Laurie Anderson on Sculpting Sounds with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and More

Lynn Goldsmith, Michael Rey / Warner Bros. Records Inc., 1984

Back in the ’70s, Laurie Anderson had a lot of fun playing with people’s perceptions of what a music piece could be, and by throwing together surreal performance, spoken word tone poems, and abstract synth grooves, she even turned the pop world upside down. Originally a sculptor before she started crafting her unique soundscapes, her calm, syncopated delivery conjures all manner of tripped-out dream imagery – evocative and vague enough to qualify as fully-blown artistic statements.

Her skewed comedy and impeccable timing won her many fans in New York’s experimental scene, placing her in the loose-knit company of William S. Burroughs, Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, and John Cage. Anderson reached a mainstream audience with her single “O Superman,” which led to a string of exotic albums and multi-media experiments, including Big Science, Mister Heartbreak, and Home of the Brave.

Widely influential for her use of early samplers and invented electronic instruments, Anderson has collaborated with Brian Eno, Andy Kaufman, and late husband Lou Reed – dancing her own path through art and music with a sense of wonder for life and nature. Anderson continues to collaborate and give voice to her artistic creations and installations, working with avant-garde brassman Colin Stetson and Kronos Quartet. In this excerpt from her recent interview with RBMA Radio, Anderson talks in-depth about her music-making process.

If you’re a young artist, wondering what to call yourself, consider “multimedia artist.” It’s so vague. Then, no one can say, “Hey, how come you’re a jazz person, and you’re making a pop opera?”

I’m a sculptor who began to make music. If somebody asks me what I do, I use the term “multimedia artist.” If you’re a young artist, wondering what to call yourself, consider “multimedia artist.” It’s so vague. Then, no one can say, “Hey, how come you’re a jazz person, and you’re making a pop opera?” Genres are for bins. “What bin should we put you in, so we that we can sell what you do?” Ignore the bins. Ignoring the bins helped me a lot, because nobody really asked me what I wanted to do – and I never decided. Now, I do lot of things. I do installations. I just finished a big feature film. I do a lot of paintings. I do some music. Right now, I’m here in Knoxville at Big Ears, to play with the Kronos Quartet, which is a dream come true.

When I was 16 years old, I had an epiphany. I’m not a very good violinist, but I was playing a lot and going to Interlochen: a camp in Michigan for driven young musicians who practice all the time out in the woods. (It was wonderful because, for me, the beauty and complexity of nature and music are very linked.) I looked around at all the other players, and I thought, “Whoa, they are really playing their hands off. If I just keep doing this, I’m going to have to practice all the time, and then I’ll never get to do the things I want to do in my life: go to Istanbul, learn German, learn physics.” So, I quit. I went from practicing a whole lot, to practicing not at all, to putting the violin away. (Now much later, I do not know German, I know zero physics, and I have been to Istanbul once.)

Make the music that you really want to hear.

I still love the violin, though. It was and still is my main instrument. I love it because it sounds like the human female voice. It’s awake. It wails. It’s the saxophone with strings. Also, you can carry it around with you. I like that a lot about the saxophone and the violin – you don’t have to sit down and play it. Holding an instrument for me makes it very physical, very personal.

I have a meditation teacher who says, “You need to practice how to feel sad without being sad.” That is not that easy a thing to do: you don’t want to wall yourself off from human emotions – and that’s a big one, sadness. Every person who “makes work” in some way gets in touch with those feelings. That’s the fabric of what it is to be here. One thing that I’ve learned over my life, though, is just because you can do that doesn’t mean you have to be that. That’s why I say, “Fun: a surefire way into the world of music and to make sure that you love it – and that you’re not just, kind of doing it.” Make the music that you really want to hear.

My studio in New York was next to a river. I worked there for a long time and when I was there with Brian Eno, we would gaze out at the river while we were making music. If we were listening to something, and looking at the river – which had many, many, many different moods, choppy to placid, to swelling and moving, the way the light hit it, always so animated and beautiful – if the music and the river were experiences that seemed to enhance one another, then the music was good. If looking at the river and listening to the music made you feel agitated, we realized, “I think the music is too clever, too busy, too whatever. It doesn’t really let you go into a dream state.” That’s what I love about my favorite music. It pulls me down into a state of hypnosis.

Playing with Zorn was completely exhilarating. It was like building a huge boat in the air above you...

I love playing with other people and, recently, I’ve been doing a lot more improvisational work. It started out with John Zorn. I was so suspicious at first: “What’s the structure going to be like?” “We’re going to find that out.” “Who plays the first note?” “I don’t know, let’s see.” “Who does it? How long is it?” All the things – it all seemed like a very bad idea, just to get up there and play. I’ve really changed my mind about that now, though, because it depends on whom you’re playing with, and playing with Zorn was completely exhilarating. It was like building a huge boat in the air above you, that you can then move around and do different things with it.

I have been a loner in many ways, but that makes it even more fun, and more important, for me to try to get out of my little hole. I can’t say I’ve been very successful, but one way in which I could be is with film scores – but that of course is about not so much collaborating as supporting. You see the image, and you need to support it. One of the things I realized in working on my own film is that there are reasons that film scores are strings. Bernard Herrmann is the perfect example of that: that your eyes become the rhythm; so that you’re watching the images switch and cut and move, and if there’s a pulse or beat, it turns it the music video into a propulsion. (Well, that’s my half-baked idea.)

