Brave New Science
Six years have passed since New York's best-known performance artist leapt to fame with 'O, Superman'. Tim Goodyer finds she's still stretching technology to its limits in her new film 'Home of the Brave'.
Six years after the unlikely success of '0, Superman' and the epic performances of 'United States', Laurie Anderson is still writing, singing, dancing, acting, and ripping new technology to shreds to make it sound good.
"YOUR SECRETS, DOESN'T he give away your secrets?" "Absolutely, he gives everything away." "Do you trust him?" "No, do you trust your alter ego?" "Not at all, but isn't that living dangerously?" "Yeah, but I prefer that." "Does he have a name?" "No. That's part of the misfortune of being a clone..."
Laurie Anderson enjoys playing games - games with her music, games with her films, games with her conversation. I can tell by her smile. She speaks softly, inviting me to underestimate her, daring me to challenge her. Before moving into the areas of music, dance and visuals she used to be a critic of minimal sculpture, interviewing artists. So she's used to playing the interview game from both sides of the tape recorder.
The game we're playing now involves a film, an American TV programme and a clone. First the film. It's called Home of the Brave and it's intended to be the definitive documentation of Anderson's multi-media stage show. She's written and directed it, and now, a couple of weeks before it goes on general release here in Britain, she's flown in to promote it.
Home of the Brave is a feature-length film of the musicians and accompanying visuals that make up a Laurie Anderson concert. The filming was spread over three American performances with additional shots of the stage visuals cut in later. If you were lucky enough to catch her last UK gigs you'll recognise the basis of the film, though Home of the Brave includes more elaborate visuals and a different line-up of musicians - notably guitarist Adrian Belew, percussionist David van Tieghem, backing vocalists Janice Pendarvis and Dolette McDonald and keyboard player Joy Askew - as well as a brief appearance by literary luminary William S Burroughs.
"It's mostly the people that came on the Mister Heartbreak tour", she explains quietly, her words punctuated by frequent pauses. "That was a 60 city tour of the United States and Japan. We didn't make it to Europe. We'd planned to but we ran out of time. But then again I don't love touring: after a certain point it's boring and counter-productive. I'd rather be writing new things or, ah... I'd rather be doing just about anything. Once I get there I have a wonderful time - it's the getting there. It's a huge amount of equipment. Basically we're hauling a recording studio onto the stage plus lots of projectors and lots of people."
The obvious reason for making the film would seem to be to avoid the rigours of touring, but in the world of Laurie Anderson, things are rarely that simple.
"At the end of the Mister Heartbreak tour I realised I'd never filmed a performance for more than 30 seconds. I'd never tried to document them because they were about memory and I wanted that to be the way that they would be recorded - in people's memories. Then I realised that people didn't remember them very well. They'd say 'remember that performance you did with that orange dog four years ago?' And I'd say 'there was no orange dog, I never did anything with an orange dog'. No, I decided it wasn't working and it was time to put something on film, so I could run the projector and say 'now, do you see an orange dog?'
"I actually had two reasons for making the film: the second was to learn about directing. I did learn a lot, although it's ultimately not the kind of film I'd try to make again. Doing a concert film has a lot of built-in problems no matter how you do it, and they're all problems of, ah, distance. It's always better to have been to the actual concert, and that's a sort of sad premise to start with.
"I think the next film I do will be a primary experience, rather than a secondary experience."
Anderson pauses to light a cigarette that she's torn the filter from before answering my next question. The visual style of Home of the Brave is one of simplicity: the stage is almost bare, occupied only by the musicians and their immediate instruments, and dominated by a huge projection screen. There's obviously a lot of unsightly technology in use behind the scenes, so where did it go?
"We built a special stage several feet above the existing stage and all the monitors were flush-mounted underneath. 'There was so much action on the stage from cameramen and musicians that tripping over monitors and cables was just out of the question. It was a real mess: there were power cables with sound cables with picture cables with keyboard cables... All of this information was crackling and surging so we sorted it all away under the stage for the filming."
