More Than An Artist

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

FOR MORE than 20 years, Laurie Anderson has stood out as one of the country’s most innovative performers. With performances that include music, spoken word, dance and multimedia technology, she continues to astound and fascinate audiences all over the world.

This coming Monday, she will present a selection of “Works in Progress” at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

Anderson was born in Chicago and was the second of eight children. She began studying violin at age 5 and played in the Chicago Youth Symphony. She eventually graduated from Barnard College in New York and went on to study sculpture at Columbia University.

Around this time, she earned money by writing art reviews for New York-based magazines, and her wry sense of humor quickly became evident. “It was the heyday of minimalism … I appreciate minimalism, but I also appreciate passion. So I would begin every article I wrote by comparing the artist I was writing about with Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, after a while the editors didn’t like that, and they asked me to stop. So then I began every article I wrote by saying, ‘Unlike Vincent Van Gogh, this artist …’”

In New York’s art scene in the early 1970s, experimentation was in its heyday, and some of Anderson’s early performances were done in non-traditional art spaces or even on street corners.

She received attention for one early performance, “Duets on Ice,” where she stood, wearing ice skates, on top of a block of ice while playing the violin, accompanied by a tape of herself playing the accompaniment. When the ice melted, the performance ended.

After several years of performing on the New York art circuit, she recorded a single for independent New York label 110 Records.

The song, “O Superman,” was quite unlike anything that was in the charts at the time. Eight minutes long, the piece was as much a poem as it was a song, with Anderson speaking through a Vocoder over a simple, pulsing electronic soundtrack embellished with snatches of violin and sax. The overall effect was as compelling and moving as it was eerie, and the song became an unlikely hit, necessitating a re-release by Warner Bros. “O Superman” also gained Anderson international notice, reaching No. 2 in the British charts.

In 1982, Anderson released her album “Big Science,” which in its turn became part of a much larger work entitled “United States,” a seven-hour multimedia event that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983.

Her other works have included “Mister Heartbreak,” which became the basis for the documentary “Home of the Brave,” and “Moby Dick,” a theatrical presentation based on Melville’s classic story. She provided the soundtrack for Spalding Gray’s autobiographical “Swimming to Cambodia” and collaborated with Philip Glass on “Songs from Liquid Days.”

She also was the presenter of the successful PBS series “Alive from Off Center.”

As a visual artist, Anderson’s work has been displayed at the Guggenheim Museum, the Prada gallery in Milan and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Anderson is a true renaissance woman, embracing all aspects of the arts and combining them into unique performance pieces.

She is working as the first ever artist in residence with NASA and is developing a new project for the World Expo 2005 in Japan.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, April 29, 2004

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