Making Music with Big Science
There seems no end to the creativity of New York performance artist Laurie Anderson. In an exclusive interview, she talks about her music, her lyrics, and life as a 'Diva' for artist Jean-Michel Jarre.
Much of her work as a performance artist focuses attention on how modern society is coping with the onset of high technology, but Laurie Anderson's live and recorded pieces use it to the full, as she explains.
Britain's singles charts are frequently and colourfully littered by novelty records that attain surprisingly high positions because people think they're funny, and they can be either funny ha-ha or funny peculiar. Laurie Anderson's 'O, Superman', which reached number two in the autumn of 1981, fell firmly into the latter category, but the song was a lot more artistically worthy - and a lot more serious - than most of its purchasers were ever likely to realise. Ostensibly a series of multiple vocal 'ahs' covered in assorted sequencer patterns and some fairly arcane spoken lyrics about industry, the song was actually only a part of an ambitious long-player entitled Big Science, which in turn was an even smaller part of a work of performance art by the name of United States, which Anderson subsequently presented at venues in the US, Europe and Japan.
Just to prove that there were plenty of punters able to see what lay behind the aural gimmickry of 'O, Superman', Anderson and her colleagues played to full houses almost everywhere they went. And what those audiences witnessed was a remarkable evening (or in most cases, two evenings) of perceptive scientific, ethnological and political comment, presented through media both musical and visual. Accompanying Anderson were a bevy of session musicians, slide technicians and tape operators, with the technological hardware comprising Prophet 5 and Roland Vocoder Plus keyboards, a trusty Revox B77 (for all those 'ah's, among other things), and a whole host of harmonisers, delays, and other speech processors to help Anderson simulate the voices of the many 'characters' within United States' complex and occasionally unwieldy plot.
If there's one theme that runs through all Ms Anderson's musical work, it's the importance of the words people use, what they mean and the way they're spoken. To find her actually singing on one of her tracks is rare: more often she'll simply speak the lyrics over a musical background or intone them in a vaguely musical fashion. Have words and voices always been of importance to her as an artist?
'Well, I think my fascination for words has come about from my writing, first at school and then through my work as an art critic. They became the initial medium through which I wanted to express myself - the music came later. The thing is, I never write lyrics that scan properly in the usual sense, so I began writing and recording music to act as a counter-rhythm against the words.
'What's happening now is that things happen in different ways, so that when I'm working, it's difficult to know what'll come first - the music or the words.'
And as the performances of United States proved, Anderson has little difficulty sustaining an audience's attention, so that each new event, whether musical or lyrical, is as fresh as the last. She excels at taking everyday words and expressions, pulling them out of their normal context and putting them to use in different ways, thereby springing linguistic surprises on the unsuspecting concertgoers, who gradually realise just how limited and vacuous their everyday speech is.
Still, it was a while before Laurie Anderson matched her artistic preoccupation with technology with a music system that would enable the means to be as contemporary as the end...
'I got a Synclavier round about Christmas 1983', she recalls. 'Sound sampling is a process that's more or less tailor-made for the sort of things I want to do, so I was immediately interested in what I could get out of the system personally. I wasn't interested in how the Synclavier worked inside; because I'm not the sort of person who'd start at the beginning of a 100-page user manual and read all the way through to the end before actually using the instrument.
'For me, electronics was a part of music from the word go. Before I actually had any electronic instruments of my own, I was using tape recorders and making music by recording sounds and editing them together. I always wanted to have a studio of my own, but it hasn't always been all that up to date, and the equipment hasn't always had to be hi-tech.
'I had an antique Eventide 910 Harmoniser that I was particularly fond of. One day they gave me a call and told me they'd changed one of the circuits inside and got rid of the glitch on it, and I just turned round and said "but the glitch is the most beautiful thing about it". Progress isn't necessarily for the better.'
"I prefer to treat synthesiser sounds as well as acoustic ones, because I don't really ike the sound of electronics straight from the can."
Too true. Much of Anderson's work parodies progress by taking it to extremes, like the instantly movable buildings of Big Science's title-track, in which an American landscape is made up only of potential occurrences rather than existing edifices. How can you give anyone directions to go anywhere if the locality only comprises sites such as 'the place where they're thinking of building a drive-in bank'?
And as well as denying that much recent technological development is likely to have any sociological usefulness, Anderson refuses to give musical technology an entirely free rein in any of her own work, either live or in the studio. Her own pet acoustic instrument, the violin, is afforded the same significance as any computer, synth, or signal processor, while it seems there'll always be room for other musicians playing acoustic instruments on future Anderson projects.
'I like the way you don't have to be a technically brilliant performer to get the best out of something like the Synclavier', she muses. 'But that doesn't mean to say I'm against virtuosity - far from it. I think being able to play an acoustic instrument is actually one of the most wonderful things in the world, because it involves you so physically. The music becomes an extension of your nervous system, and playing the instrument is a very powerful, emasculating process.
