MOST PEOPLE first heard about Laurie Anderson when her 1980 single, ‘O Superman’, an eight minute voiceloop and vocoder incantation, reached number two in the UK charts. By then she was almost a decade into the development of her highly individual kind of mixed media performance art, which stirred the The Philadelphia Daily News in 1993 to describe her as “a modern renaissance artist and agent provocateur”.
Graduating with an MFA in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1973, she began to integrate spoken word, music and film in her stageworks. Anderson became an integral part of the 1970s New York downtown scene, with her installations and pieces like Songs And Stories For The Insomniac and Out Of The Blue. She also collaborated with musicians like Rhys Chatham and Arthur Russell, and even worked as a straightman for Andy Kaufman in comedy clubs.
Her first piece as a musician and composer was Americans On The Move in 1979; by 1983, her ongoing United States multimedia project — “a performance portrait of the country” patchworked from personal vignettes — had reached its apogee in the eight hour version she presented as a one- woman show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Since her 1981 debut, Big Science, Anderson has released seven further albums which have encompassed pop, electronics and her individual style of storytelling. These include the four CD United States Live (1984) and the film soundtrack Home Of The Brave (1986).
But her discography tells just a small part of the story — her myriad activities have yielded the CD-ROM Puppet World (Voyager), art exhibitions, lectures and appearances on topical and political US TV and radio shows. In 1999 she premiered her most recent stage work Songs And Stories From Moby Dick, a multimedia piece based on Herman Melville’s novel. Some of it can be heard on Life On A String, her eighth album and her first collection of new music in seven years. The Jukebox took place in London.
Nam June Paik
‘Hommage à John Cage: Musik für Tonbänder und Klavier’
From Works 1958.1979 (Sub Rosa) 2001, recorded 1958–59
Sounds like a prepared piano. [Listens]
Any idea at all? It’s the first time these tape collages have been released.
[Barrage of fast tape edits cuts in] No, but I want to have a radio like this where I can get these kinds of stations, ’cause this is like ideal listening: a little blip of this, a little piece of that. I like that very much. And some great little sounds: like this little one, who’s drowning in your sleep. I hear these little things now and again, don’t you? And they’re a little bit eerie because they’re a little bit human. I like that a lot. I’m not sure what the source is at all, it could be like a dying cry, a cartoon: this bit sounds like a dog toy.
It’s someone you have worked with in the past.
It must be Scanner. A Scanner outtake or something? It’s actually Nam June Paik’s ‘Hommage à John Cage’. These tapes were recently found and restored and the edits repaired.
So this starting out with a prepared piano is a little bit of an homage to John. It’s a great thing to listen to, something that you don’t know, because it just kind of wakes you up in a funny way. Last year my warning to myself was a little slogan which is: Expectation is experience. Which is something I didn’t want to do. But I found that I was always expecting what I experienced and I was always getting disappointed because I thought, “Oh gee. I’ve been here before”, instead of being more aware and not knowing what to expect.
You have collaborated with Paik In the past?
Oh, a long time ago, several lifetimes ago, something called 1984. [In that year] he organised a thing called Good Morning Mr Orwell, it was a crazy broadcast. I did something with Peter Gabriel for that show. We had 24 hours to write a song and do a video. We argued about the bassline for quite a while and that took most of the time. His ideas were much more sophisticated than mine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fight for your ideas even though you’re wrong! It didn’t stop me.
So anyway, Nam June’s broadcast … wow, that was so uncoordinated, but only because it was so ambitious. Nobody had really done it before. It was from six different cities and at that point, 1984, this was many technical generations ago, so to do something live in a bunch of cities was super-ambitious and it didn’t work that well. You’d see a lot of guys going [mimes holding microphone and talking silently]. They had lost their microphones long ago and it was really silly, things that don’t happen that often now — glitch after glitch. And you thought: ‘Boy, Orwell’s future looks bad if this is what are going to do, just trip over ourselves all the time — I don’t want to go there.’ So once in a while I see Nam June in Jerry’s, a little restaurant on Prince Street. And do you know he’s quite ill? He’s in a wheelchair, he has a lot of health problems. But kind of perky.
Had you had much exposure to his work before you met him?
Oh sure, ’cause you learn about that stuff in school. Nam June was the big video artist of the 60s, so he was in all the schoolbooks. It was funny, at that time, 70s and 80s, you’d do something, you’d immediately be in textbooks. So suddenly your friend’s kid was going, “We studied you in school”. I’d go, “What? Ugh! How awful. I don’t feel dead.”
From Paths That Cross (Bootleg) 1995
[Listens to entire recitation] When was that recorded? It’s an early 70s piece that she performed again in 1995, on her tour with Bob Dylan.
