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Bigger Science

Laurie Anderson

Multi-media artist Laurie has come a long way since O Superman. But has the heart gone out of her Art? Mark Dery and Tony Reed find out

A few years ago, an obscure multi-media artist released an album called Big Science. One track on it, O Superman, made for 400 dollars, became a huge hit, and launched the artist, Laurie Anderson, on an international career. Her latest project cost one and a half million dollars to make. It's definitely bigger science. But is it better?

Standby: You're on the air

A Monday night in May, and Hammersmith Odeon is a cinema again, its famous stage dominated by a huge silver screen. In the two hours that follow, the couple of thousand people who turn up here tonight will see some strange things on that screen, and before it.

Ghost shirts, dancing. A jump suit with the innards of a drum machine sewn into it, thunderous and violent. Violins that talk. And people who can only make noise. Cinema is a magical, dangerous place.

"I went to the movies one day, and saw a dog thirty feet high and composed... entirely... of light!"

Cinema's a big place; and sometimes people can look very small. Laurie Anderson does right now, an elfin figure in her wonderful ice-cream suit sitting crosslegged on the front of the stage, a blaze of white peering out into the blackness of the auditorium with only a small keyboard for company. Singing, the first song of the evening. But tonight's film — gig — Art? — is her show, the 'live performance' part of a project Home Of The Brave which incorporates an album, a film and a tour, took a year and a half in the making, and cost 1.65 million dollars. There are complex MIDI set-ups, on and offstage, hundreds of slides, and thousands of feet of film. It's Big Science, all right.

It's also a long way from 0 Superman, the quirky, breathless single which first brought Ms Anderson attention outside the cliquey confines of the New York Performance scene. That costa mere $400 to make. (And has since grossed over a million for WEA.)

Earlier still, her works, which included a Suite for Car Horns (1972), fiddling while balancing on skates embedded in blocks of ice (Duets On Ice, 1974), and exhibiting a jukebox filled with self-pressed discs (specimen title: It's Not The Bullet That Kills You, It's The Hole, 1977) had all emphasised the personal, the autobiographical. Even the gadgets that featured in her performances at the time emphasised a kind of reappropriation of technology — the famous Tape Bow Violin being nothing more than an ordinary violin rigged with an audio playback head, and played with a bow whose horsehair had been replaced with a strip of prerecorded tape.

Now amid the gee-whizz effects, amid the spectacle of it all, a person could get lost. Couldn't she?

Ten minutes to showtime, and I'm trying to track down the tickets the record company have left for me, arguing with the impassive security man on the stage door. A solitary fan, her arms laden with posters, brochures and albums leans hopefully on the wall behind me. Suddenly, Laurie Anderson's there, smaller than you imagine, greeting the astonished girl, signing her brochure, mugging cheerfully for her camera. A small, human moment.

I get my tickets, take my seat. A person could get lost out on that stage tonight. But only if they didn't know precisely what they were doing...

"When I talk to people I try to convince them I'm more intelligent than I actually am. It seems to work."

The show proper kicks off with a little story — it's Hansel and Grettel, only Grettel grew up to be Nico, and Hansel turned into a boorish slob. They row a lot, in their gingerbread condo. No happy ending. It's sad. It's funny. And for the culture vulture and his girl in front of me, confusing.

"What's that then?"

"Art, darling. Listen, do you want to go backstage afterwards? I can arrange it..."

People want consistency in their performers. That way they'll know where they stand.

'Hey! Are you talking to me?'

"When I talk to people I try to convince people I'm more intelligent than I actually am"

History is a Pile of Debris

IM&RW: Big Science seemed to be about science. Mister Heartbreak about romance, sex, love... What is the one thematic axis to Home of The Brave?

Laurie Anderson: First of all, I'd have a hard time saying 'science' and 'romance'. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say — technology, for Home Of The Brave, the romance of technology, and the technology of romance. There was so much technology in the film itself, it was a nightmare... One of the hardest things was the lip-syncing, because the words aren't scanned the way songs are, but the way talking is... the loosest example in the movie is Langue D'Amour... There's a bar I need to end up in to start the sung section, so I had a stop watch, and was trying to time things. I was also trying to be a kind of snake/puppeteer, wore long black gloves so that I could be the snake and the woman at the same time. The words spread over six minutes and 43 seconds, so I had some leeway, but I had to land on the right down beat... effectively, the whole song is just one bar, an incredibly quirky time signature. It just doesn't make sense to try to divide it up the way music usually is.

