This feature was originally published in the September 1985 issue of Electronic Musician.
The Orwellian year of 1984 was good to Laurie Anderson. In February she mounted her sprawling United States I-IV, a seven and a half hour work that took up two evenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This was condensed to a five record set on Warner Brothers and released towards the end of the year, along with a book of the lyrics and pictures from the performance (Harper & Row). She also released the widely acclaimed Mr. Heartbreak LP and did an international tour behind it.
Shared recognition, hidden meaning and accidental knowledge are Anderson's stock in trade. While she could probably fabricate her dream-spun world with more conventional means, it seems particularly suited to electronic exposures. Her epic work, United States I-IV, attacks technology from the inside out. "A lot of the work in United States is highly critical of technology," she asserts. "Yet at the same time I'm using 15,000 watts of power and 18 different pieces of electronic equipment to say that. So what am I saying? A couple of things at least. I love it and I hate it, etc." It's this exploration of dichotomies and paradoxes that makes Anderson so consistently engaging.
Laurie Anderson may be the ultimate techno-musician. Not because she uses state-of-the-art synthesizers like the Synclavier II, nor because her musical observations are so keenly attuned to the high-tech of the 1980s. It's because she doesn't care about the hardware, which to her is only another tool, a device through which she can process her ideas. Anderson's work isn't defined by her instruments, instead the instruments are defined by her music.
To listen to her recorded output is to experience someone reworking expectations of what you should be hearing. One early piece used a detuned sitar and a telephone ("New York Social Life"). In the ‘70s she began mutating violins by attaching tape recorder heads, phonograph turntables, and cassettes to them. One of the resulting instruments, like the tape-bow violin, was a primitive version of sampling. The tapes being bowed on the tape-head bridges had saxophones, dogs, or Anderson's own voice reciting some Moebius strip phrase. On her first LP, Big Science, she advanced to Casio synthesizers, the vocoder and pitch shifters. Finally on 1983's provocative Mr. Heartbreak, she explored digital synthesis and sampling with the Synclavier II. Throughout, she has let the music dictate the limits of the technology.
"I always try to scale whatever I wanted to do to whatever kind of equipment I could actually use," claims Anderson. "I always hear people saying 'If only I had a certain piece of equipment, then I could really do something.' I think that low-tech stuff is absolutely wonderful. You can do great things with low-tech stuff, but you must have rapport. The Synclavier doesn't change the nature of your work, it just makes it better."
In fact, the advancement of technology can sometimes hinder her art. Just like contemporary classical instruments can never truly replicate the sounds of a Baroque orchestra, technology can "improve" something to the point where it no longer has the characteristics that made it attractive in the first place. "There's a song called "Closed-Circuits" (from United States)," says Anderson, "that was written for the Eventide Harmonizer Model 910 and it had an interesting mode. They subsequently updated that piece of equipment to the Harmonizer 949 that edited out the glitch that I really liked. So I'm stuck with using antique electronics because this work was literally composed with that machine."
Anderson's performances for both United States and Mr. Heartbreak are elaborate multimedia affairs with live action, films, slides and staging. That's why they call her a performance artist. Instrumentally speaking, for the Mr. Heartbreak tour, she had three banks of electronic equipment including a Yamaha DX7, MemoryMoog, Prophet 5, Synclavier and processing gear like the Harmonizer and vocoder. In addition, her percussionist, new music virtuoso David Van Tieghem, played a Linn LM1 Drum Computer and Simmons drums. "The thing that's characteristic of my own performance," Anderson explains, "is that I literally do drag the whole studio onto the stage, to the point of using a lot of filters as instruments."
Anderson never forgets what it's like to wire your own equipment together: Her instruments constantly remind her. "I don't think I've ever done a concert where something didn't go off, and you have to be prepared for that," she cautions. "So I always go out with a screwdriver, and when something goes wrong, do on-the-spot maintenance."
It also helps to have backup systems. In the Philadelphia performance last year, her wireless microphone drifted off frequency, causing a vicious wave of white noise to explode from the speaker. Fortunately, Anderson had an old-fashioned wired microphone on hand.
That mishap was accidental, but it's the kind of technological dislocation upon which Laurie Anderson thrives; the tape-bow violin, sampling Phoebe Snow into the Synclavier, lip-synching to her own projected image on stage or for that matter, the howling outlet. "On Big Science there's this howl," she explains, "and on the stage screen there's a close-up of an electrical outlet that looks a lot like the close-up of a face, so it's a literal animation of something. It's like a lot of words in English that confuse the idea of life and electricity like 'livewire.' Something that has so much power must have life. Instruments have the same thing, like when I'm playing what looks like a violin, actually a tape-bow violin, and you hear a saxophone. I'm looking for the same kind of jarring relationship between sound and picture."
The transition from Big Science to Mr. Heartbreak was dramatic. Big Science, which is composed of excerpts from United States, has a flat, gray-on-black atmosphere that exhibits an interior urban landscape. Mr. Heartbreak, however, is like a colorful, lush and misty tropical jungle. It chirps and sings with digitally sampled sounds and minute sonic details. The primary difference was that Heartbreak was designed as a studio LP, while United States was designed as a performance work. With United States, the aural and visual images were clearly integrated, performing what Anderson calls a counter-rhythm between sounds and pictures. But Mr. Heartbreak unleashes its own polyrhythms—often quirky and very complex—usually with the help of the Synclavier.
