Laurie Anderson, pioneer and populariser of avant-garde electronic music, and arguably the performance artist, recently brought her 'Empty Places' show to the UK. Interview by Mark J. Prendergast.
Jimi Hendrix blasts his potent brew of voodoo soul through a bank of powerful speakers; 'Purple Haze' and 'Manic Depression' can be discerned amongst the wailing din of feedback and noise distortion. What you hear is a collage, and not a secret out-take. When it's all over, your ears still ringing, you see images of snow falling outside some fictional window. You hear melancholy guitar music, and a small spiky-haired figure appears from behind a door with a violin in hand. Somehow the figure grows, and the violin spits electronic sound as colourful as that of Hendrix.
This is the world of Laurie Anderson, a world she calls 'Empty Places' (the title of her current touring show), a world that's always exciting and full of surprises, a world where high-tech meets raw emotion, a world that has few equals in modern music.
Laurie Anderson is the 'performance artist'. In 1973, shortly after she arrived on the New York art scene, she actually had a piece entitled 'Performance Art'. Standing atop a block of ice in a pair of roller skates, she played her violin until the ice melted. Another work involved a table where people were invited to sit down and put their hands over their ears. Surprise, surprise — music could be heard when you covered your ears, courtesy of transducers that Anderson had located under the table. It didn't take her long to move from this kind of exercise into the popular mainstream, via Philip Glass and Patti Smith. The avant-garde pop single 'O Superman', whose imagery painted America in terms of a giant cartoon, sold nearly a million copies in 1982. The album Big Science made her a household name in Britain in the same year, and 1984's Mr Heartbreak found her collaborating with Peter Gabriel, David Van Tieghem, Bill Laswell and Adrian Belew. The Nile Rodgers co-produced Home Of The Brave (1986) and subsequent concert movie of the same name featured a rock band plus contributions from author William S. Burroughs.
If Anderson portrays the sweet hometown girl with the dulcet tones and a barbed lyric, her manipulation of technology more than hints at a highly rigorous intelligence at work. Her use of Synclaviers, harmonisers and vocoders has passed into legend for its originality and sheer bravado. Who else would make the bow of her violin speak as it is drawn across the strings? New England Digital developed a special violin with her, to call forth an array of digitally sampled sounds at the touch of a string. She uses harmonisers to change the octave of her voice so she can sound like an American politician or the sweetest soprano, all in the space of a single line. She takes advantage of the 'cheesy' character of some drum machines, and banks of keyboards, film and video machinery may be harnessed to provide a backdrop to a simple computer generated image of bluebirds. Laurie Anderson is definitely not about cliché.
This Sunday afternoon, Laurie is in London to set up the Dominion Theatre stage for another performance of 'Empty Places', her current world touring opus. Sitting in the hospitality room, she notices the sound of angry demonstrators in a distant street. Her acute hearing latches on to the garbled chanting, and she automatically starts to translate it. Often during the hour we are together, she sensitises herself to far-away sounds, as if her antennae were permanently in search of new configurations. Our conversation starts with her childhood days near Chicago.
"We had a family orchestra, just a random collection of instruments. We would play our own compositions, and since there was eight of us we would make quite a bit of noise. Like a lot of kids I was sort of forced to play an instrument, in this case the violin. If you're five years old and forced to practise every day it's not really a pleasure. The only thing worse is listening to somebody else practise for a couple of hours a day. I became pretty serious about it though, and quit when I was 16 because I realised it was like a sport — it was the only thing I could really do, because I had to do it so much."
I've read that you became disenchanted with a formalist, post-Webern way of playing music, and you were very attracted to what was happening in New York in the early 1970s, particularly among people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
"I was based in SoHo, which at the time had one gallery and one restaurant and was basically where artists lived. I've always been in sync with the neighbourhood, and some years later in the late 70s it was a lot of galleries and a party every night — lots of collaborations and lots of activity, and that's when I was showing in galleries as a sculptor and doing a lot of other things. I live in Tribeca now, which is nearby — it's short for TRIangle BElow CAnal street and it's one of the last warehouse holdouts in New York.
"As a sculptor and film-maker, I used to go to Phil Glass's rehearsals like a lot of other visual artists. We'd sit there for six hours and do our best work. You'd just sit back and you'd think about things in a way that was not very linear, because it was perfect thinking music. And that was because it wasn't going anywhere — it was going up only to come back down, only to go back up again. But it had an atmosphere, a concentrated atmosphere."
Laurie had studied art history at Barnard College NYC, but quickly found herself enjoying painting, sculpting and designing graphics. Teaching art history gave her the experience to perform her collages of images and music in both avant-garde and pop settings. It is said that because of an acoustic problem at one gallery site, she switched to a country and western venue at the last minute. The performance was a success, showing that the so-called avant-garde could be popular too.
