News | A chat with Laurie Anderson

September 05, 2014

By Molly Glentzer | Houston Chronicle 

Her voice on the phone took me by surprise.

Laurie Anderson sounded casual and slightly guarded - not the cool, hypnotic artist who has mesmerized audiences for more than 30 years with multimedia concerts incorporating projected imagery, sculpture, her electric viola and a keyboard full of other gadgetry.

From afar she has always seemed such a spiky-haired superwoman. Maybe it's the often robotic, digitally manipulated delivery of her stories. Although it's not just her echoing voice that resonates; it's in the poetry of well-chosen words that are simultaneously pragmatic and dreamy.

(Remember "The Beginning of Memory" from her 2010 album "Homeland," conjuring a story about birds from before the world began? Part of it goes like this: "And the seasons were running and the light was expanding. And the sound was deafening and light was rising and falling. And song birds were everywhere. Billions and billions of birds. And one of these birds was a lark and one day her father died. And this was a really big problem because what should they do with the body? And it was a big question, a new question. There was no place to put the body because there was no earth. And it went on for five or six days and they were all trying to think of what to do with the body. And finally the lark had a solution. She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head. And this was the beginning of memory. Because before this no one could remember a thing. They were just constantly flying in circles. Constantly flying in huge circles.")

Anyway. Since Anderson first shook the sonic world with the 1981 recording "O Superman (for Massenet)," she has continued to break ground artistically and technically, one of the seminal artists of our time.

This year she's touring "Landfall," a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet; but she'll be in a different mode this week when she delivers the second annual Mitchell Artist Lecture at University of Houston. When we spoke she was preparing to leave for Europe and hadn't thought much yet about the lecture.

"I'm going to see what comes up between now and then. I'm trying to do things a little more spontaneously these days," she said. She's trying to keep herself interested and moving forward, she explained. "I don't want to repeat what I've done before."

Anderson's husband, legendary rocker Lou Reed, died less than a year ago. "Landfall" considers the previous year's perspective-altering event - the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which wiped out her New York studio and archives - and the growing threat of animal species extinction.

Many artists absorb experiences as an opportunity, but even as she spoke you could sense the gears of Anderson's process beginning to click.

"I learn a lot of things about what I want to do by just talking about it," she said. So now she was pondering the Houston talk out loud.

"I'm thinking of touching on some things that have failed. A lot of things I do, do not work out, for various reasons; and for some interesting reasons," she said. "Young artists think it's smooth sailing, that you go from piece to piece. It's not like that."

On this particular day she was trying to finish a film commissioned by the German-French network Arte TV. She owed it to them the next week.

"It's supposed to be 40 minutes. It's now 100," she said. "I'm not sure it works. It's supposed to be a personal essay film. They called me and said, 'We want you to talk about your philosophy of life.' I said, 'First, I don't have a philosophy of life. And second, if I did, I wouldn't put it in a film.'"

Films are an incredible time hog, she added, but also great fun for her to make. "You're able to say and do a lot in a film. I dove into this one thinking, 'Oh, it'll be short.' But it's so intricate." She was excited to be making a stand-alone piece, especially one that allowed room for innovation. She normally appears in her films but just uses her voice for this one, she said.

The presentation to Arte TV in Zurich must have gone well. A web page for a December screening at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York, where Anderson is an artist in residence, explains the film has been "expanded to feature length, driven by Anderson's spirit of transformation, embracing uncertainty in her process while allowing the work to take on new properties as it was being made."

She relishes diving into subjects that don't have predictable or easy answers, whether she's exploring them through film, performance, sculpture, drawing, photography or writing. All her mediums have gesture, complexity, balance and some chaos going on, she said.

"Life is messy," she said. "I don't really know any answers, but I have learned to ask questions. It's not like they need me to pontificate, but I can put quotes around something to draw attention to it."

One of her most recent collaborative works, "We Fall Like Light," features a pool in which ripples change direction when sounds play. (It's on view through Nov. 2 in "In the Garden of Sonic Delights," an exhibition of new sound sculptures at Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts in Katona, New York.)

Anderson said she is not always in a creative mode, but she never knows how or when an idea might come.

"I could be sitting around drawing, experimenting with materials. That's one way to do it," she said. "Impulse is big. It's something I have learned to trust.And intuition. That's a hard thing to do because it doesn't make sense necessarily."

Mitchell Artist Lecture: Laurie Anderson

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Moores Opera House, University of Houston

Tickets: Free but online reservations required; mitchellcenterforarts.org