Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet.
Photo by Jay Blakesberg

By Paul Freeman [April 2013 Interview]

When it comes to creativity and imagination, Laurie Anderson remains peerless. Reflecting on her on her life as an experimental artist, she says, “The most rewarding aspect is when I’m able to find a brand new way to do something, to invent an instrument or to find a way to express something in a brand new way. New is key for me. When I’m working with something really new, I barely know how to do it. So the most rewarding and the most challenging are the same thing. Sometimes I feel like a beginner, like I’m starting all over.”

She started performing in the late 1960s. She has been a performance artist, singer, composer, musician, filmmaker, poet and sculptor.

We spoke with Anderson prior to her concert at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall on April 20 and 21, 2013. Anderson was to present the West Coast premiere of her new, evening-length, multimedia presentation,“Landfall.” “For me, generally, universities are good places to work; people are pretty open-minded.”

The concert is a collaboration with San Francisco’s experimental classical ensemble, the Kronos Quartet.

“Our paths have crossed for many years,” Anderson says. “And, at one point, they said, ‘Let’s do something together.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, it’s it’s kind of amazing that we never did anything together.’ So it’s been really exciting to kind of jump into their world, which is pretty different than mine. It’s really, essentially, very different in a lot of ways. And then, in other crazy surprising ways, we have a lot in common. They’re real classical players. But I realized that we listen in many similar ways. It was really exciting.

“The composition is, in a way, made of separate, smaller units. And Kronos doesn’t usually work quite that way. I got the feeling that they were more used to working with one long piece of music and and trying to understand its shape and weight, as it moved through time, instead of working with these smaller pieces that were then put together, more or less at the last minute. So that was a very different musical experience for them. I’m much more used to working with these short pieces. I’m, let’s say, a short story writer.”

Anderson is always seeking collaborations that will expand her creative horizons. “I do look for things that I don’t quite know how to do. That’s very appealing to me. I’m supposed to be this experimental artist. And you know how it can be sometimes. You get your style, you do your style, people evaluate your style. And you’re going, ‘Wait a second! That’s not very experimental. That’s just doing my style over and over again,’ ”Anderson says with a laugh. “So I try very hard to get out of that as much as I can. Not that I want to jettison the things that I know and enjoy. But still, I want to sometimes try to do things that I have no idea how to do.”

From the outside, Anderson never seems to be at a loss for finding new creative possibilities. “I wouldn’t say that,” she says, laughing. “So often, I say to myself, ‘My God! What am I doing?’

“I like being able to use the opportunities that come up, but I’m not trying to do every kind of music ever done. I don’t want to write a chorale mass. I’m not trying to do everything. I’m, in many ways, very unambitious as an artist. I’m not somebody who wants to open the London office and go global,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m a very hands-on sort of artist. So I don’t like to necessarily make a big team and delegate and try to do giant projects. Once in a while, I love doing things that have a different scale and maybe a bigger scale. But my goal is not onward, upward, bigger and better at all... Actually, this mention of doing a large chorale work suddenly seems very appealing to me.” Anderson laughs. “Good idea!”

Can she push an idea on herself? Or does Anderson have to wait for the muse? “It’s both, really. Right now I’m starting on a film and I can’t remember how to make films. I guess I’ve made a few films in the past. But I don’t remember, particularly, how to do it. But I’m really looking forward to doing it, because, again, I don’t really know how to do it. It’ll be fun. Working on this new movie, it’s challenging. And I hope I find the answers to it. I don’t know what it’s going to be. But it’ll be some kind of experimental movie. It’s not a Hollywood movie. What a surprise!”

Working in numerous media can keep things fresh. “It can do that. But it can backfire, too, because you may suddenly realize that you’re spending a huge amount of time trying to master this medium and you’re having a hard time doing it. And that’s been the case for me several times, as well. Just technically, it can get so hard. I’ve definitely been in that situation, of, ‘Wow, why did I try to do this, when I don’t actually know how to do it?’ She says, laughing again.