"Back then I really felt I'd arrived there in New York, but frankly when I look around now and try to find the avant-garde I really don't know where it is. Part of that is the speed at which mass culture moves right now, and the avant-garde depends upon its ability to hide. You have to be able to do that to invent those unheard of things. The other thing is that a lot of students are thinking 'I'd love to be an artist with the big loft and the green plants'. And when they can't find a loft they go get a job in an ad agency and go to the galleries in SoHo every Saturday, look at the art, and by Monday morning these same images are in car ads. It's really fast."
Anderson's illuminating smile, chirpy voice and cool demeanour can make any story sound wholly convincing. After a tale that takes in David Lynch, Hollywood scriptwriters, and Crocodile Dundee in East Germany, I move the proceedings on to Home Of The Brave, the late '89 concert movie which saw her rocking out with the likes of Adrian Belew (King Crimson and the David Bowie band).
"That was an extremely low budget movie. The money was mostly from Warner Brothers, and I was only able to make it because I was a recording artist. I think they looked at it as an inflated video. I had a very hard time with that film and I swore I would never try and do that again, 'cos it's very hard to translate something from a stage on to film. It's equally hard to translate something from a record on to a stage. I try and see each project, especially since that experience, as a different proposition. 'Empty Places' is not about playing the last Strange Angels record on a stage. The arrangements of the songs are totally different for one thing. There's also the visual thing, because I shot a lot of films and slides, and there's my computer animation of bluebirds."
Inspired by Glass's 'Einstein On The Beach' in 1976, Anderson put together the 16-hour 'United States' project in 1983. Its worldwide presentation placed her at the top of the performance art ladder, as spoken word, noise, film and slides, synths, accordions, bagpipes, and a dizzying array of electronic tricks (such as the talking neon bow and illuminated voice) played havoc with audiences' expectations. Anderson drew on Red Indian lore, rock music, and the animation tradition, to paint America as a cold technological desert presided over by corporate power out of touch with humanity. Subsequently translated into a five album boxed record set, it lost much of its humour and power in the process. Nevertheless, the project showed Anderson to be an all-round creator of incredible resourcefulness.
"It's true that people assume that you just wander out on a stage and perform something at the last minute. It took me a year to shoot the 'Empty Places' visuals and get it organised. I don't think there's anything good or bad about that. I know a lot of recording artists who've got no interest in doing that. They finish their records and then say 'let's find somebody who can interpret this visually', and they don't really want to know. Some have a lot of input, most don't."
You've always had a very good relationship with technology. Coming from a background of acoustic violin, what made you adapt to it so easily, and to such good effect?
"I like it, that's why. I don't think it's inherently bad or inherently good. I think it's inherently neutral basically. Since it doesn't seem to be about to go away, I think it's important to learn how to use it. I was one of the first people to use the Synclavier, and one of the first to abandon it as well. I found you could do things more easily and cheaply using the equipment that eventually caught up to it. I was, as they put it, 'an owner', which is a pretty big tip about what they thought about the people who use this equipment. They would send down boxes of $40,000 chips and I'd think, 'wait a second, I didn't order this stuff. I don't need it'. And they go 'why wouldn't you want this!'"
With your projects, do you plan things out and then adapt the equipment to your plans, or do you experiment with things and let the happy accidents decide?
"It's both. It depends upon the equipment. I used some digital processing for a film for 'Empty Places' and I was very excited about it. It was invented by a group called A Squared in San Francisco, it's a lovely digitising program that changes the grainy look of film. It's a very odd look, somewhere between video and film, and it seemed to make the images a lot more mysterious. A lot of my animation stuff is very straightforward computer animation. I use Omega and, for example, I can just sit down and start drawing an animation of bluebirds, twirling around, as close to Disney as I could come. I enjoy doing that kind of thing, and because I don't have a master plan, I just think 'well maybe these will come in handy some time'.
"I usually start with a general idea about what the series of stories and songs will be about, and then I try and be as loose as I can within that because I think it's very dangerous to use technology to illustrate ideas, and I really don't want to do that, 'cos it doesn't feel natural to me. What feels most natural is to sit down and mess around with stuff until something exciting happens."
When you are composing straight songs, do you compose on keyboards or on acoustic instruments like violin and guitar?
"Very rarely acoustic instruments. Maybe I'll sometimes play the double bass, which I don't play very well, and that's fun because suddenly all the melodies are in a totally different range. I'm trying to get away from working on things with keyboards, though I regularly use the M1, the Roland D70, Akai samplers and the like. I've got my own studio at home with DAT and all that."
Do you investigate and explore all of the equipment that continually comes on the market and see what you can do with it?
"I'm not a fanatic about that, but if something comes up — I mean I'm always interested in the new developments in Eventide Harmonizers. I have a complete collection, back to the original 910, about seven. Some of them are improvements on older models that would leave out the glitches that I thought were really great. I had written songs for these glitches in the programs, and not that I want to perform those songs again, but I keep the antique electronics around — 'antique' meaning 10 to 12 years old!
