Born June 5, 1947, Wayne, IL; daughter of Arthur T. and Mary Louise (Rowland) Anderson; Education: Barnard College, B. A. in Art History, 1969 Addresses: Home-New York, NY. Record Company-Warner Bros.,3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694. Management-Keith Naisbitt, William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Dr., Beverley Hills, CA 90212.
Although best known as a multimedia, performance and recording artist, Laurie Anderson has experimented with every kind of art imaginable during her career. She is a composer, dancer, film director, music producer, photographer, poet, sculptor, ventriloquist, violinist, vocalist, writer, and high tech-freak. Unlike many other performance artists who never break out of their niche groups of art-worshippers and freaks, Laurie Anderson achieved an amazing popularity with her multimedia performance art in the United States and around the world. Contributing to that popularity are her long-term contract since 1981 with the major label Warner Bros., her constant re-invention of herself as an artist, as well as her effort to be understood wherever she performs by presenting her shows in several languages. Anderson's hallmarks are solos with self-designed musical instruments which embrace state-of-the-art electronics technology and the use of Vocoders to transform her voice. Rather than songs, her live performances are typified by spoken stories accompanied by musical arrangements which combine sounds, conventional and electronic instruments, as well as light show, costumes, and film or photographic images.
Many critics have tried to describe Laurie Anderson's work since she began performing in the early 1970s. Ken Johnson writing in the New York Times called "mystery, melodrama and humor ... central qualities of Anderson's art." "The accumulation of words and images is intoxicating," wrote Sarah Kenton in Time Out of an Anderson exhibition, "you absorb the message without realizing that it is full of profundities disguised as humorous asides." Germano Celant maintained in Interview that Anderson's longtime artistic goal was "dissolving barriers between people." Anderson herself noted in Interview that all her work involves some kind of escapism, "imagining a body to be somewhere else. Music reminds you about your body, but it also takes you out of it. All art is a form of escape, but music is in particular."
If there is anything constant in her career-from performing "Duets on Ice" on street corners of New York City in 1974 to re-inventing Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" as an electronic musical 25 years later-it is the presentation of "works in progress." In Interview, Laurie Anderson described this approach: "I always light performances so I can see people really well in the audience. That's how I learn what to cut out, what to change." She uses big notebooks to write down ideas, events, and thoughts, from which she later draws her lyrics which might be re-used from time to time. While political and social criticism expressed through stories of everyday life has always been part of her work, later pieces focused more on her personal life experience.
Laurie Anderson grew up with four brothers and three sisters in a Chicago suburb. She studied violin and played in the Chicago Youth Symphony but abandoned the idea of becoming a violinist. She also loved books and started pursuing a degree in Library Science. But her interest in art finally drew her to major in Art History. After her graduation in 1969, Anderson moved to New York City, studied sculpture at Columbia University until 1972, and made her living as art history instructor at various colleges and as a freelance critic for small art magazines in New York City afterwards.
In the early 1970s, she started creating and presenting her first performance pieces such as Automotive, a "concert" of car horns in an open space in 1972, and O-Range, in which megaphones were used by ten performers to shout stories across a large empty sports stadium in 1973. In the Duets on Ice performed on the streets of New York City in 1973, she played her violin while a tape of herself was playing at the same time, hidden inside the instrument. Standing on skates covered with blocks of ice, she performed until the ice melted. AS:IF, her first solo show that dealt with her religious upbringing, was presented at Artists Space in New York City in 1974. Selections of Anderson's works appeared on two anthologies in 1977: Airwavespublished by One Ten Records, and New Music for Electronic Material published by 1750 Arch Street Records. Between 1977 and 1979, she performed in many avant-garde music festivals in Europe and the United States.
The Big 1980s Shows
Anderson's United States IIperformance, the first one she did in a "real theater", premiered in New York's Orpheum Theater in 1980. Described by Will Annett in Jones Telecommunications and Multimedia Encyclopediaas "a dark, near apocalyptic vision that stirred audiences and left them deeply unsettled," it was publicized widely in the media. With her tape bow violin she "produced bizarre and haunting sounds by passing a bow laced with audio tape across a violin 'strung' with playback heads," as Annett noted. One of Anderson's songs from that performance-"O Superman"-was released by 110 Records and reached number two on the British pop charts.