Welcome to Difficult Music Hour

Laurie Anderson would be hell in a disco. She throws her body around the stage, angles and bones, throws shapes jagged enough to cut. Starts hitting herself, doing it all over again on the screen 30 feet high and in slow motion. Such violence. Massive detonations shake the hall.

So tell us about your drums, Laurie.

"I was trying to fix a drum machine I had taken apart and couldn't get back together, and then I realised the sensors still worked so I thought, 'I'll put this in a suit!' I mean, it didn't take anything to make it. Once the machine falls apart, it's made."

Every five minutes, it seems, a new gadget is wheeled out for our astonishment. Phil Ballou and Bernie Diggs, the backing vocalists, sport tap shoes which trigger Linn Drums on one song. ('Good evening, and here are the shoes.') On another, keyboard player Dave LeBolt, wearing one of those hideous leather 'Piano key' ties reaches up, and gives us an unexpected solo on it. All very arch. This being a sort of greatest hit show, Laurie does O Superman, complete with shadow mime. We wait, for that electric moment at the end of the song when she takes her hand away from the spot light, and its shadow stays there. The moment arrives. She takes her hand away. The shadow goes with it. Ha ha.

Still trying to answer the $64,000 question

IM&RW: Some of the songs on Home Of the BraveLanguage Is A Virus, for example — are very different from their original versions. Why?

LA: They're different songs, essentially. The way I've usually worked, which makes no commercial sense, but is best for me — is to write a song, perform it, and then, eventually record it. Recording Mister Heartbreak first and then trying to perform it was nightmarish — how do you perform flocks of birds coming in, insects singing, dogs barking? Tour managers put their foot down: 'Uh-huh, no animals.' You can't sit 30 bird cages on the stage and bang them on cue — so all the animals are digital on tour, through the Synclavier. Songs already have to change for a tour, and I like to reflect that, 'Well, let's put out another version of this' — half the lyrics are gone and another half added, so it becomes another chapter in the song of the same title.

Thomas McEvilley, Artforum, March '84:
"Over the years, Anderson has recycled the same texts... I saw one language 'bit' in five different places... The result is to make a slender body of work look fat."

Laurie Anderson, IM&RW, June'86:
"Repetitions give a work continuity."

Member of Hammersmith audience overheard whilst leaving halfway through the show:

"It's boring."

A pity you left. You missed some great jokes.

Talk Normal

A figure in a white suit is telling us some interesting facts about sperm we might not have realised. There are slides illustrating the points. The voice is deep, unquestionably male, authoritative. It is Laurie Andersons, fed through a vocoder:

"Sperm are deaf. They are blind. But some of them already know that they will be bald... If the average sperm was increased in scale to that of a sperm whale, it would be capable of travelling at... Mach 20. Think about it — a million supersonic sperm whales leaving the American Coastline, and arriving in Japan four minutes later. What would they do when they got there?"

"I've never knocked out a song in an evening"

You missed something else too. You missed the way she can make you nostalgic for places you've never been to.

This is the Place

You know that bit on Big Science? Where the hitch-hiker asks for directions?

"And he said: 'Just take a right at the new shopping mall, go straight past where they're gonna put in the freeway... keep on going until you reach the place where they're thinking of building that drive-in bank — you can't miss it." It makes me want to see America. It makes me sad.

What Fassbinder Film was it?

IM&RW: The film was shot in front of an invited audience, a simulated 'live' show. Why not just take actual concert footage?

LA: A lot of the music is very quiet, and a lot of the ambience in concert halls is not — the sound rattles around. More importantly, because the film and slides are so important to me — it's very hard to shoot that stuff without being completely intrusive and in the way of the audience that's there. You have two audiences — the one at the concert and the one watching the film of them, watching the concert. It's very distancing for the cinema audience: you want to get lost in the film, not constantly be reminded you're in Row K. As for myself, I really like making movies, that aspect of it — records are always so... incomplete. The head knocking thing on United States Live (Reverb, which uses a contact mike attached to a pair of glasses to turn the skull into a 'talking drum') was the worst, but in a song like Blue Lagoon, where I go 'Got your letter, thanks a lot' and you don't see a picture of a letter being washed up on a beach in a bottle, it means something else. There are always a couple of things going on in the images. Fortunately some of the music is very cinematic itself, particularly Mister Heartbreak. There's a lot of distance in that music. I mixed for headphones — on headphones — for someone who's listening intimately, but to large spaces, landscapes... the Walkman consciousness."