Fascinating life, no? Just kind of left that factory and came to New York, then left New York. She was away more than she was there. So strange when she came back. Like a dead person kind of dragging death along with her. She always had that and that’s what I always liked about her too: this kind of doomsday ecstasy. Everything was like a big emotional deal.
I saw her show recently and I just loved it. It was in a little club in New York with a band, I was really resistant to it at first because I hadn’t really been a fan, ever. I didn’t like the poetry, didn’t find it interesting, I hated the shouting, I thought it was fake from the word go. I was really an anti-fan. Not only did I not like the work, I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. It never rang true to me, but Lou [Reed, Anderson’s partner] likes her and he is much more generous a critic than I am; when I’m down on something I’m like: “Don’t tell me about it, I know about it. I know what I like. Why are you telling me what I like?” [laughs].
So he said, “Let’s go to the show now”, and I said [under my breath], ‘Oh God, please not a Patti Smith show, what an unbearable evening.’ But we went and I loved it. She did a whole bunch of stuff that I thought I wasn’t going to like, read some stuff, played with her band, did some anthems, did some talking. You know I don’t know how much she’s changed, or if I’ve changed, but I really loved every single thing. I walked out of there going, “Great show”. And I would see anything else she did [laughs].
Pretty dramatic change of view.
Totally 360. It was really eerie.
‘Silver Smoke of Dreams’
From Break Through in Grey Room (Sub Rosa) 2001, recorded early 60s
[Immediately] Oh, Bill. So who would do Bill and cut him up? Laswell? Sounds like a Laswell outtake.
It was Ian Sommerville and Burroughs back in the early 60s, cutting up his speech using the ‘drop in’ method, pressing and releasing the pause button while he’s speaking.
But they’re looping it as well, using the ‘drop in’ method, what is that? [Looks at CD cover] This is a great record. I’ve never seen it before.
I’ve heard that you would go off on trips with a bag of Burroughs novels for company. Is that an exaggeration?
No, I did that. But it’s not at all unusual for me to take the work of a writer or a musician on a trip. I get very obsessive … I usually do that. I got it from a friend who says, “I try to think about the number of hours I’m going to be flying, whether I’m going to, let’s say, Vienna or Tokyo.” These are like ten hour things, and he takes someone whose entire work is ten hours and listen to all of their CDs, just one after another. He says it’s an incredible way to listen to things.
So I started to do some version of that, to find all the books by someone. So one trip I took every book that Burroughs had written and read them all. I was a bit of wreck at the end. What was meant to be a vacation … I was really exhausted, mentally, from being in his world that long.
But I miss him; I really do — he was such a great coot. He was one of those guys that nothing’s all right. It’s like this cartoon: the waitress comes over to the table and says, “Is everything all right?” Nothing’s right at all. That’s not why I loved him, because he complained about everything and was negative. No. More like because he was so hilarious, so funny.
Some of these cut-up things to me are quite boring, and I have to be in quite a druggy mood to get there.
But listening to them puts you in this druggy mood, like [does dry, nasal, Burroughs cut-up imitation] and you’re immediately back into the 70s. And that’s a nice place to be.
Do you think then that this cut-up technique works better on paper than on tape?
Well, I think he was as inventive in terms of sound as he was in terms of language, it’s just that sound people are just catching up with him now with samples. You hear a lot of electronic records like this now, and people are not so aware of what Burroughs was doing with cut-ups. They knew it in language but were probably not so aware of records like this. [Looks at sleeve] Look at the gorgeous picture of him.
He looks very dapper.
In a creepy insurance salesman kind of way. Slicked back hair and skinny tie. in a cross between an insurance salesman and a nark. Definitely undercover.
Was your writing influenced by Burroughs and his circle, or were you just an avid reader?
I was very inspired by him. I tried to copy him and listen to his warp. He’s so warped and hearing this makes me want to read his books again. They’re funny and bitter in ways that you don’t hear now. People are much more politically correct or trying to be cool or something. And by that they just end up just being cynical. He was much more than cynical — he was super-cynical — but he was just too smart to leave it at that, so he was, on top of that, funny and top of that, extremely smart. Each time you thought you got him you didn’t get him and that’s what I loved too.
When the album was originally released in 1986, his assistant James Grauerholz wrote the sleevenotes, mentioning that Burroughs had always been part of a ‘Literature of Opposition’. Do you think such a movement is still needed today?
They all change, but I think he is really right. I would love to see and hear opposition. In fact we make the 50s look real mild in terms of standardisation. I just came from Munich and I went across the street to work out in a club. I could have been in New York. Everyone’s wearing the same stuff, you’re looking at the same TV shows on the monitors on the machines. It’s getting scary. I walk around here and it’s looking real familiar. I’m thinking, this stuff is really working, selling a lot of people the same things and telling them to go for the same things. Get a better cellphone, get a better computer, get 5.1 sound, get this house, that car and everybody’s gone for that around the world. I think it’s successful marketing in terms of being a good 21st century consumer, because it works on fear of falling behind.
