake of
doing it but for the feeling of freedom that you get when you just step
a little bit out and kind of go, ‘Whoa!’"
That feeling of "Whoa!" may be the driving impulse behind Anderson’s
career. Born on June 5, 1947 in a Chicago suburb, Laurie was one of eight
children. Taking an early interest in music, she studied violin and played
for a number of years with the Chicago Youth Symphony. Believing she would
never play brilliantly, she abandoned the instrument at age 16.
Burying her artistic inclinations, Anderson began a Library Science major
at Barnard College in New
York State. It seemed a pragmatic career choice for an eager bibliophile.
"I liked to read and thought working with books was a good idea,"
she told biographer John Howell. But Anderson’s Muses were not long silenced.
Her interest in art blossomed into an Art History major. Graduating magna
cum laude in 1969, she moved to New York City and pursued an MFA in
sculpture at Columbia University.
After Columbia, Anderson taught at several city colleges. The idea of
performing for a living first occurred while she lectured a Sunday morning
Art History class at Pace University.
Since her students were less than interested in the subject, she improvised
fantastic histories to entice them.
"The stories I made up had nothing to do with anything I’d ever
read in art history books," she said.
SoHo’s art scene was exploding
with raw, youthful energy in the early ’70s. Any dilapidated garret that
could be inhabited was likely to become an art studio. Art had few rules
except to ignore conventionality. Lofts were bursting with poor artists,
surviving on little more than youth, rebellion, and the desire to break
Naturally, Anderson gravitated to this Mecca of experimentalism, and
was soon immersed in SoHo’s burgeoning gallery scene. "It was a wonderful
time. We were all pioneers," Anderson has said.
Instinctively recognizing the potential of multi-media, she began playfully
synthesizing sculpture and collage in super-8
films. Her delight in language surfaced in visual puns and double
entendre. As she explored photographic prints, slides, and eventually
live performances, these themes surfaced again and again.
Her quirky sense of humor manifested in her first performance piece,
Automotive, produced while passing through Rochester, New York
in 1972. Inspired by the sight of people who stayed in their cars during
a concert at the town green, she mounted a production using blaring car
horns. She describes the resulting concert as "really horrible."
That same year she traveled to Genoa, Italy where she regaled audiences
with her pun inspired Duet on Ice. Always troubled by cold feet
before a performance, she actualized the metaphor by walking across stage
in skates embedded in ice. She played Tchaikovsky on a violin rigged to
"weep water" until the ice melted.
Yet Anderson was more than a conceptual clown. She possessed an emotional
sensibility rare among the heady, philosophical performers in vogue at
the time. The poet Vito Acconci greatly influenced Anderson during this
period. Known for confessional dialogues that often dealt with taboo issues,
Acconci was an outrageous provocateur. His risqu? antics on stage combined
with near stream-of-consciousness sexual musings. Acconci expressed thoughts
most people shared, but were afraid to verbalize. Anderson found this
She put some of Acconci’s lessons into practice in As: If, a confessional
piece that dealt with her religious upbringing. Performed at New York’s
Artist’s Space in 1975, Anderson was concerned with the process of memory.
"I was obsessed with making the stories not very interesting,"
she told Howell. Anderson saw her stories as illustrations of the way
the mind weaves patterns into memories. She was genuinely surprised when
audiences found them funny and moving. Some people even cried.
Realizing the potential of "autobiographical art," she continued
experimenting with highly personal exhibitions over the next five years.
In For Instants and Suspended Sentences (1976) she enhanced
her stories with slides, movies and audio tapes. Although she appeared
in the center of a bare stage, she didn’t want to dominate the audience.
Viewers, she believed, should bring as much of themselves to a performance
as she did. Yet increasingly, as her shows toured select art venues in
Berlin, Philadelphia, and San Diego, Anderson gained celebrity. Patrons
turned out as much to see her as for the experience she provided.
Around this time Anderson began designing eccentric musical instruments
and gadgets. The most novel of these was her self-playing violin. She
produced bizarre and haunting sounds by passing a bow laced with audio
tape across a violin "strung" with playback heads.
Until 1978, Anderson’s performance pieces were short, loosely connected
sketches, really more experiments than fully conceived narratives. Then
she saw Phillip
Glass and Robert Wilson’s opera, Einstein
on the Beach. The four-hour epic combined music and imagery in
a poetic consideration of the scientist’s life and work. Anderson was
inspired to tackle great themes of her own.
In 1979 she presented Americans on the Move at the Carnegie Recital
Hall. The work was the genesis of her opus, United States I-IV.
The ninety minute show considered the theme of transportation using stories,
music, slides, and props. Anderson introduced a number of sophisticated
electronic components to her performances, including a voice-activated
synthesizer called the vocorder. The machine split her voice into eerie,
disembodied chords. She augmented the effect with distorted sound samples
from a synclavier synthesizer.
Using her voice-distorting apparatus, Anderson created a new personae,
"the voice of authority," inspired by the unlikely coupling
of William S. Burroughs and Ronald
Reagan. In the fall of 1980 Anderson unveiled the work that would transit
her from obscure performance artist to pop-world phenomenon.
United States was a dark, near apocalyptic vision that stirred
audiences and left them deeply unsettled. Performed at New York’s Orpheum
Theater, the show debuted Anderson’s first big hit, "O Superman."
Phrased like an electronic mantra, the song is charged with the composer’s
foreboding over the dawn of the Reagan era.
110 Records, the tiny New York label that released some of Anderson’s
early recordings, couldn’t keep up with the demand. Warner Brothers became
interested and offered to record and distribute "O Superman"
as a single and a track on what would eventually become Big Science,
her first album. Still stunned by her sudden fame, Anderson signed a contract
with Warner. Notoriety made her uncomfortable, and years would pass before
she came to terms with it.