"I use an Eventide 3000 now, which has a bunch of interesting features. I like it for its ability to be kind of like a ventriloquist's box. It's quite flexible. I use it for this trademark voice that I've used for a long time. There's this kind of male voice — very typical American salesman. He's a con-man. And there's also a chorus of girls who keep appearing. Now our equivalent to the Greek chorus is the canned laughter on TV, it's the only way Americans can come in on the action, and via the Harmonizer, these girls are commentators on the action."
Other than that, what else are you using on-stage for 'Empty Places'?
"Three keyboards: an M1, a D50, and a little KX remote keyboard. I can access those, or any of several off-stage keyboards from any one of them. I use this set-up because I want to be on one side of the stage or the other, depending on what's happening visually. There are also two 20' towers that are rear screens. Inside each are stacked a series of projectors, and there are three screens that hang centre stage, and one larger one behind them. So there are a lot of screens.
"I use a Zeta violin. Jean Luc-Ponty uses one as well. I like it very much because it's the only way I'm able to use sub-octaves — it has a great card for that. The sound is much cleaner than if you harmonise it — the bass is really beautiful. I also have the little clusters of mike stands with foot pedals, so that I can access various Harmonizer settings in order to go very quickly from one voice to another."
How much of what you use on 'Empty Places' is different or an advance on what you used on 'United States' and Home Of The Brave?
"Oh, quite a bit. I use an Octopad because it lets me do some left-handed percussion while I'm doing right-hand tracking keyboards and the back-up vocals as well as the lead. I wanted to do a solo show because of the visual aspect. I thought bringing in a band was actually too much. Mr Heartbreak was a band, and that was where Home Of The Brave came from. We did the States and Japan on that tour, but didn't come to Europe. In fact the last time I was in London was maybe four years ago when I just brought two singers and another keyboard player, just a very small ensemble."
Anderson makes a point of separating her shows from album releases. Given the months of slide/film and equipment preparation, she says, "I can't just jump out the door the second a record is mastered and kind of go and perform it. Half the songs from 'Empty Places' are from Strange Angels which came out over a year ago, and they are unrecognisable as far as that goes. Most of the tour they are in a different language — German, Spanish, Italian, French, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Slovanian, Greek and Hungarian, tiny bits of each. After that I'm a bit nervous about singing them in English again."
During the London stage of the lengthy world tour, a reminder of an earlier phase of Anderson's career turns up at one show in the form of Peter Gabriel. In 1984, Gabriel helped Anderson produce one of her best albums, Mr Heartbreak, which saw her move as close as she ever has to the cutting edge of rock music. Looking back, what does she think of that period?
"I really enjoyed that. I had actually forgotten how much I enjoyed it. You can get so involved in your own thinking patterns that you can forget how wild things can get if you just say to someone 'do whatever you want writing those eight bars'. It can give you so many ideas. With Peter, we worked on my stuff in New York. Now he's very easy going with technology, not intimidated by it in the slightest — his studio in Bath is very much on a human scale. He knows how to use the stuff that he uses. I was there last summer visiting and it's very well designed. It's not mysterious, formal or frightening — just casually organised. Some studios you walk into and you're frightened because everything's sort of put away. It's mysterious how it's wired up and you don't really know what's there. In Peter's, everything's very clear. It's beautiful, but not too beautiful."
Anderson doesn't work on equipment design in the same way as the likes of Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre. With Eventide, she only makes suggestions about sounds, for example about the use of 3rds and 5ths and so forth. "I'm not working on building chips with them." But back in Tribeca, she is building her own complex.
"I do a lot of work at home. I've got my own 24-track recording facility. I'm just building a new studio now, on another floor of the building I'm in. It comprises a film and video studio, a recording studio, and a rehearsal space. Plus, of course, a dark room."
Many musicians find film a difficult medium to work with. You obviously don't. How would you compare the two technologies. Is music more advanced than film?
"It depends on what you mean by 'film'. Because if you're talking about 35mm, film cameras haven't changed as much as tape recorders, put it that way. It's still film put at a certain speed through sprockets. You've got High Definition TV and 7mm high speed stuff which is quite beautiful, but it's not very appropriate to show it. For instance, if you shoot something in High Def it's still broadcast back on the same old crude number of lines, which in the United States has even more of a Venetian blind effect than in Europe. Television is still a very crude visual medium. At least in Europe there are 100 more lines [625 as opposed to the US standard 525], it's considerably more resolved here. Also, they don't use saturated colour in the US. Most of the stuff is shot on film in Europe and then transferred to tape. So there's already the film grain in it, and a more resolved image. But it's the extra 100 lines that makes the real difference."
And what about your own studio?
"I'm trying to design it so that it can accommodate new things, be flexible, not state-of-the-art 1990, 'cos it's gonna change by '92 completely. It's not a computerised mix facility, it's a manual board. I'm building it so that it can be capable of doing a lot more than what it does right now."
How would you see yourself in the panoply of modern music?
"I've never tried to claim to be anything in particular. I leave that up to other people."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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