It's a Job

IM&RW: What's a typical Laurie Anderson evening at home like, knocking out a song?

LA: First of all, I've never knocked out a song in an evening. I almost did once, very recently — a song called Baby Doll, which is in a very simple time signature. If I'd had more time, I'd've made it more complicated. I only had a night. (laughs) Kokoku was about motion, so its rhythm track is the word 'shake' turned into a moebius strip via the harmoniser. Over that are two larger motions — Phoebe Snow's vibrato, and the vibrato of the Kayagum (Japanese stringed instrument) making broader patterns over that. On top of that are the lyrics, which are really about telescopic vision. The model for that was James Joyce, because I consider him a very cinematic writer. The best example of that is, there's a scene — I don't think of it as a chapter — a girl is sitting on a beach and she's looking at her dress and thinking 'Gee, this is such a pretty dress,' and looking down at her shoes, and 'These are really nice shoes, and nice socks, too,' and then suddenly there's a man walking down the beach who sees her and says, 'Wonder who that ugly cripple is...' This is a situation not of the omniscient author looking down at his two characters but of a giant crane motion that shows you her and then shows you him, from both perspectives. And so, in making a song like Kokoku, I really wanted to feel that kind of thing. The Japanese is all still images; condensed, Haiku-type, frozen things — mountains, clouds, boom. The English revolves around that, looks at it close, then far.

Look at Me!

IM&RW: Recently, oddball anecdotes about stardom have started popping up in your work. Is that a reaction to your new status in life?

LA: A lot of my work has been a reaction to who I am and how I'm perceived by others; I can't get away from myself. People see your picture in the paper and then they see you in a bank line and go, 'Aren't you...?' Sometimes I do say, 'No, I'm not Laurie Anderson.' Usually I say yes and they feel very pleased that they've made this connection between the second dimension and the third dimension — which is an interesting one to make in a world that's so 2-D.

"Let's teach those, robots to play hardball; Let's teach those little fellas some gratitude"

The show's nearly over. We've been dazzled by technology. We're watching hundreds of toy robots toppling off a table in 2-D, on the screen. There's an encore. No gimmicks, no films. Just Laurie and the band, sitting in chairs at the front of the stage, busking one of her songs. She's strumming her electric violin like it was a banjo or something.

Halfway through the song, they break into Dolly Parton's 9 To 5. Everyone laughs.

Listen to my Heartbeat.

I can still hear it Laurie. Thankfully.

Home Science

"I've always worked in a home studio," Anderson observes, "gradually building it up. I use the same Soundcraft board that I've used for a while, 16 inputs. It's not ideal, but when I record I usually bring in a multitrack and get an additional board. The performances I engineer, and we usually end up using that stuff when we do records, so I engineer the basics for a lot of stuff."

Anderson's home studio, floating on hockey pucks in her Manhattan loft, features — in addition to her trusty Soundcraft mixing board — Eventide 949 and 910 Harmonizers and various rented digital reverb and delay units, as well as her Synclavier and an ever-changing cast of keyboards.

Her current tour set-up includes the Zeta violin, "a violin — designed by a group at Berkeley — that's heavily pre-amped." A custom-made Synclavier violin is also part of her artillery. "It doesn't work as well as a guitar;" Anderson informs, "because of the way that a violin can only give a much vaguer signal than a guitar, which is more percussive. And there's a tracking delay, but I'm pretty used to working with it — especially vocally, because the Harmonizer has that." This tour, the artist favours the Yamaha DX7, keyboardwise, (although her preferred set-up, as in Home of the Brave, consists of a Synclavier triggered by smaller controllers, such as the Yamaha KX5); vocal effects include the PCM 70, PCM 41 ("mostly with footswitches"), and the usual slew of harmonisers, DDLs, and vocoders. A parting shot: Onomatopoeic guitarist Adrian Belew, in Home of the Brave, plays a 'geek' guitar with a rubber neck. "It actually bends," says Anderson. "It's made of very hard rubber and was built especially for the movie." But can you bounce it like a Super Ball?

MIDI has played a big part in Anderson's on stage drama. "This is an experiment," the performer hazards. "I really am not sure, because we've had a lot of trouble with the control units breaking down. I don't think MIDI is quite ready for touring yet; you have to have so many backups, because it will break. It's really not quite there."

Anderson is, however, a long-time user of taped playbacks; many of the vocal loops used live are on tape. "I've never done a 'live' concert in my life."

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International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Aug 1986

Interview by Mark Dery, Tony Reed

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