'I worked with a brilliant virtuoso violinist a few months ago in Europe, and I was just amazed to watch what he was doing, what he was capable of achieving. I don't think that sort of performance will ever be simulated satisfactorily.'
Anderson's musical openness doesn't end there, either, because by her own admission, she'll use whatever sound appeals to her and seems to fit in with what she's working on at the time.
'I've always been interested in processing and treating acoustic sounds - and they could be anything, domestic sounds or noises from out in the street. I prefer to treat synthesiser sounds, too, because I don't really like the sound of electronics straight from the can.'
We've already revealed that it's the sampling power of today's computer music systems that acts as Ms Anderson's major source of 'treatment' for sound signals both acoustic and electronic, but that's scarcely anything new in 1985. What is less usual is the degree to which she's collaborated with contemporaries who've also sought to exploit the musical potential of high technology.
Peter Gabriel, arguably Britain's best-known exponent of the Fairlight CMI, cowrote one of the tracks on Mister Heartbreak (the follow-up to Big Science, released last year), while even more recently, of course, she was invited by France's Jean-Michel Jarre to make a vocal contribution to his largely Fairlight-based long-player, Zoolook. She actually appears on only one track - the appositely titled 'Diva' - but her contribution is startling enough to make it easily the most appealing piece on an album rich in vocal and technical experimentation. How did that unlikely transatlantic joining of forces come to pass?
"The first thing Jean-Michel asked me to do was sing completely out of my range, which I wasn't really prepared for."
'It came right out of the blue. When Jean-Michel called me and asked me to appear on the album, I wasn't familiar with any of his previous work at ail, but I listened to some tapes of what he'd finished of Zoolook at that time, and I thought that a lot of what he was doing - especially the way he was sampling voices and manipulating them - was very beautiful, so I agreed to do it.
'The first thing he asked me to do when I started work in the studio was to sing completely out of my range, which I wasn't really prepared for. But he talked me into it, and after we'd recorded everything I just left him to change and manipulate my voice as he wanted to. And actually, I'm very, very happy with the way it's turned out.'
There's an irony too, in the fact that Jarre asked Anderson to sing words that made no sense whatsoever in any known human tongue: so without really knowing what she'd let herself in for, she ended up adding yet another linguistic string to her already highly capable bow, if you'll pardon the pun.
Given that, musically speaking, Laune Anderson's creative output doesn't fall into any recognisable pigeon-hole, or even a group of them, it seemed a good idea to ask what music she listened to during the course of, say, a normal week.
I expected her to admit to a healthy appetite for music of most eras and ethnic backgrounds - I was wrong.
'Well, to be honest I don't listen all that much to other people's music, unless I'm doing it for work reasons, as I did for the Jarre album. I'm not the sort of person who can sit down and listen to a record or a certain piece of music over and over again just for the sake of it. I guess I'm susceptible to just about anything, but at the moment I'm getting into a lot of Cuban music, which is being played in a lot of the clubs around where I live in New York.'
I suppose it's testament to the woman's capacity for sheer hard work that she looks like packing even more into 1985 than she did the previous year. Her most significant current project is the making of a film chronicling her second major tour (though this only went as far as the US and Japan), while late spring/early summer should see her start work on another new album ('I really haven't got a clue what it'll turn out like') for WEA, the label she signed to a few years back.
In fact, the company have been remarkably good to Laurie Anderson over the period she's put her work into their care. And their faith in her as an artist that could potentially earn them more than a dollar or two is evidenced by their apparent keenness to release a live version of United States in all its glory, something they accomplished as 1984 began to draw to a close. Obviously, no multi-media event is ever likely to survive the transition to an entirely aural medium without some unwanted artistic degradation, but United States manages the change surprisingly well. Again, a lot of the credit for that must go to Anderson's remarkable way with words.
Still, at a UK price of more than £25, it's unlikely that anyone other than the dedicated few (and those that attended the show's London presentations, of course) will ever be exposed to the work. That in itself must pose the artist some kind of problem. I mean, what's the point of making social and political comment if hardly anybody is ever going to hear it? Would Laurie Anderson be doing what she's doing now if she had no record deal and consequently little means of communicating with the outside world?
'That's a difficult one - I don't really know what I'd do. All I can say is that I'll continue to work in this field as long as it pays for itself. Sure, I was surprised at the success 'O, Superman' had over in England, but things have been quite steady since then, and United States has been doing pretty well in America, so I don't have any immediate worries on that front.'
You get the impression that even if all the commercial dice were loaded against her, an artist of Laurie Anderson's wit, perception and individuality would still succeed in making an impact somewhere along the line. Few people who heard it are ever likely to forget 'O, Superman', and in fact, experience has taught me that very little of what Anderson does is easily forgettable. She has a habit of creating things - be they musical, lyrical or visual - that stick firmly in the imagination long after concurrent events have sunk without trace. And that, surely, is what being a performance artist is ail about.
Interview by Dan Goldstein