Do you think literature can play a part in opposition? I’m thinking this in the context of the recent anticapitalism demonstrations in Seattle, Gothenburg and London getting immediate worldwide coverage …
Do political actions help? I think those things help; you pay attention to it but I think it takes an individual, crazy voice like Burroughs. It takes more than teamwork and marching around, because that’s kind of like globalisation itself — ‘Let’s all get together, have the same idea and prove it’. I think it takes a person who’s so different. When Burroughs showed up in the 50s, Americans were mowing their lawns and living in identical little houses. They were happy and content and they had their goals and this and that — two cars and their three kids — and he shows up and he just goes [in Burroughs voice] ‘Good evening’, and everyone goes, ‘It’s Uncle Bill, pretend we’re not home, OK? Let’s go out into the backyard and hide’. Because he was relentless and never stopped talking, and just said things that hadn’t been said ever. It woke me up, woke a lot of people up. He was a genuine individual and my intuition is that is what it would take. But, you know, what it would take to … what? I don’t know, there’s nothing that can stop this.
‘Violin Concerto (1st Movement)’
From Violin Concert (Deutsche Grammophon) 1987, recorded 1993
It’s somehow a very welcome sound to hear at the moment. And here’s a musician [Glass] who really hasn’t changed enormously. Which one is this?
The Violin Concerto. Do you know the soloist?
Gidon [Kremer]? How great.
You first met Glass in 1970 and were part of downtown New York’s avant garde scene. It has achieved mythical status over here, with the image of artists in different media collaborating and producing challenging new work. Is this a romanticised view?
We probably romanticise it too, but we did genuinely help each other and it really was an adventure, and we really knew at the time that we were making a scene. We just knew that something like that hadn’t happened before and we were doing something very important. We were snobs, we were self-important snobs, we were having a lot of fun and we had parties every night.
It was very shortlived in that really pure form, because what happened, we all started working other places. It was about a neighbourhood, about geography and real estate; who lives where and how close you live to your neighbour. It totally comes down to that. Can you get over to his house in three minutes or not? And you could. And that is how we arranged our lives. It was a very intense time. We all learned a lot. And then it started breaking down again because of real estate; people started moving into the neighbourhood, we had to tour to make the rents. And not just to make the rents, because we wanted to and we learnt stuff that way. I have very fond memories of that.
I read that you performed a violin duet with Gidon Kremer in the 80s.
I don’t know that I’d dignify it with ‘duet’. But no, we did do it. At an AIDS benefit. I think it was someone’s idea, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny to have the worst violinist and the best violinist in the world play together?” He came over and firstly I said, “Let me play second violin to a piece that you’re doing”. We tried that and I could tell from his expressions that I was so out of tune that he could barely listen to me. I thought I was doing pretty well and I was looking at his face for some little nod of encouragement, and I just saw pain.
So I said, “All right, listen, why don’t we improvise, let’s just play.” So he said, “I have no idea how to improvise, I couldn’t possibly do it.” And in between the time that we were talking he’s [imitates flamboyant violin playing], he started doing that, kind of nervously.
I said, “Gidon, what are you playing? That’s beautiful.” He said, “I’m not playing anything, I’m just warming up.” I said. “That’s what we call improvising.” He said, “I could never do that, it’s shapeless.” I said, “Shapelessness is a kind of shape” [laughs] — you know I’m grasping at straws now, because I really I didn’t want to play second violin.
What we ended up with was, I said, “OK. How about you play the fastest thing you know how to play and I’ll play the fastest thing I can play, and then we’ll just trade things. You can get it from Paganini or whatever you want.” And we just stood next to each other. I would not call it a duet, because there was not one moment when his violin crossed mine.
I didn’t realise that your new album is the first to feature your violin playing since your debut album Big Science back in 1981.
I didn’t realise that either until I was doing the credits and had to check my other records, and thought I must have one note somewhere on my other records. Nat Steinberger designs guitars, basses and stringed instruments and sent me this prototype, technically a viola with a fifth string, and I’d be working on my computer on the record and looking at this violin over in the corner. Then I started composing on it and it was really fun. It was more organic than keyboards and I was so sick of computers at that time, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to hear the hand?” Also I’d just done an orchestra piece [Songs For AE, based on the life of aviator Amelia Earhart]. It’s fun writing for strings although I don’t know how to orchestrate. I worked with Michael Gibbs, who orchestrated it. I wrote the parts for those instruments but I’ve really no idea how to notate for all those bassoons. It’s such an art form on its own, orchestration. I’ve real admiration for people who can do that.
Have you seen any of Glass’s recent musical theatre pieces?
