Laurie Anderson: "The World Has Turned Itself Inside Out in the Last Few Weeks"

For almost three decades, Laurie Anderson has been America's most recognizable performance artist. Some of this no doubt stems from the fact that, with Lou Reed, she's been half of New York's No. 1 art/rock power couple for about that long (the two officially married in Colorado earlier this year). But Anderson does just fine on her own steam. Employing pop and classical music in a manner that makes them almost indistinguishable, she's also used film, video, poetry and digital effects to create a stream of works that probe and dissect popular culture from the corridors of power to the kitchen table.

Anderson's latest project is Homeland, a largely improvised musical comment on current society - inspired by, among other things, the Iraq war, Anderson's travels in Greece and what she calls Americans' growing sense of "groundlessness" - that offers no easy answers or sunny conclusions. Prompted by Anderson's question "Is the Constitution written in invisible ink?", Variety called Homeland a "funeral mass for American freedoms."

Earlier this week, Rocks Off had the distinct pleasure to speak with Anderson by phone from her publicist's office in New York, and found her charming, thoughtful and not at all depressing. In fact, she was downright inquisitive. Having just returned from a two-week maritime trip to Greenland, she wanted to know what to pack for Houston, where she and her three-person ensemble perform Homeland tonight at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater. "How's the weather?" she asked.

Rocks Off: It’s beautiful, actually. Mid-80s, sunny.

Laurie Anderson: Mid-80s!? Oh-kay. Fantastic. After being in 30 below…

RO: Wow. Where were you?

LA: The Arctic. Greenland for couple weeks. I was on this ship; we were supposed to be looking at things melting. There’s a lot melting. Anyway, that’s a whole different thing. What would you like to talk about?

Anderson performing Homeland

RO: Well, first of all, I see Homeland was partially commissioned by Houston’s Society for the Performing Arts. Have you spent much time here?

LA: Yeah. I do all my shows in Houston, and little projects there sometimes too, just to come by and meet artists and do lectures, that kind of thing. It’s a great scene for artists. I was really surprised and impressed, because mostly when you hear about art scenes in Texas, you hear about Austin. But Houston’s got a great scene. It was wonderful.

RO: What is it about our art scene that stands out to you?

LA: I think that there were so many different kinds of things going on. These times when I’ve been able to meet artists, there’s these sort of panel things where there’s lots of different artists, and it was the variety – there’s like a filmmaker, a painter, and they were all talking to each other, unlike New York, where they tend to be a little more cliquey. They have their own events and stuff, so I thought it was cooler that people were really talking with each other [and] doing really different things. I liked that a lot.

RO: How did you come up with the musical tone of Homeland?

LA: A lot of improvising. I’ve done this with Mongolian throat singers, jazz guys. The people who are coming to Houston are really wonderful improvisers and composers themselves. They all do their own stuff. They’re really inventive and so much fun to play with. I’ve been doing versions of this thing for a year, on and off, so for me it’s really fun to invent new ways to think about it and do it.

Anderson performing The End of the Moon in 2006

RO: How much of the music in this piece is improvised?

LA: I don’t know – it depends on the night. Sometimes we really go off into new lands, and other times we’ll do tighter versions of things where we’re really doing like an on-the-spot arrangement. Or we play it the way we did [before]. It just kind of morphs that way. We don’t say, “Let’s do something really out tonight.”

It’s a hard question to answer. The words tend to stay more or less the same, although I will say it’s tempting to try to – it seems like the world has turned itself inside out in the last few weeks. It’s tempting to comment on it, but I don’t know if I can really keep up with it. It’s so wild. What’s the temperature in Houston on the election?

RO: Pretty high, I’d say. What’s the instrumentation of Homeland?

LA: It’s bass, cello, keyboards and then me, I’m playing violin and keyboards and electronics. The sound is half electronic and half acoustic in this group, and it really features string playing. My violin is a really hopped-up viola. It has an extra C string at the bottom, and it’s a really beautiful instrument designed by Ned Steinberger.

He basically designs guitars and basses, so I said, “I want a violin that can be a bass sometimes.” A violin can be pretty piercing. I said, “I’m going to want to get down to some really low-end stuff,” so he built this violin that can play three octaves below what a [normal] violin can play. It’s really fun to play.

RO: What about the Aristophanes quote that opens the piece [from the ancient Greek playwright’s The Birds] spoke to you?

LA: Well, it’s a footnote, really, it’s not actually in the play. I had to look it up. It mentioned “winkety-wink, the lark,” and every Greek I suppose knew what that meant. I was like, “What is he talking about, ‘the lark’?” So it actually was an even older Greek proverb about this lark whose father died and buried it in her head.