IF THE FILM is distinctive in its visual presentation, its presentation of technology is also eye-catching, as well as simply ear-catching. 'With the bulk of the technology played down, hidden away out of sight, the innovative, the unusual and the curious are played up in performance. A violin that replays vocal samples, a jumpsuit that allows you to play your body like a drum kit, and a tie with a working keyboard printed on it all play their part in Home of the Brave.
"I made the tie specifically for the film. It's just a little touch-sensitive portable keyboard sewn into a tie. I like the idea of portable instruments like the violin. The violin is my favourite instrument; keyboards are my least favourite. The Synclavier for example - that is no sportscar, although I think keyboards are cars. You have this big dashboard and all the pedals and a kind of head-on relationship with the audience."
Anderson's violin is a standard acoustic model fitted with a pitch-to-voltage link to the Synclavier, but...
"...it doesn't work too well. It's a descendant of the original tape-bow violin that I designed, except that worked better than the digital version; certainly it's more predictable. That was just a playback head ripped off an otherwise perfectly fine Revox and bolted to the body of a violin. The bow has a piece of pre-recorded audio tape instead of horsehair and you play it by passing the tape over the head.
"I did some things with tape-bow violins for orchestra and, at first, they really resented the idea of having spent 20 years perfecting their left and right hands only to become machines. But as soon as they started to play they realised that all the action in the bow hand was crucial. Of course the left hand is rather like a keyboard stand leg...
"With the digital violin the left hand has to be very accurate; you need to play in perfect pitch to access the correct information. A C# is a dog bark and B is some thunder, so if you get in between the two you get a strange hybrid that toggles back and forth between the two - but then that can be nice, too."
The drum suit allows Anderson to change roles again: from musician to dancer. She has sewn triggers for various drum voices into a suit so that the sounds may be produced as part of a dance routine.
"I never documented my performances because they were about memory and I wanted them to be in people's memories. Then I realised people didn't remember them."
"I was taking a little cheap drum machine apart because it was broken, and I realised some of it was still working as I unravelled it. I saw this sensor was still going, so I thought I might as well sew it into a suit and remote the whole thing. I did all the obvious things like put the kick on the heart, the snare drum on the knee and percussion parts on the wrists. It's another portable instrument. Like a lot of this stuff, it comes of having the equipment and having it break. It's not the original machine any more, because I had to re-break some more drum machines and combine a couple of them in another box."
Dance is an essential ingredient of Anderson's live work, and Home of the Brave includes several dance sequences. But their choreography turns out to be a little different from that of most dance routines.
"It all started off with signals to technicians", Anderson recalls. "Most of the live keyboard parts are one-handed things for that reason. A lot of the performances have been based on hand signals that I don't think are obvious to the audience - although maybe they are, I don't know. They're signals to the follow spot operator, to the lighting designer, to the monitor mixer, to the house mixer, to someone doing the electronics... Each of them is part of a code about what to do next because, although the concerts are live post-production, they are still very flexible because things always break and you need a plan for what to do next.
"A rotating hand movement might mean 'go to the next film because I'm going to have to improvise something here'. Eventually tours straighten out and you don't need to make too many signals, but by that time it's too late, they're already built in. They turn from a kind of semaphore into a kind of dancing. Because there is no right-hand keyboard part there, you have to fill in. For example, the right hand action on 'Smoke Rings' was originally for a different reason. That was to do away with the drum part and to count out time to the other musicians, particularly the singers, because I work in so many odd metres.
They have to feel the odd time signatures in some physical way like I do, so it turned into a kind of aerobics dance, and if they can follow that, they can understand what's happening."
THE SOUNDTRACK TO Home of the Brave has its emphasis firmly on performance. The sounds themselves seem to strike a careful balance between the natural and the synthetic - but a closer examination of the synthetic sounds reveals them to be concentrated around treatments and samples.
"I'm not really interested in synthetic sounds, except in combination with sampled sounds", says Anderson. The instrument responsible for the samples and synthesised sounds is a Synclavier, which Anderson has owned for a while, with a little help from a Roland Vocoder Plus. For the moment, though, the £100,000 super system is in abeyance, having been ousted by an altogether more down-to-earth piece of technology.