That success led to a Warner Bros. contract in 1981. This step "brought her odd sounds and unusual lyrics to an enormous audience and Anderson became performance art's first rock star and Warner Bros. first conceptualist," as Barbara Stratyner put it in Contemporary Musicians. Her first album Big Sciencewas released on Warner Bros. In 1982. Her financial success made it possible for her to create her own conceptual multimedia opera. With her seven-hour-performance United States I-IVshe toured extensively through the United States and Europe in 1983. The opus consisted of the four segments "Transportation", "Politics", "Money", and "Love," and was performed over two consecutive nights. A five-album-set,United States Live, was released by Warner Bros. in 1984; the same year saw the release of Mister Heartbreak, a collection of material not included on the live album, together with pieces co-produced with Peter Gabriel, Bill Laswell, and Roma Baron. Anderson toured the United States, Canada and Japan with a crew of 35. When she returned to New York City, she put together a film documentary of the tour, which was released in 1986 as Home of the Brave, with an album of the same name.
Reception of these works by the media and her audience was mixed and they were not financially successful. Anderson hit the road again with a greatest hits tour Natural Historyin 1986, and her audiences and record sales started rising again. Her commercial success, however, alienated her from New York's art community. After her fame peaked in the second half of the 1980s, "Anderson felt the need of a change," John Howert wrote in Laurie Anderson. "I was tired of being Laurie Anderson," Anderson told him, and "I wanted to start over. So I threw everything out of my loft. My next performance was going to be really simple, just one person-me-and a microphone."
Back to Her Roots
Anderson started taking voice lessons. The album Strange Angelsreleased in 1989 was the first one where Anderson actually sang, with a melodious soprano voice. Her next performance Empty Places-parts of which she presented in twelve different languages-was also a solo show with Anderson telling stories and singing songs, using some slides and movies. Voices from Beyondfrom 1991 was a polemic monologue with a few scattered songs on censorship and the intolerance that drives it.
In 1994, Anderson published Stories from the Nerve Bible, a retrospective of her works from the previous twenty years, including fables, pictures, and diagrams. In the liner notes to The Ugly one With the Jewels, a 1995 live recording with spoken and sung pieces excerpted from a reading of the "Nerve Bible," Anderson described her feelings about seeing her work in the book: "A lot of the material was made to be spoken, so it was really strange to see it in print. I believe that language is alive and that when you hear something it has an entirely different meaning than when you see it on a page." She went on a book tour through the United States and Europe in 1994 and 1995, calling it "the most low-tech show" she had ever done: "I sat on the stage with keyboards, digital effects machines, a violin and a twenty-four input mixing console and mixed the sound myself," she wrote on The Ugly one With the Jewels, "Without all the effects of a multimedia show, it became a kind of mental movie. I really felt like I was in the places I was describing."
In 1993 Anderson performed the Nerve Bible show which combined elements from her book, CD, CD-ROM, and earlier works. Bright Redco-produced with Brian Eno and released in 1994 was Anderson's first album in five years. In its personal, mostly gloomy pieces influenced by an near-death experience on a trip in the Tibetan Himalayas in 1993, Anderson used the same spare sound underlining spoken words that characterized her early works. It included "Night in Bagdad," a piece on the Gulf War, "Love Among the Sailors" on the toll of AIDS, "The Puppet Motel" describing a world taken over by computers, and "In Our Sleep," a duet with rock singer Lou Reed. In 1995 the software firm Voyager released Anderson's interactive CD-ROM Puppet Motel, offering six hours of music and talk. Her 1996-1998 solo show, The Speed of Darkness, presented a collection of stories and songs that focused on the themes control and the future of art and technology. Using a theater, a mental hospital, and a control room as sets for her stories, Anderson presented herself in a more personal and emotional manner than ever before.
In November of 1998, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Anderson's first solo show at the New York Artists Space gallery, objects made for the gallery or used in performances were presented in the solo show Whirlwind. Ken Johnson described Anderson's Small Handphone Table(1978) in the New York Times:"you sit with your elbows on a table and hands over your ears; low, ethereal music runs from the table, through your arms and into your ears."
Whirlwind, a room-size installation from 1996, was described by Martha Schwendener for Time out New Yorkas an "installation of 48 speakers grouped together and suspended from the ceiling to emit one large mass of sound. As you walk around under the piece or stand in one place and move your head, you get different perspectives on a wide range of sounds, from dance-track-like beats to the whistling of the wind recorded at the Great Wall of China."
Depressed by Optimism
Anderson's latest project is a performance based on Melville's Moby Dick, a theme that had already appeared in earlier works. Promotional material provided by Anderson's office described the show: "Using Melville's text as a point of departure, ... Moby Dick takes us into an electronic world of glistening images, unusual vocal styles and daring staging," accompanied by music from various genres including the initial incantation in Latin and Polynesian grooves of Queequeg. "The colorful characters on the doomed Pequod, from the Captain to the crazy Cook, are represented by a cast that doubles as Noah, Jonah, Job and Melville himself." Moby Dick: Songs and Poemswas scheduled to be presented in Ann Arbor, Michigan, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the fall of 1999. It marks the first time Laurie Anderson has directed actors. It was also the introduction of "talking sticks", new musical instruments she designed which translate gestures into sound.
