Laurie Anderson Biography

American performance artist, singersongwriter, and violinist
Anderson is known primarily as a multimedia performance artist, and her large-scale works mix sounds, music, storytelling, and multimedia visuals, all of which use her multiple talents as a visual artist, singer, composer, filmmaker, and inventor.

June 5, 1947; Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Also known as:
Laura Phillips Anderson (full name) Principal recordings
albums: You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With, 1981; Big Science, 1982; Mister Heartbreak, 1984; United States Live, 1984; Home of the Brave, 1986; Strange Angels, 1989; Bright Red, 1994; The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories, 1995; Talk Normal: Laurie Anderson Anthology, 2000; Life on a String, 2001; Live at Town Hall NYC, 2001; Live in New York, 2002.

singles: “Big Science,” 1981; “O Superman (For Massenet),” 1981; “Sharkey’s Day,” 1984; “Language Is a Virus,” 1986; “Babydoll,” 1989; “Strange Angels,” 1989; “Beautiful Red Dress,” 1990; “In Our Sleep,” 1994.

writings of interest: Stories from the Nerve Bible: A Retrospective, 1972-1992, 1994.

The Life
Laura Phillips Anderson grew up in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, the second of eight children born to Mary Louise and Arthur Anderson.Agiftedmusician and artist, she played violin in the Chicago Youth Orchestra and took painting classes at the Chicago Art Institute. By 1966, after a brief stint as a premedical student at Mills College, she enrolled in the art history program at Barnard College, New York, which was followed by a graduate degree in sculpture from Columbia University. Upon graduating, she wrote art reviews and taught art history.

Soon, however, Anderson began developing and performing art installations that involved the spoken word. One of her earliest works from 1974, which examined the idea of balance, was called Duets on Ice (1974-1975) and involved her standing in ice skates on blocks of ice while playing an electronically altered violin and telling stories. At this time, Anderson also met Bob Bielecki, who would become her longtime collaborator in the invention of new instruments.

In 1978, Anderson performed in an important festival of avant-garde performers in New York, where she met novelist William S. Burroughs, who would later become a collaborator. A year later, Americans on the Move, a performance piece about Anderson’s extensive travels across America, premiered at Carnegie Recital Hall; it incorprated music, media, and the spoken word. This piece would eventually be reworked into United States, an epic portrait of America and its people that was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983.

Anderson’s success during this time, however, was catapulted to unprecedented heights by 1981 with the crossover hit single “O Superman,” which reached number two on the London pop charts and led to a multialbum deal with Warner Bros. Records.

After touring with United States, Anderson continued to generate large performance pieces throughout the 1980’s, such as Mister Heartbreak (also the title of her second solo album), which developed into a self-directed video, Home of the Brave, released in 1986. Her most elaborate computergenerated stage and sound effects piece was her book Stories from the Nerve Bible (1994), which continued Anderson’s concentration on themes of politics, war, and anonymity in aworld of mass culture.

By the end of the 1980’s, however, Anderson was tired of the grueling touring schedules and the pressure of being a huge commercial success, and she began to turn her attention toward art installations and less overtly political topics.

In 1995, Anderson was one of the first artists to explore what was then the new technology of CDROMs: The release of Puppet Motel (1995), which consisted of thirty-three virtual rooms that allowed users to interface with various audio and visual elements related to her own works and interests. In 1998, Anderson developed art installation Del Vivo, as well as the performance piece Songs and Stories from Moby Dick (1999-2000), which was her first large work that did not directly comment on current political issues. In 2003 Anderson became an artist-in-residence for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a role that culminated in the performance piece The End of the Moon. In 2005 she was artist-in-residence at the New School in New York. In 2007, she toured with the work Homeland. In April, 2008, she married longtime partner Lou Reed.

The Music
Even though it is difficult to discuss Anderson’s music separately from the other media in which she works, it is possible to trace important musical developments.

A pioneer in electronically generated sound and invented instruments,Anderson did not specifically aspire to become a musician, and many of her album recordings concentrate on either the speaking voice as instrument or manipulated versions of her own voice to portray certain characters.