"O Superman," Anderson's unlikely 1981 UK hit single
What attracted me to that was this feeling of, like I wanted to open with an image of groundlessness. In a lot of ways, Homeland has something to do with how you feel about where you live. And a lot of things have changed about this country in the last few years.

I think a lot of Americans are in a similar situation. It’s harder for them to identify with this place. So does that really affect your sense of who you are? What you think about where you live, if your country’s ground shifts beneath your feet, does that matter to you? Or not? It could be called national identity [but] I think it’s even deeper than that. It really has to do with “Where are you?” and I think a lot of people have gotten disconnected from that.

I know I have. I live in a much more mental place – in my email, and media. I don’t know. Maybe Texans have more of a sense of place than New Yorkers, but I kinda doubt it. 21st-century groundlessness or living in your head was what I was trying to weigh, implicitly compare it to.

RO: How much do you think technology has to do with this sort of groundlessness?

LA: A lot. Really a lot. That you can jump out of time and place so quickly, and walk down the street reading your email and not really understand where you are. And also never being able to keep up with your email, this sense of falling behind even while you’re not even there. It gets to people, and it seems like an endless trap.

When is your email ever gonna stop? Can you get off the grid ever? What if you can’t? Being in the Arctic for a couple of weeks, I came back to like 1,000 emails. I’ve just been reading them, and mostly they’re useless. They’re not that important, but I felt I had to go through them – I don’t know, to make myself feel more important or something: “Oh, I got 1,000 emails!” But they were just garbage in a lot of ways: “Can you come to this or do that?”

Anderson with longtime companion, now husband Lou Reed

But you know, it’s become in many ways the way I relate to the world. I email people rather than call them now. And when I pick up the phone, I’m like, “Why did you call me? You’re really interrupting me.” It’s weird.

RO: Are you into text-messaging at all?

LA: Yeah. Of course. Constantly.

RO: Did you feel off the grid at all when you were up in Greenland?

LA: Yeah, I did. But, also, I was with 40 people, so you never really feel alone. I really wished I was with just a couple people, but it was fun. It was with a lot of musicians, so it was kind of cool. But it was like a hyper-social scene, because a ship can be pretty small. Even if it’s a big Russian trawler, it can feel pretty small.

RO: How did your experiences overseas, like in Greece, shape Homeland?

LA: It made me think about… well, first of all, they were like the smartest people I’ve ever met, these Greeks. I thought, “Is it something about their language?” because it’s so much sharper. But English is a sharp language. But we’d be talking about something, and they’d bring something up and it would be like, “I’ve never thought of it from that angle. Ever. I didn’t even know that angle existed.”

I was kind of in awe of them. Then I thought, “No wonder – they’re descended from the people who invented everything, at least on our side of the world.” They had this obsession with this idea of freedom, and they invented democracy, history, tragedy, poetry, algebra, astronomy – on and on and on.

But the thing I think we really took from them more than anything else – certainly more than from the Eastern side of the world – was a sense of ego. And hero really is a big Greek concept. The individual has to fit into a democracy, but the individual’s rights are more important than anything else. And me as an artist, that’s like what I grew up with.

I had the freedom to make anything I wanted to, and I treasure that beyond anything. So when I see people’s freedoms being restricted, and I do see that in the United States now, it makes me crazy. Because I think that’s what this country means to me, is being able to value the individual. Maybe what it looks like now, the way we’ve interpreted it, is a little bit weirder. It becomes more like narcissism. Everything. The iPhone…

RO: “It’s all about me.”

LA: Yeah. I call it “me-search,” like, “Let me tell you more about me.” I basically don’t really care that much what you did today. I can live without knowing about it - easily.]

RO: You see this in blogs all the time.

LA: Everywhere. It’s everywhere. And that’s supposed to be some version of the individual. And there it is, but it’s like the flipside, kind of – no responsibility to the group. You see these weaselly CEOs and such. That’s one of the ways it can develop into a realm where it just matters what I have. “I don’t care what you have. I just want to get out of here with the best situation for myself.”

RO: Performing Homeland must be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. How do you gear up for it?

LA: I go lay cables. I’m a geek, and a roadie by nature. I just love setting equipment up, and testing it, and then after the show, packing it up and fitting it into its correct boxes. People who work with me on the tour are kind of horrified by that: “You’re the artist! You can’t do that!” But I would a thousand times rather do that than go get a beer. I really would. I just find it really satisfying to know what’s where, and I just like equipment. It’s relaxing to clean up the mess. – Chris Gray

See here for ticket information.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray