One giant step for American art

Laurie Anderson
Matron Saint of Multimedia: The evereccentric Laurie Anderson.

In a pop-culture landscape where tried-and-true formulas often steamroll creativity and originality, Laurie Anderson stands out. There is simply no one else like her — not in pop music, not in the visual arts, not anywhere.

For more than 25 years, Anderson has been smashing the boundaries that once separated popular art from experimental art. She has ambitiously recombined and synergized various art forms — music, film, storytelling, sculpture, even stand-up comedy — into a vibrant, cohesive whole that suggests new possibilities for all of those forms.

While many performance artists tend to appeal primarily to a bohemian, art-monster elite, Anderson’s work also draws more uptown types who ordinarily would have to be ball-and-chained to sit through a semiotics lecture. But Anderson’s quirky oeuvre still places her squarely — and brilliantly — outside the mainstream.

And, as an artist, Anderson is ever restless, ever searching. A good example is her The End of the Moon tour, which she first mounted in 2004, and has taken out on the road for a couple of months each year since then. The show is about her experience as an artist in residence at NASA. But, what did that mean, exactly?

“That’s what I asked the NASA folks when they called me up and offered me the position,” recalls Anderson. “And they said, ‘We don’t know, what do you think it means?’ And I thought, ‘Great, I get to invent my own job.’ So that’s what initially inspired this piece.”

While The End of the Moon is part travelogue and part spiritual exposition, it also looks at the relationships between war, aesthetics, the space race, spirituality and consumerism. Anderson has created an epic poem that paints a large portrait of modern American culture.

“It’s mostly a spoken-word performance, a story, in the form of a long poem, with the music taking a bit of a back seat, working more like a film score,” Anderson reveals by phone from her studio in New York City. “And at certain points, I get to hop out of the story and play the violin, which has changed a lot for me the last couple years, as I have been working a lot with electronics as they relate to stringed instruments.”

The End of the Moon definitely contains political content, as it was written during the period between 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Anderson recalls those years as “pretty tough, and pretty alienating for a lot of people. But looking back, that period almost seems hopeful compared to the situation now — this state of constant war, and with us losing more and more of our rights every day– I think that’s very disturbing to people in this country.”

In conversation, Anderson is frank about her dim view of the Bush administration, the war in Iraq and the Republican agenda. But in her art, she avoids “telling people what to think, or how to vote. In The End of the Moon, my goal, artistically, is not to directly influence people that way.”

“Although, indirectly, that’s another story,” she adds with a quiet laugh.

Anderson’s genius as an absurdist poet lies in her penchant for inverting cliches, and for placing witty, off-kilter ironies in surreal contexts. Her lyrics are often a catch-all of non-sequiturs and oblique pop-culture references, sometimes delivered in a smooth, seductive purr, other times in a clipped, electronically filtered, talk-singing style.

Anderson found her current voice on her 1990 release, Strange Angels, which featured her singing rather than speaking in the deadpan, electronically modulated voice she’d often used in the past.

Her last album, Life on a String, was the most organic-sounding recording of Anderson’s career. It still contained her trademark use of electronic pulses for texture and rhythm, and spotlighted her penchant for audio-verite sonic clutter — but the core of Life in a String was a small string ensemble, anchored by Anderson’s own violin playing.

But Anderson, who studied classical violin in college, is still interested in finding new ways to use electronics to “treat” the sound of the violin. “I’m not interested in using a Midi system to create sounds; I still want to use the violin, but bring different sounds out of it.

“It’s a warm instrument, and it loves to be [electronically] processed; you can really bring out the harmonics of the violin by processing it,” she effuses. “I also love the fact that I can walk around with it, instead of sitting hunched over a keyboard. To hold an instrument in your arms and wander about is really nice, and very freeing.”

[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first interviewed Laurie Anderson in 1991. He can be reached at KevinRansom@comcast.net.]


Laurie Anderson performs The End of the Moon at Diana Wortham Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 18. 8 p.m. $45. 257-4530.

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