"My sense of time is not so great, especially with keyboards," Anderson admits. "So the Synclavier has a way of generating odd rhythmic patterns and having them perfectly locked in. So a lot of my work is in odd time signatures. 27/13 is a typical one." Maybe that's why pieces like "Sharkey's Day" and "Gravity's Angel" lurch around like Soul Train dancers in a trance.
Anderson won't be making dance-floor hits in the near future, however. "Some of the things (on Heartbreak) are rhythmically in that direction," she says, "but in general I'm not interested in that kind of beat. I just sort of wish people would dance differently." As she snaps her fingers in 4/4 she continues, "I'm not really interested in this kind of music. It reminds me of teenage sex."
Anderson's peculiar ambivalence to technology results in some strange applications. It's as if she's trying to undermine the conceits of technology. "The more sophisticated technology gets, like the Synclavier, the simpler the sound gets," Anderson observes. "We're actually able to use frogs as a series of notes that I play on a keyboard. You can use things that have a different kind of simplicity, like the things on that record on 1750 Arch, that seem kind of pulled out of a field. The second that technology becomes the most salient feature of music is the point I think the music begins to fail. Then you're at a trade fair listening to the latest in modern technology. Now that's very interesting, but it has nothing to do with art, nothing."
Anderson is also debugging the prototype of a violin, designed by Max Mathews of Bell Laboratories, that interfaces with the Synclavier. "It looks like a Steinberger bass," Anderson enthuses. "It's just a stick. It's really beautiful. Each string is separately amplified, but there's a lot of sympathetic vibration between the strings. It's like Pat Metheny's guitar; when it's hooked to a computer it can access anything in the computer. Unlike the guitar, it is bowed.
"When you pluck a guitar string it gives a rather clear signal to the computer, but when you bow a string it's a softer signal and sometimes the computer really doesn't know what you're asking for. That's the problem with prototypes, they don't always work."
One of the odder twists in Anderson's career has been her recent appearance on Jean-Michel Jarre's newest record, Zoolook. She's not a collaborator, nor is she really a side musician. She turns up as a keyed voice on Jarre's Fairlight CMI, mouthing gibberish words to the tune of Jarre's keyboard playing. "I didn't know his work at all," claims Anderson. "He told me he wanted me to do this high singing that was way out of my range. I had no idea how he was going to use it." Not surprisingly, the unique, sexy cool of Anderson's voice still comes through. I wish I could have said the same for her brief appearance as a presenter at this year's Grammy Awards, but I guess just being there was enough of an accomplishment.
Anderson is uncomfortable with the role she's sometimes given as a social commentator, an electronic seer pinpointing the pitfalls and contradictions in modern life. "My job as I see it is to make images and leave the decision making and conclusion-drawing to other people," she insists.. "I see and write things first as an artist, second as a woman, and third as a New Yorker. All three have built-in perspectives that aren't neutral. As an artist I'd choose the thing that's beautiful more than the one that's true. As a woman I happen to think that women are excellent social critics. As a New Yorker, I'm someone who lives on an island and looks across to America. People who've looked at America have done so offshore; Twain on a steamboat, Hemingway, Herman Melville. It seems to be a nice distance and it has something to do with flow."
Anderson, like her Synclavier, is both a cipher and decipher, reinterpreting the world, elevating the mundane to the bizarre, looking "deep into the heart of darkest America" ("Sharkey's Night") where "Time is stopped. The home of the brave" ("KoKoKu"), and “Mom can hold you in her petrochemical arms" ("O Superman"). Anderson tells us that real life is more twisted than the surreal. We don't have to add anything to it. "That's been a topic of a lot of the work that I've done," she explains, "represented in a song like 'Let X=X,' which is a song about interpretation. Why do you have to translate and decode things? Just let the image be. It will have a special kind of reality that it won't once it's decoded."
Laurie Anderson will be bringing forth more undecoded reality in the future with a concert film in the spring, a solo work and another larger scale work to follow up United States. With her violin interface, the Synclavier will be playing a greater role in her music as she records more digital sound samples on her Sony F1 digital tape deck. But don't be surprised to see her still dismantling electronic drums and placing them on her body, as she did on the Mr. Heartbreak tour, to become an electronic body percussionist.
This Laurie Anderson interview was taken from Totally Wired Mark II, a 13-part radio series on electronic music made by Pennsylvania public Radio Associates, producers of the award-winning series Totally Wired: Artists In Electronic Sound.
Laurie Anderson Selected Discography Solo LPs:
Big Science (Warner Bros.)
Mr. Heartbreak (Warner Bros.)
United States Live (Warner Bros.)
You're The Guy 1 Want To Share My Money With (Giorno Poetry Systems).
You're A Hook: The 15 Year Anniversary of Dial-A-Poem (Giorno Poetry Systems)
Airwaves (One Ten)
Word of Mouth (Vision)
New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media (1750 Arch)
With other artists:
Jean-Michel Jarre, Zoolook (Disques Dreyfuss)