"The Akai S900 is my favourite toy at the moment. I really like it very much - that and the Mac, they're a good pair. I did the whole Swimming to Cambodia score, the Jonathan Demme film, with one drum hit for the entire percussion sampled into the Akai, and it sounds like 50 different things. It's a lovely drum with a lovely sound to it, so I goofed around with it a bit and that's all there is. I don't think you'd ever suspect that it's just that one hit.
"Of course, the Akai is a polyphonic instrument and I didn't take that next step with the Synclavier. It was an insane next step. For example, the resynthesis is too hard to use and it's such a long operation for such paltry results. You can do a lot better with a Casio and a Lexicon PCM70 reverb. The Synclavier didn't move fast enough, and cheaper and more portable systems became available. I A/B compared the Synclavier and the Akai because I was real concerned about the quality, and I could rarely hear the difference between them, they're very comparable. So I've been spending much more time on the Akai lately.
"The PCM70 is also a favourite toy; it has so many lovely things to it. Its Rich Chamber setting is a real warm, beautiful sound. So I was able to do the whole movie score with just that setup and I was very happy with it." Another smile, another cigarette, another subject. Art. To call Laurie Anderson a musician is to do her an injustice. Her work to date has involved songwriting, choreography, film-making and performing, so "artist" is a more accurate term. And strangely, it's from interviewing those sculptors that this artist has drawn many of her ideas.
"Second-string minimal sculpture was my speciality. I really did it to get to meet artists to see what was in their refrigerators. That was my goal. I wanted to see who they really were and what they were doing. It was fascinating - I wrote a lot of songs about that.
"Also at that time, the early '70s, there was a lot of stuff being done that was quite cold, quite intellectual. It was very interesting sitting around for three hours talking about 'The Edge' or some kind of theory, but the art itself was very uneventful. You look at a grey painted cube, and what can you say beyond 'Boy, you got all those right-angles just right?' So do people that build dog houses, so what makes this different?
"Ultimately, one of the songs about that period I wrote was called 'Unlike Van Gogh'. After seeing all this cool stuff I had a severe reaction to it and just wanted contrast in the things I was writing about it, and for me Van Gogh was that. So I'd mention him in all my reviews with the flimsiest excuse. It would be 'In his sculpture this artist, like Van Gogh, uses yellow and blue'. Eventually an editor called me in, and rightly said 'look, not every artist can usefully be compared to Van Gogh'. So the reviews started reading, ah, 'this artist, unlike Van Gogh...'"
The studied smile becomes a broad grin.
"At that time I was also making a lot of little movies. In talking about this film I've realised that Home of the Brave is the second film I've made that has a soundtrack. The first was a sex movie I made in 1975 on Super 8. It was in the style of the 1940s, so it was quite an uneventful film based on a lot of cliches - the man and the woman in the bedroom, they start to kiss, her foot comes up, her shoe falls off, the camera pans to the window where there is a calendar, nine pages blow off... The sex of the '40s."
WHILE THE FILMS grew from 8mm to 35mm, and the violin became an extension of the Synclavier, so Anderson's voice underwent some changes that have since become her trademark.
"I began to change my voice with harmonisers and delays. Originally I used the Eventide 910, then the 929. It came from being the only person on-stage."
"It came from being the only person onstage", she explains in a voice quite out of keeping with the subject. "I began to change my voice with harmonisers and various delays. Originally I used the Eventide 910, but the 929 had less of a delay so I ended up using that quite a lot. I found that using the Eventide at 0.72, which is my favourite setting, I could turn my voice into a shoe salesman's."
And so it's the shoe salesman who delivers many of Anderson's witty live monologues, like the curtain-raising 'Zero and One', where Anderson examines the differences between being someone and being a zero.