Sometimes it’s valuable to take those kinds of risks. “And sometimes, it’s just annoying. You realize, ‘Why don’t you do what you know how to do?’ “

She’s married to another truly original artist, Lou Reed. “It’s great. People who are married to people who do similar things have a lot of advantages, in that, for one thing, you don’t have to explain to the other person. Like it’s two lawyers being married. You say, ‘Unfortunately, I’m going to be 12 hours late for dinner. I’m going to be in court tonight.’ Or ‘I’m going to be in the studio tonight.’ Or wherever you’re going to be. Your partner goes, ‘Oh, okay.’ They don’t go, ‘What?! 12 hours?!’ They’ve been there themselves. They know that’s the way you have to do things sometimes. Just on that practical level, you get to be with somebody who really understands what you’re doing.

“And on another level, you’re able to talk about things. It’s really wonderful to be able to say, ‘You know, I can’t really solve this problem with this melody and this lyric’ or whatever it is and he’ll go, ‘Why are you trying to say it that way? Why don’t you say it in a very simple way?’ And I would say,’ it’s a metaphor.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, the metaphor isn’t helping you here. Why don’t you try, in this case, being more direct?’ Or less direct. Or here’s an image that you forgot about. So there are lots of ways that you can find of working on something that make it a new experience for you.”

Out of the blue, she enjoyed commercial success when her 1981 single “O Superman” reached number two on the U.K. pop charts. Anderson’s works evoke strong reactions, but she doesn’t aim at mass acceptance.

“I just figure that, I’m an average enough person, so if it makes me laugh, it might make other people laugh. If it makes me cry, it might do that for other people. I don’t do the kind of calculations of, ’Gee, what will a lot of people like?’ I barely know what I like.”

Anderson says that, for her, it’s not about self-expression either. “I’m not an artist to express myself, really. I try to make images that are fascinating, awesome, gorgeous, bewildering, troubling, erotic - any of those things. I mean, I can express myself to my friends. Or, if I were interested on Facebook, I could do it with that. I don’t really want to, that’s not my goal - to express myself. That happens sometimes, when I’m doing work. But that’s certainly not my goal as an artist. It’s to make something beautiful, that people can turn around in their hands and go, ‘Wow, I wonder what that is? Look at that!’ I would imagine most artists would say that.”

The work sometimes opens up social and political dialogue. “That’s often part of what I find fascinating and beautiful, is how people relate to each other, which is politics. So politics is part of my work very often.”

It’s difficult to define any form of art. “I’ve never been sure what music means or what dance means. I had to write, yesterday, a piece about dance. And I was kind of at a loss for words. There’s a Steve Martin quote that I’ve always loved - ‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.’ How do you really put what a dance means into words? So I was struggling with that a lot. And what I realized, in the end, was that really, I loved the work that made me feel free, in which there would be one gesture that would not necessarily lead to the one that you were expecting, but to something unexpected, something inventive. Following the same path is dreary. I guess I like art, music, dance and everything like that, that makes me feel free, I guess is the simplest way to put it.”

Anderson, who invented a “tape-bow” violin and a “talking stick” MIDI controller, was NASA’s first artist-in-residence. She embraces technology as well as art.

“I think they have more in common than people generally assume. Looking for things in terms of exploration, scientists work in similar ways as artists, in that, you get a hunch and then you make something. And then you see kind of what it is. We also have a similar question at the end of this, which is, how do you know when you’re done? In order to know when you’re done, you kind of have to know what you’re making. So these questions come and go as you work on things. The way you’re making things influences what you’re making. And so on. It’s an ongoing process that changes. As a multimedia artist, I’m often really surprised at what I’m making, because, in the making of it, your goals change and your materials suggest other things to each other.

“The best example I can think of, I start out trying to write an opera and I end up making a potato print. And that doesn’t matter to me. It might matter to the people who commissioned the opera. ‘I commissioned an opera and you’re giving me a potato print?’ They’re not so different in my world. Many of the same ways of working come into play. Many of the things I’m asking myself are the same - Is this working? Does it have enough drama? Does it have enough color?’ That applies to music and to potato prints in many of the same ways. You’re trying to make something beautiful and fascinating.”