In a conversation with Ingrid Sischy on Moby Dick Anderson said: "I'm depressed by optimism. The kind of optimism that's around now. I mean, I'm a dark person and this idea that technology and communication are going to save us is incredibly depressing to me. So Moby Dick will be very gritty looking with these techno things sort of hidden." In a New York Times Magazine article Anderson wrote: "The electronic age makes us all players in a performance-art piece. Our role: To shout at hardware and to volunteer to colonize the moon." In an interview with Adrienne Redd Anderson described her own vision: "My idea of utopia is that everyone can be an artist."
by Evelyn Hauser
Laurie Anderson's Career
Art history instructor at City College of New York, 1973-75; freelance critic for Art Forum, Art Newsand Art in America; created multimedia installations and performances such as Automotive in 1972, O-Rangein 1973, Duets on Icein 1973, and AS:IF in 1974; designed the Tape Bow Violin with Bob Bielecki in 1976; performed in numerous avant-garde music festivals in Europe and the United States between 1977 and 1979, major performance pieces included Like a Streamand Americans on the Move; United States IIpremiered in New York's Orpheum Theater in 1980; recorded several songs for two Dial-A-Poem series in 1980-81; "O Superman" (110 Records release) reached number two on British pop charts; signed contract with Warner Bros. in 1981, released Big Science, 1982; toured with the eight-hour-performance United States I-IVthrough the United States and Europe, 1983; released Mister Heartbreak, 1984; concert film Home of the Brave was shot in 1985; released album of same name, 1986; hosted Ernie Kovacs special on PBS in 1987; released Strange Angels, 1989; premiered with performance Empty Placesat Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC in 1989; performed Voices from the Beyondat the Museum of Modern Art and around the United States in 1991; Stories from the Nerve Bible, a performance-retrospective of Anderson's work, premiered at Expo '92 in Seville; published a book with same title in 1994; released Bright Red, 1994, released The Ugly one With the Jewels, a live recording from the Nerve Bible in 1995; released the interactive CD-ROM Puppet Motel on Voyager; performed The Speed of Darknessin the United States and Europe 1996-98; solo show Whirlwindat Artists Space in New York; formed "etc" (Electronic Theater Company) in partnership with Interval Research Corporation.
Laurie Anderson's Awards
Villager Award, 1981; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1982; Distinguished Alumna Award from the Columbia School of the Arts, 1994; "Marlene" award for the Performing Arts from Munich, Germany, 1996.
- Selected Performances
- United States (I-IV) , 1983.
- Empty Places , 1990.
- Nerve Bible, 1995.
- Speed of the Darkness , 1996.
- Moby Dick: Songs and Poems, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Big Science , Warner Bros., 1982, reissued, WEA/Warner Bros., 1987.
- Mister Heartbreak , Warner Bros., 1984, reissued, WEA/Warner Bros., 1987.
- United States Live (five-album set), Warner Bros., 1984, reissued as United States of America (four-CD box set) WEA/Warner Bros., 1991.
- Home of the Brave , (motion picture soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1986.
- Strange Angels , Warner Bros., 1989.
- Bright Red , Warner Bros., 1994.
- The Ugly one With the Jewels , Warner Bros., 1995.
- Selected films and videos
- O Superman , Warner Bros., 1982.
- Sharkey's Day , Warner Bros., 1984.
- Home of the Brave , 1986.
- Language is a Virus , Warner Bros., 1986.
- Beautiful Red Dress , Warner Bros., 1990.
- The Collected Videos , Warner-Reprise Home Video, 1991.
- Selected Scores
- Something wild ,(underscoring), 1985.
- Swimming to Cambodia , 1987.
- Wings of Desire , (several songs called "Angel Fragments"), 1988.
- Bridge of Dreams ,(score for a dance piece by Molissa Fenley, commissioned by Deutsche Oper Berlin), 1994.
- Selected writings
- United States , Harper & Row, 1984.
- Empty Places , HarperPerennial, 1991.
- Stories from the Nerve Bible: 1972-1992 A Retrospective , HarperPerennial, 1994.
- Puppet Motel , Voyager Co., 1995, reissued (Mac/Windows ed.) 1998.
- Howell, John, Laurie Anderson , Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992.
- Interview , August 1998.
- New Yorker , April 10, 1995.
- New York Times , February 5, 1995; September 27, 1998; October 9, 1998.
- New York Times Magazine ,September 28, 1997.
- Rolling Stone , December 15, 1994.
- Time Out New York , June25-July 2, 1997; October 29-November 5, 1998.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Laurie Anderson's office.