There is at least one advantage to growing up in a large family: if you are the creative and slightly wild child, it’s less likely that you’ll hear, “stop that” or “what’s the matter with you?” With an abundance of siblings, you get lost in the multitudes and don’t draw as much negative attention.
Conversely, you might miss out on doting, positive attention, but you compensate by being independent, free to be creatively experimental, and learning to like yourself for who you are. That describes performance/visual/recording artist, poet, and filmmaker Laurie Anderson quite well.
As the second of eight children, she learned to cultivate her skills of being alone through creativity and play, simply to acquire some privacy. Anderson adds that she knows a lot of kids from big families who became artists
“So many kids like this had their own imaginary world, for example, I had my own fort in the woods and my own private world of imagination,” Anderson says. “I had a lot of interest in creating a place where I could go off and think and be on my own. I remember painting and writing, not necessarily to escape, but in making things, it was a way to have privacy.”
“There’s an interesting contrast to growing up in a large family — you’re on your own, so you develop a sense of independence because you have to,” she says. “But you also learn to be part of a group, which you have to learn to be in the world. It’s a good combination.”
Anderson’s genre-crossing work encompasses everything from film and music to writing, photography, and sculpture. She continues to challenge audiences with her multi-media solo presentations in her various roles as visual artist, composer, story teller, ventriloquist, and vocalist. She soon returns to Princeton, performing “The Language of the Future” at McCarter Theater on Friday, May 1.
Anderson has a singular way of weaving language, poetry and humor with her instrumental talents and electronic wizardry. Somehow, it all comes together in her multifaceted works, which address universal themes.
She had hoped to present more new works — and says she may slip a new thing or two into the May 1 performance — but will mostly draw from a series of solo works she has been doing over the past few years.
“In putting them together, I thought it would be a weird checkerboard, but now I can see there are a lot of themes that draw things together,” Anderson says, reached by phone, en route to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where she recently lectured and gave a performance.
“Six months ago, I was thinking I had a lot of time to write, but I had other things to finish, including a new film,” she says. “So, I thought ‘let’s do a compilation,’ so there’s music that’s new, but also collections of stories people might have heard before, especially at McCarter.”
Briefly, she breaks away from the conversation to pay a compliment to McCarter. “It’s one of my favorite places to play, I love it there,” Anderson says. In addition, she has a few musical kindred spirits at Princeton University, including performers-in-residence So Percussion and Dan Trueman and the folks involved with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra.
Anderson says she’ll be drawing from her “happiness and adventure” stories, musing on themes of identity and empathy.
“There were things I did to kind of get out of myself,” she says. “Like many artists, you get ‘your’ style and you do it and you repeat it, and if you change people say, ‘what are you doing now, and why are you doing it?’ This gets really claustrophobic, so for a while I tried things that could help me jump out of the identity I had made for myself.”
“For example, I worked at a McDonald’s for a time, as well as on an Amish farm, and these experiences went into the ‘Happiness’ series,” Anderson says. “It was a way to see things through other peoples’ eyes. All writers do this and it’s not innovative — it helps create good stories, and I just really like good stories.”
She’s known for her ingenious use of technology, as well as for inventing a couple of electronic instruments she often uses in concert — a tape-bow violin that uses recorded magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair, and the “talking stick,” a six-foot-long baton-like MIDI controller that can access and replicate sounds. However, Anderson reflects that with technology and all its leaps forward, storytelling as well as music hasn’t necessarily been improved.
“I was listening to some really old music, and I thought, ‘technology hasn’t improved the groove, in fact, it’s mechanized it,’” she says. “Like old film music that was so sumptuous and cool — technology has ironed that out, it’s made it a little too ‘machine-perfect.’ But, on the other hand I use a lot of those toys and technology. In fact, I’ll have new toys in my stage set-up at McCarter — keyboards and violins, pedals and weird filters; it’s all a work in process, and in fact, I’m not always sure it’s going to work.”
“With technology, there’s always been stuff that’s been cool, and maybe there are more cool toys now,” Anderson says. “I love this stuff, but as an artist, I am much more interested in sadness, empathy, good jokes, and craziness.”
