Laurie Anderson: ‘I would compare Ireland to Israel’
Ahead of her three-day residency in Dublin, the US artist and musician discusses storytelling
Laurie Anderson is no stranger to improvisation. For nearly five decades, her life’s work has traced a catalogue of casual brilliance that would be uncommon for a major gallery, let alone the efforts of one person, including visual art, music, sculpture, poetry, dance and audio and electrical engineering.
Even so, things still go wrong for the veteran performer. “I was playing here in Chicago last night and broke my violin, so it was a bit of a disaster,” she tells me, on the phone from the American midwest. “Well, actually, it wasn’t so bad because it was in a club, rather than a big concert hall where you have to stop everything for the lights to go up and all that, but it wasn’t great.”
In the end, she improvised. “I redid the violin piece for piano, which was quite tricky as I’m not really a pianist.”
Anderson is warm and disarming, with an amiable patter a world away from the mannered, otherworldly voice she employs in spoken word pieces. It is this latter form, with its cut-glass diction and emphasis, that the public knows best, not least from her surprise hit O Superman. Its blend of early synth-pop and staccato poetry travelled from the New York avant-garde to the summit of the UK pop charts in 1981.
There have been seven albums of music, several more of spoken word, and dozens of collaborations with artists as diverse as John Cage, Jean Michel Jarre, John Zorn and Colin Stetson. She’s also designed ingenious musical instruments.
Still residing in New York, she is working on numerous book projects and overseeing the archives of her late husband, Lou Reed, with a vault of materials relating to his life and works being prepped for installation in the New York Public Library.
Considering the breadth of her career, it’s no surprise that this week’s retrospective in the National Concert Hall, Language of the Future, is diverse, encompassing music, film, language, politics and poetry.
Its three days kick off with a Saturday screening of her 2015 film Heart of a Dog. Anyone expecting a Russian fable, or a film about her pooch, will get more than they bargained for.
“Heart of a Dog was commissioned by the French/German station Arte,” she says. “They asked me to do a film about my work, and I realised that all my work is stories. I thought, maybe I’d do a film about stories; what they are, how they function, what happens when we forget them. A key part of this in the film is called A Story about a Story.”
In it, Anderson describes breaking her back as a child, and her experiences in hospital following the accident. Unable to move or speak for a while, she was told by doctors that she would likely never walk again, and subjected to condescension from well-meaning volunteers who read her children’s stories about misplaced animals – literary fare well below the level to which the precocious 12 year old was accustomed.
“Before this happened I’d been reading books like A Tale of Two Cities and Crime and Punishment. So the grey rabbit stories were kind of a slow torture.
“When someone would ask what my childhood was like, I would tell them this story about the hospital and it was a short way of telling them certain things about myself: how I had learned not to trust certain people, and how horrible it is to listen to long, pointless stories like the one about the grey rabbit. But there was always something weird about telling this story that made me very uneasy, like something was missing.”
Anderson realised the parts that were missing were the death, sadness and fear of the hospital room, the acrid medicine smell, the empty, freshly made beds that would greet her in the morning.
“The thing about this story was I’d only told the part of myself, I’d forgotten the rest of it, I’d cleaned it up just the way the nurses had. And that’s what I think is the creepiest thing about stories. You try to get to the point you’re making, usually about yourself or something you learned. You get your story and you hold on to it and every time you tell it you forget it more . . . You leave out the messy parts.”
Anderson doesn’t shy away from the messy parts, whether in her own life story, or in the discussion of larger themes. On Sunday, there is a public interview under the heading On Art and Politics in Present-Day America.
“I see comedians making fun of Donald Trump or sending him up and, even when they do it well, you think, That’s a good impression. So what?”
For Anderson, such attempts are also complicated by the boundaries that should prevail between art and politics. “You want to avoid being preachy or polemical. You want to try and come from the inside out, rather than try to change things. Having direct political goals can often work against you.
“Drawing a line between ‘doing art that’s about politics’ and ‘doing politics in an artful way’ is an important distinction for everyone, because activism and art have very different ends: one is to change how things are and, the other is to describe things well enough that people can make up their own minds. And I’m in the latter category.”
When I ask what part of the residency she’s most looking forward to, her answer is unequivocal. “I love the improv stuff because that’s where I learn the most. Hopefully it’ll be an experiment, a chance to be surprised and think on my feet.” Monday evening will see a night of music from Anderson, with accompaniment from cellist Rubin Kodheli – “Every time I play with him I’m surprised” – and hardanger fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.
When her time on stage is done, Anderson regrets she may not have much downtime. “I’d love to try and meet a few people in Dublin but it’ll be so busy I don’t think I’ll get a chance.” Nevertheless, she says that the local flavour will permeate even the brief moments. “I would compare Ireland to Israel,” she says, neatly returning to her opening theme of art being stories and storytelling. “When you get to Israel you are impressed with the way everyone uses language so artfully. I don’t even speak Hebrew or Yiddish but even so, in Israel, you are immediately plunged into this world of words, which I’m so happy to be in. And Ireland is the same. It’s always a special thrill to be in a place where people use stories that way.”
THREE ANDERSON MOMENTS TO CATCH UP ON
Heart of a Dog: Anderson’s astounding film is part-monologue on human nature, part biopic of herself, and yes, partly a meditation on her astounding, dancing, piano-playing dog. Also available as a 70-minute LP on Nonesuch Records, the film’s gripping, essayistic qualities are enhanced by the subtly enveloping string and electronic compositions that roll and noodle in the background throughout.
Big Science: The album from which O Superman was drawn, this 1982 LP is not quite a debut, but did see the artist incorporating music more fully into her work. Containing some of the electronic boffinry of Thomas Dolby, combined with the broad sweep of avant-garde spoken word, this is an essential part of the Laurie Anderson canon.
Letters To Jack: This performance piece, part of her Language of the Future series, and viewable in part on YouTube, centres on a charming story from Anderson’s childhood. When running for class president aged 13, Anderson thought she’d write to the then presidential candidate JFK and ask some advice, to which he replied with a well-thought-out and kind-hearted letter that gave her surprisingly practical advice on the matter. With what Anderson describes as the arrogance of “a punk kid”, she replied to thank him some months later, and informed him that she, like himself, had been successful in her election. The new president replied with sincerest thanks, adding 12 red roses in congratulations.