Language is a Virus
The U.S. and European success of "O Superman" gave Anderson
the financial clout to expand United States into a four part series.
Premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, it ran for seven hours
and was shown over two consecutive nights. Weaving songs, films and slide
projections with stories, Anderson explored broad themes of contemporary
American life. Despite the weighty implications of its section titles—transportation;
politics; money, and love—United States I-IV was an intimate
meditation inspired by everyday events.
United States I-IV was followed by a five-record set, (1984),
a book, and a global tour. Anderson returned to the studio to work on
Mister Heartbreak (1984), a collection of material not included
on United States. She also recruited Peter
Gabriel and Nile Rogers to assist her on new recordings. Coupled with
a music video for the single "Sharkey’s Day," Anderson hit the
road with a band and entourage numbering thirty-five people.
The Mister Heartbreak tour was well named. After a grueling city-to-city
schedule in the U.S., and an international travelogue that reached Japan,
Anderson went deeply in debt. Production costs for her increasingly lavish
spectacles consumed ticket revenues. Back in her SoHo studio she set to
work editing a film documentary of the tour. Released in 1986 as Home
of the Brave, it was a critical and box office failure.
Although she did not feel ready—psychologically or financially—to
return to the road, Anderson mounted the Natural History tour (1986).
Packaged as a greatest hits show, Anderson wrote a number of upbeat pop
tunes to round the performance out. The experience strained her both creatively
and physically as she tried to meld her style with a large band.
In concert, her fascination with gadgets became a form of camouflage.
Electronically altering her voice, she dressed in white and became nearly
invisible when images were projected on her. Although she was not consciously
aware of it at the time, Anderson recalls that she wanted to disappear;
to escape the adulation and growing expectations.
Despite the problems, Natural History was more professionally
managed. Her audiences grew and record sales took off. Popular acclaim
was not without its cost. Rejected by New York’s art community as a commercial
sellout, Anderson felt alienated and alone. She worried about her visibility
as the pop world’s reigning Zion of techno-bop.
Empty Places, a tour mounted in 1989, returns to the minimal format
that launched Anderson’s career. Performing solo, she told stories, sang
songs, and showed slides and movies of desolate urban landscapes. Reacting
to the Reagan era’s decimation of social programs, her dialogue is edged
with anger and frustration.
After the embarrassment of Natural History, Anderson began to
seriously study voice. She abandoned the smoky talking-jazz style of Mister
Heartbreak for a melodious soprano. Anderson contends the new approach
to singing changed her songs’ subject matter.
"I started writing about really different things," she said,
"from a more female point of view."
Touring throughout the United States, South America and Europe, Anderson
regained her ability to simultaneously entertain and deliver biting social
Ironically, as spare and minimal as the effort seemed, it represented
her most sophisticated use of technology to date. Her visual effects were
precisely controlled by computer. In 1989 Anderson also released Strange
1991’s Voices from the Beyond fully embraced the minimalism explored
in Empty Places. In her two-hour monologue, Anderson delivered
a polemic about censorship and the intolerance that drives it. Accompanied
by a smattering of songs, she diffused her political urgency with comic
"We hate kids, we hate women, gay people, black people, old people,"
she observes. "We got caught in some dark version of Father Knows
Best, where Dad has forgotten how to talk."
In her next studio recording, Bright Red (1994), Anderson shed
the soprano musings of Strange Angels, and returned to her theatrical
brand of emphatic phrasing. Her bare-boned narratives take on a shell
shocked quality as she talks about former lovers and the specter of AIDS.
Lou Reed, Anderson’s
current companion, lends vocal and guitar work on "In Our Sleep."
The Nerve Bible Tour, mounted in 1995, was a full-scale multimedia
extravaganza. Commanding some 77,000 pounds of equipment, Anderson finally
seemed comfortable with her dual roles as a "technotainer" and
voice of social conscience. Using material from Bright Red, Anderson
considers the religious
right’s political agenda from a very personal perspective.
Despite her foreboding over America’s repressive political climate, Anderson
continues to see the potential for liberation through high technology.
In her first foray into the world of CD-ROMs, Anderson hoped to reproduce
the interactive responsiveness of her most intimate stage shows. Puppet
Motel (1995), is based on her song of the same title from Bright
Red. The disc allows users to explore various motel rooms and engage
with surreal manifestations from the composer’s mind.
Anderson’s enthusiasm for computers and the Internet is tempered by her
despair of corporate America. The arts, she observes, have been entirely
appropriated by the industrial milieu. Many of the spontaneous, freeform
venues that helped launch her career, and those of other artists, are
"There used to be a whole network of underground performance galleries
that was doing events." She told Rolling Stone. The closest
approximation to the old gallery scene, she says, is the Internet. And
this format, Anderson believes, suffers for its lack of genuine human
interaction. "You’re just left sitting at your computer," she
observes. "That’s really scary."
Howell, John, Laurie Anderson. New
York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992.
Brustein, Robert, "What Do Women Playwrights
Want?" New Republic, 13 April 1992.
Isler, Scott, "Bright Red: Laurie Anderson,"
Rolling Stone, 15 December 1994.
Pareles, Jon, "Lifesighs," New
York Times, 22 March 1996.
Rogers, Adam, and Tanaka, Jennifer, "A
Surprise in Every Room," Newsweek, 24 April 1995.
Stratton, Jeff, "American Beauty,"
Boulder Weekly, 27 June 1996.
Van Parys, Bill, "Laurie Anderson,"
Rolling Stone, 20 April 1995.