Laurie Anderson - Excellent Birds
Peter Gabriel - This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)

The first record collaboration I ever did was probably with Peter Gabriel. I am a huge fan of Peter Gabriel, and especially of what he does in the low end – it’s so beautiful how he can organize what’s going on down there – but we could never agree on what a bassline was. (I think I probably don’t hear so well down there.) I wanted to learn from him, but it turned into a standoff and so we each put out our own version of the song. (I think it was called “Excellent Birds.”) It taught me that I should collaborate in different ways. I always like to cross borders and see how I can bring other things into music.

With a gun to my head, I would have to say that, “I’m about stories.” Recently, I was asked to write something for the Kronos Quartet. They said, “We’d like to tell stories.” I said, “Well, why? You’re such great players, why don’t you just play? I will write something so that you can tell stories with your instruments,” and they were like, “Great.” Then, I thought, “I haven’t the slightest idea how to do that!” I worked with some software designers, and we came up with a piece called “Landfall”: about a hurricane, specifically Hurricane Sandy, when I lost my giant basement full of keyboards and sculptures. It was just washed away.

A lot of the software that I make has to do with duality.

I wrote some software so that it would trigger text that is projected on the screen as you play. John, the second violinist in the Kronos Quartet, has a very improvised solo, which triggers the text in a way that it’s unmistakable what is happening. Often, when text is used with music, it’s subtitles in an opera, for example. It’s kind of crazy because it says, “He walked on the road.” but “ROOOAD” takes about a minute to sing, and we’re only going to see “Road” on the subtitle screen. You’re like, “That’s an interesting way to have language and sound work together.”

In this case, I thought, “How fast can you read? Really fast?” You don’t read, “A man walked down a road.” You see, “A man walked down the road.” And you can read that ten times faster than you think. That was an experiment: how you match a sound with a word. If you and I are talking, we also have the things that we’re thinking about at the same time: “I wonder why your hair is like that” or “I wonder what you did last night,” but we’re not saying that because it’s not really polite. Let’s say I don’t know the person, and they don’t know me. We’re multitasking by using thoughts and languages simultaneously. That’s one way to use stories and music.

Right now, I am really immersed in being a filmmaker. I often go through periods of doing a lot of paintings and film: when the eyes take over suddenly, and you want to be in this visual dream world. The film that I just finished is primarily visual, and has little bits of music in it, but no much. I would use the exact same criteria for a painting and for a song, because it’s really about gesture. Playing the violin and moving my arm around making a big painting is physically the same gesture. Then, I would step back and ask the same kind of questions: “Is it complex enough? Is it intense enough? What’s the structure? Is it too obvious? Does it rhyme too much? Is it chaotic enough?”

Everyone knows if you’re writing something, you’re not just the writer – you’re the editor, too.

All of those things are the same questions that I would ask. Everyone knows if you’re writing something, you’re not just the writer – you’re the editor, too. You have to stand back and go, “It didn’t quite do what I was hoping it would do. How can I fix it?” Sometimes, you can’t find the end to your story, or sometimes you can’t find the chorus to your song. You have to think, “Okay, what’s the song really about? What is the main thing that this thing is about?” Each time you hear those words, you hear them in a more developed way, nuanced way. Being a good editor is key no matter what you’re making, whether it’s a radio show, a painting or some kind vague, multimedia work.

A lot of the software that I make has to do with duality. If you have a voice that’s the complete opposite of your own, you say different things and have different things to say. You have another kind of feedback. I’ve designed an instrument called Tilt. It looked exactly like a level, a mechanical tool. It’s basically a music box that had speakers in it, and the sensor in the middle (which shows you whether this surface you’re measuring is level or not) is a little windsurfer, which is inside liquid. To play this instrument, if you hold up one end, you hear only the woman singing, and if you hold up the other end, you hear only the man. If you’re able to hold them equally, you hear a duet. They’re playing with the past and the future, in terms of playback, as another way to get a quick duet. Sometimes, it was very physically two things.

We sat there with our sock puppets mediating for us, being our alter egos.

I find duets really appealing. I’ve tried to use that structure as often as I can, that “He said, she said” in songs. I find that it has to do with the dynamics of conversation. It’s not just “I’m a songwriter, feeling so lonely in my room.” Of course you’re lonely. You’re writing a song. You’re in your room. You’re not seeing anyone. What do you expect? Pick up the phone, or get another dynamic into the song or into your life. I’m trying not to use that to endlessly dissect my own feelings, but that is how I really learn things: through talking. You just go along with the rules of each conversation, too. Is this going to be superficial? It’s okay. It’s going to be a real conversation: where you’re telling me something, and I’m telling you something. All of those have wonderful things about them.

The longer I live, the more I realize that that’s the only thing that matters: love songs of all kinds.

I realized this in one of the first interviews I ever did. A woman came over to my studio, and she said, “I wanted to interview you about your music. Do you mind if I just use this sock puppet, and I’ll just speak through that?” I was like, “Uh, go ahead. Put that sock on your hand, and you can synchronize your hand motions with your voice. That’s fine. Do you mind if I go and get one, too? I’ll just do the same thing.” She was like “Do you have to?” and I said, “Yeah, I do.” We sat there with our sock puppets mediating for us, being our alter egos. You’re always having somebody in a way speak for you, using one of the voices that you have.

Right now, I’m using my “intimate interview” voice, but I have a lot of other ones that I employ – as does everyone. Going through the repertoire is interesting to use in music. Every songwriter has that because you’re always making stuff up: inventing scenarios, wondering what another person would say or constructing a situation, and usually centering around love, which I think is a wonderful thing. The longer I live, the more I realize that that’s the only thing that matters: love songs of all kinds. They don’t have to be particularly about romantic love, but love songs that address that we are. You never run out of things to say about that.

By Red Bull Music Academy on June 10, 2015

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