From avant-garde performance artist in the 1970s, to crafting a breakthrough hit with the quirky single “O Superman,” to recording with the likes of Peter Gabriel, to providing soundtracks to numerous films, to co-narrating the Dalai Lama’s audio book “The Path to Tranquility,” to college and academic lectures and continued sold-out multi-media performances in the USA and around the world, it’s been a multidimensional, mercurial, and creative life for Anderson — born Laura Phillips Anderson, June 5, 1947, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
Her father, Arthur, worked at his father-in-law’s paint business, and her mother, Mary, ran a busy household. Her parents had a romantic if tumultuous beginning to their relationship
Mary Anderson was quite young when Laurie was born, and in fact had run off with Arthur to elope. He had been Mary’s riding teacher, they fell in love, and married when he was 32 and she was 17.
The eight children amused themselves and their parents by painting, writing, staging plays, and even participating in a little family orchestra. Anderson studied classical violin as a child and, for a while, performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony. However, she realized the difficulty in being a professional classical musician, knew she wasn’t going to be a virtuoso, and at age 16, gravitated away from classical violin.
With her love of language and literature, she had thought about being a librarian, but instead pursued art history, graduating from Barnard College in 1969. Then, in 1972, Anderson earned an MFA in fine arts, specializing in sculpture, from Columbia University
In the early 1970s she worked as an art instructor, as well as an art critic for such magazines as Artforum.
As a performance artist, one of Anderson’s first routines involved playing a violin while wearing skates embedded in blocks of ice: when the ice melted, the performance was over. Titled “Duets on Ice” and conducted in New York and other cities, nationally and internationally, it was one of her most noteworthy pieces at the time.
It was at the 1978 Nova Convention that Anderson really hit her stride as a performance artist. Feeding her voice through an electronic filter — which made her sound like a frog — she performed a monologue from “Americans on the Move,” the first section of “United States I-V.”
The convention, which was a tribute to the Beat writer William S. Burroughs, brought together a sublime mix of poets like Allen Ginsberg, composers John Cage and Philip Glass, along with punk/New Wave rockers Patti Smith and the B-52s, as well as performance artists. Anderson had already been sparked by the punk experimental aesthetic and became more drawn to mixing various media in her works.
Among her numerous major multi-media works are “Empty Places” (1990), “Stories from the Nerve Bible” (1993), “Songs and Stories for Moby Dick” (1999), and “Life on a String” (2001). She has had countless collaborations with an array of artists, from filmmaker Jonathan Demme to choreographer Bill T. Jones to composer/producer/recording artist Brian Eno.
In 2002 Anderson was appointed NASA’s first artist-in-residence, and she was also part of the team that created the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. She has published six books and produced numerous videos, films, radio pieces, and original scores for dance and film. In 2007 she received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for her outstanding contribution to the arts.
In addition, from 2008 to 2013 she was married to the late Lou Reed, the granddaddy of the New York rock, punk, and indie scene.
During a period of more mainstream popularity in the mid-1980s, Anderson appeared as musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” (April 19, 1986); television sitcom star Tony Danza (“Taxi,” “Who’s The Boss?”) was the guest host.
She chuckles a little when reminded of her “SNL” appearance and says, “I’m from the art world, so I’m not sure who Tony Danza is — I know he’s an actor, but what did he do?”
The following episode of “SNL” that season featured musical guest Glass, another of Anderson’s collaborators, and George Wendt, who played Norm on the television comedy “Cheers” was the host. Such was the cultural mashup known as the 1980s.
Although Anderson lives and has lived in New York City for many years, and probably associated with some of the same artists and musicians as her husband, she only met Reed in the 1990s. The two certainly sparked each other’s creativity in a variety of ways, and they collaborated enthusiastically almost right up until Reed’s death in 2013.
Her childhood filled with boisterous and numerous siblings has provided fodder for Anderson’s works in the past, and continues to do so.
“I am just finishing a new film (called “Heart of a Dog”), and there’s quite a lot of biographical material in it,” Anderson says. “My brother gave me all this 8 mm footage from our childhood, just wonderful stuff, reels and reels of it, and it became a central part of the film. Also, 8 mm slowed down and transferred looks so beautiful.”
“Like most family possessions, I knew there was something (like these old films) in those hall closets,” she adds. “We’d come back from vacations and we’d look at them, but I hadn’t seen them since. So, I now have this amazing collection of images from that time, and I chucked them into the new film. Just by default, some of my childhood memories suddenly became part of it.”
Laurie Anderson’s The Language of the Future, McCarter Theater’s Matthews Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, May 1, 8 p.m. $25 to $50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarterorg. Laurie Anderson on the web: www.laurieanderson.com.