"After I'd finished making Home of the Brave, I found myself wondering what this guy looked like. So I did a video tape and from that I cloned myself. It was fascinating to see that guy come to life. I ended up with this character who's about three feet tall with a moustache and size 1 shoes. He's a preposterous guy, very insecure. He's not a tourable item, strictly video. I also realised that a lot of the facial expressions that I thought only I knew I was making in the performances using the voice filter were exaggerated in the clone. It's all blue screen stuff, that's part of his ineptitude, but I finally got him walking around and relating to the world, actually picking things up, so he's now integrated into his setting. It was a very satisfying feeling having done that."
The success is rewarded with a fresh smile. It was the nameless clone that came to Anderson's rescue after the trials of making Home of the Brave.
"To become an actor with this clone, which was me but wasn't me, was such a release. It's kinda silly... It's an extremely silly situation but it was a real antidote to working on Home of the Brave and looking at so many pictures of myself.
"He and I took a job co-hosting a television series that introduces avant-garde TV and film work. It starts with the premise that we're in a television studio and basically introducing him as a talkshow host. In the grand tradition of male and female co-hosts, we chat about what's about to come up and make up little songs together. He wrote some good songs, too. But we eventually work it out like most couples.
"The situation is if I'm really too busy doing interviews and photo sessions to do any more work, then he gradually takes over."
The real-life Home of the Brave is modern-day America, where the national budget for military marching bands is larger than that for the arts, including opera, theatre, painting, sculpture and contemporary music.
"It's incredible. That's a lot of band uniforms and sheet music. You can feel the Reagan era happening, people don't have the money to produce things any more. You only have to look at a few of the statistics and you can understand why. Reagan only has a short period of time left now people are finding out what he's done. Another frightening statistic is that everyone west of the Mississippi river is paying the interest on the national debt with their taxes; all their taxes go to that. When Reagan came to power there was no national debt. When you write out your tax cheque you always hope that one or two of your dollars is going to find its way into a hospital or a road. It's something that a lot of artists are trying to pay a lot more attention to now. I feel it in my own work and its relationship to politics. It seems so hopeless the way it is now." For the first time the smile is gone: Anderson's concern is deep and genuine.
"I'm doing an AIDS benefit in New York in a couple of days with Gidon Kramer. The idea was to pair odd couples together so they came up with Gidon Kramer and Laurie Anderson. He's been called the best violinist in the world so it's quite terrifying. Whilst I do consider myself a violinist of some sort, it's not in that virtuoso tradition.
"We've been racking our brains for something to play: he's tried to teach me some second violin parts to some things he can play and it was hopeless, absolutely humiliating. Then I tried to teach him some of my things and that wasn't really any better.
"So we've ended up with Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' with me putting a synthesised version of the orchestra, but sight-read so that I can change it at will. That's also terrifying because, not only will I be on the stage with the best violinist in the world, but I'll also be showing off my sight-reading keyboard chops which I'm not proud of."
Looking slightly further ahead, Anderson has just begun working on a new album. Her optimism and her smile return.
"I keep thinking I really want to strip things way down and make them very simple: that's partly why I've started working with the Akai. I had this illusion, and it is an illusion, that I liked the simple things that I've done the best. I was like a lot of people who think their first record is their favourite, so I went and listened to it and it is really stripped-down.
"What I think is simple now is completely different to what it was six years ago. It was one of the first times I'd made myself sit down and listen to records that I'd made. It's not my idea of an interesting evening. I can hear mix moves - still. Years after the recording, I can hear my finger slipping on the fader and the level jerking up. You'd think you'd mellow on a record after a while and just enjoy it as music, but...
"...I have a pretty broad definition of music. I think you and I talking now is music. It's more like jazz than it is like a book, for example. Just because it's words, doesn't confine it to a printed page. It's improvisation, trying to make some sounds that actually represent something. But then I'm not sure jazz is about representing anything, are you?"
The smile is at its broadest, the interviewer is on the retreat. He manages a reply. "Yes, representing a combination of the player's personality, mood, ability..."
"So you think it's a kind of self-expression? I suppose to some extent I think that too, but in another way it can go far beyond that. It can go beyond what you happen to think you're feeling into something more. But then, I suppose that's self-expression too — projected self-expression."
Suddenly, her smile has become quite infectious.
Interview by Tim Goodyer