10 Mar 2018

Laurie Anderson: finding hope in loss

From RNZ Music, 3:00 pm on 10 March 2018

Laurie Anderson, pioneer of electronic music, inventor, visual artist, and wife of the late Lou Reed has just released an album with The Kronos Quartet, inspired by the objects she lost in Hurricane Sandy. 

When Laurie Anderson released her timeless and surprising hit single 'O Superman' in 1981 she was hailed as one of the most exciting figures in experimental art.

Anderson was an early innovator of using technology for creative purposes, sometimes before the technology actually existed. 'O Superman' saw her looping before there was a pedal for it.

Anderson’s exploration of language and storytelling has always been central to her creative pursuit. Little wonder that she and her partner Lou Reed (who died in 2013) shared a harmonious existence together. As she wrote in an extraordinary essay for Rolling Stone: “I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life, so beautiful, painful and dazzling, does not get better than that.”

Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson Photo: Canal Street Communications

She has just released an album called Landfall recorded with the genre-defying Kronos Quartet – a creative opus inspired by Hurricane Sandy's arrival in 2012, when floods breached Anderson's New York basement studio and destroyed decades’ worth of archived work, notebooks and props.

She has also published a book called All The Things I Lost in the Flood.

On the phone from her home in New York, she is softly spoken, thoughtful and engaging. Her tone is just like on her records.

“When the Hudson River overflowed its banks, came across the park and flooded our street, at first ...  you couldn’t believe how lovely it was. And then a couple of days later I went down to the basement to just see what I could retrieve of the stuff, and sea water is really powerful and it just pulverized everything, turned it into oatmeal, all my archives. I was speechless.

"And it was only a couple of days later that I was looking at the inventory, a list of all the stuff and details and I realized that I actually like reading this list better than having the stuff. So I started thinking about what it's like to live in a place that’s about representation more than things. So the idea of losing things became very interesting to me because sometimes you just try to replace them with similar things, but in this case they were irretrievable, so I had to think about them and music is a great way to express this.”

Her composition 'Everything Is Floating' depicts the damage.

How beautiful - how magical - and how catastrophic.

I had also read a quote from Laurie in which she said “I’ve learned to be happy about being unhappy.”

I ask her if these two sentiments were connected. She says she has regular sessions with a Tibetan teacher from Nepal who makes distinctions that she really likes.

"He’s really funny and really practical and he says things like, try to practice how to feel sad without actually being sad - and I thought that was a wonderful distinction because there are many sad things in the world, and tragic things and horrible, horrific things and if you pretend they’re not there you are an idiot. They will come and eat you alive. What he is saying is, don’t become them, don’t become that superficial. It’s helped me a lot.

“Language is a great tool because it can sharply delineate between things like that. It can show you that we’re not here in the world to suffer and be punished and punish. He said the reason we’re here is to have a really good time and I thought, ‘Why not? Who knows what we’re here for? Nobody really knows so I’m going to go with that one."

Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson

Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson Photo: supplied

I recently interviewed David Harrington, the founder of the Kronos Quartet, and he told me he makes hundreds of lists -  it’s obvious that Anderson is equally a list person. They’ve been on each other’s radar for some considerable time.

“We circle around each other, we’re in the same world and so when David said, would you write something for us it was terrifying because I thought 'I don’t know how to write a quartet'. But he was very encouraging. They were very supportive of how I was trying to do it, which was basically trying to compose on my viola and trigger a lot of other related sounds and then had Kronos play some of those riffs, and then some of those ideas got into the work and some of the shows themselves were just straight up improv so it was quite a collaborative way of working.”

Asked about her creative processes, Anderson says she tries "to be intuitive".

"Because things are often put into these crazy categories, you don't even know what you’re making. Not everything falls into these neat categories that follow the rules of what they’re supposed to be. It’s much more complicated than you think. When you start out you don’t necessarily know where that thing is going.”

Since 2012 Anderson has encountered some massive life changes, including both Hurricane Sandy and the death of Lou Reed in the space of a year. What has she had learned since that time?

“The transitory nature of everything and that was a big shock for me. When you love somebody and they love you and you both feel it's forever, and then when forever is just for a year or whatever, you realize you're always living in a temporary moment and that taught me a lot. So I suppose what it taught me most was to really appreciate the fact that we only have this single moment, and that was pretty astounding news for me."

Would she consider that Hurricane Sandy had helped her appreciate that there’s nothing outside of you that's not already within you?

“If you respond to it, it comes into it. I’m not sure it’s already there but if it makes you resonate then it suddenly becomes a thing, so I would agree with that, I guess. For me, it’s about resonance. It makes me feel something.”

The reviews for Landfall have been glowing. The Quietus wrote: Loss is one of the core elements of the human psyche. It shapes us and it resonates in us. Landfall is something else again: a kind of chamber music for the unconscious mind – stately and decorative, but playing in some dark, fathomless room for which Anderson’s flooded basement, and its whirl of dissolving keepsakes, papers and paraphernalia, provides the ideal symbol.