Laurie Anderson Essay Research Paper Overview

Laurie Anderson Essay, Research Paper Overview Laurie Anderson earned an international reputation as a high-tech magician of multi-media performance art. Her legendary shows, combining computer synthesized

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


Early history

"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

new ground.

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

enormously liberating.

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

gone now.

"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.