I saw something last month, his Kafka piece. There’s going to be a big festival this summer at [New York’s] Lincoln Center, a lot of his things that he’s writing for films now … [The slow Second Movement starts] This is very lovely, this one. My favourite is still [Glass’s] earliest stuff. Maybe it’s just my own lack of imagination, but I love that early music that was led by the Farfisa, it sends a chill up my spine. And while I love this kind of writing for violin, I hear it as part of a tradition rather than a new, original voice. For me, much of this could have been written 200 years ago. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I’d rather be thrilled by something new than moved by something like this. But then you hear it and go, “That’s gorgeous”. That’s why theories are so stupid, you know? And why mostly, as soon as I actually hear a thing or see it and it contradicts what I think I believe, I give up.
‘Science and Technology’
From Life (Sony Japan) 1999
I don’t know who this is, or know this at all. Do I know this person?
It’s an opera by Ryuichl Sakamoto called Life. The work wrestles with big themes. This part features the voice of Robert Oppenheimer. I’m interested in the comparison with some of your own works like United States, where you give an overview but also zoom in on details. How do you go about structuring a massive work like that?
I’m really interested in big ideas, big theories and big pieces of motion. But my own theories, as I was just saying, are just templates. When you are faced with the details or the actual sound or the reality of music or image, hopefully your theories are challenged. Because theories are really gross. Maybe they work in some way. But truth for me I can really feel in details. In a way, the smaller it is the more I realise, “Oh there it is, I’ve found some really simple thing, just a colour or a note”. And my theories about justice or technology or something just sound ridiculous. And yet I like those and find them very interesting and stimulating. It’s like when Brian [Eno] and I were working together on a record, we had all these theories about LTCVCM.
It was a category we invented and were supposedly doing: ‘late 20th century vernacular classical music’. We were trying to use [musical] language in a way that was a little bit more conversational, was less selfconsciously lyrical. We had a lot of theories and as soon as we started, boom! Our theories go out of the window as soon as we hear something and say, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful”, and just go for that. We no longer cared about theory because beauty is a thing that makes you crazy, knocks you out. There is no yes or no, you just go, “Ooh, that’s beautiful”, and there’s no explaining it. Often I can use language for some other reasons, like self-defence, to prove that I’m clever or something. Or just to keep my mouth moving, or hold up my end of the conversation instead of just not saying anything.
Because it’s required of us, we think. Silence is so unbearably intimate. I mean, we’resitting here listening and talking and probably getting more information, by looking at each other and understanding the other person’s presence than from what we are actually saying. You could stand in an elevator and you don’t even look at the other person or say anything, and you know something about them when you get off at your floor.
Ewan McColl & Al Lloyd
‘Banks of Newfoundland’
From Blow Boys Blow (Tradition) 1962
Is this songs from Moby Dick or something?
I’m not sure if this song was featured, but the singer AL Lloyd played the role of the shantyman in the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck. This song warns English sailors about the perils about going to Newfoundland, especially the cold. Did you do any research into old whaling songs when you were putting together your Songs And Stories From Moby Dick?
No. Well, only a little tiny bit. I knew I’d get lost if I started going into what they wore what they did and how they sound. I wanted to find a new sound for [Herman] Melville, because this book wasn’t really about whaling. It happened to be on a ship, but it was mostly stories that happened elsewhere and he’d go jumpcutting around. This does remind me of the made for TV movie a couple of years ago.
I just saw Patrick Stewart sitting in the restaurant here in the hotel. What a beautiful looking man. He played Ahab. He was hilarious. There he was doing the most Shakespearean lines from Moby Dick: “Strike through the mast!” as an over-the-top actor on the deck doing this incredibly indecipherable British accent, and the American crew, are just standing there going [slackjawed], “What’s the guy saying? We don’t understand it. How did he get on this ship?” It was a lovely kind of Star Trek version of it, elegant. Gregory Peck was kind of shabby and falling apart, like Abe Lincoln on a very bad day, which is really bad. Patrick Stewart was pulled together, really slick and super cool. But they did a bit of singing and there was a very bad animatronic whale.
In fact, the [version of Moby Dick] in the 30s with John Barrymore had better animatronics.
You we relaying that some of the songs on Life On A String are from the stage show, but the whole of it didn’t translate as an album.
It didn’t really, plus by the time I did the show and got back from the show and started on the record again to try and finish it, it was almost the year 2000 and the 19th century was looking like the 18th century: far away. And I thought, “I can’t bear it”. I feel like I was lucky to get that far,’ to be able take a book and put it on the stage and not have it be acted up. I didn’t go through the book and put quotes around it and go, “Now it’s a play”. I took Melville’s written language and his stories and tried to re-imagine some of those and comment on the way he did it.
© Mike Barnes, The Wire, August 2001