However, after taking lessons with a voice coach in 1986, Anderson discovered her singing voice and shortly thereafter released Strange Angels (1989), which was considered a breakthrough not only because of the use of her natural voice but also because of her extensive collaborations with other artists.

Aside from her solo albums and multimedia performances, Anderson has composed for film, theater, and orchestra.

Big Science.
This album was Anderson’s first solo recording, releasedbyWarner Bros. Records in 1982, and it contains the unlikely eight-minute-long hit single “O Superman.” This album comprises mostly spoken words over hypnotic electronically generated beats that suggest simplicity.

When other instruments are brought in, however, the effects are dramatic, and in the “It Tango” the uneven brass initiates the mix-ups ahead, and an off-key saxophone solo in “From the Air” anticipates the threat of a plane crash. With her words, Anderson has an ability to make epiphanic revelations by saying very little. In “Walking and Falling,” Anderson points out that “You’re walking/ And you don’t always realize it/ but you’re always falling.” Big Science was rereleased for its twenty-fifth anniversary with enhanced audio, the bonus track “Walk the Dog” (the original B side of the single “O Superman”), and the “O Superman” video clip.

“O Superman.”
Released both as a single and on the album Big Science, “O Superman” brought Anderson international attention. It is an ominous digital chant about the intrusion of technology into everyday life and the miscommunications of a family who converse with one another only through answering machines (which, at the time the song was released, were just becoming standard equipment in people’s homes). The intentional irony is that this piece was made through the use of technological resources, including the manipulation of Anderson’s voice.

United States.
There is no video version of the original and seminal 1983 performance of United States; however, there is a box set of the original live performance (1984); the album Big Science, which contains a sampling of the musical pieces; and a book (1984) of images and sketches from the actual performance. The original eight-hour staged performance was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music over two nights and featured a series on intertwined visual and sound worlds that attempted to capture modern America at the beginning of the 1980’s, with its new technological possibilities, emerging mass culture, and conservative political environment. Presented in four parts— “Transportation,” “Politics,” “Money,”and“Love”— and performed by Anderson accompanied by five musicians, United States combined slide projections, video, graphics, animation, and musical numbers (sometimes spoken, sometimes sung), interspersed with spoken monologues.

Anderson often utilized her own technologyinspired inventions, such as her headlight glasses, which made her appear as though her eyes were light beams; the battery-operated light that she wore behind her teeth to make them glow; the tapebow violin (one of her many manipulated violins); and the vocoder, which altered Anderson’s voice.

The result was a successful mix of high and low arts that encapsulated modern cultural issues such as national identity, miscommunication, suspicions that language often confuses rather than reveals, and the anonymity of living in a mass culture.

The Collected Videos.
In 1990, Anderson released a collection of her film and video work from 1980 to 1990. It includes music videos from many well-known songs, including “O Superman,” “Language Is a Virus,” and “Sharkey’s Day” (the later two are from Home of the Brave), as well as works initially seen only on television. The best of these are the acerbic public service announcements and What You Mean We?, which featured Anderson having a conversation with a clone of herself.

The public service announcements were produced in lieu of regular advertisements for Anderson’s compact disc (CD) Strange Angels. In the kitchen of a busy coffee shop, Anderson makes humorous and ironic conversation with herself about military research, the national debt, women and money, and the national anthem.

What You Mean We? was broadcast on the television series Alive from Off-Center, which showcased performance videos by artists and was hosted by Anderson. Anderson often generated electronically manipulated versions of herself so that she could create personas to voice to the opinions that she felt uncomfortable expressing as herself. This video also includes the artist giving a tour of her home studio.

Song and Stories from Moby Dick.
This performance piece was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999 and represents a shift from previous works for three reasons: It does not raise overtly political issues; it is based on a preexisting text, the novel by Herman Melville of 1851; and it uses actors to act out the story on stage.

Songs and Stories from Moby Dick is a deeply philosophical piece; in the concert program’s liner notes, Anderson describes being attracted to the “dark conclusions about the meaning of life, love, and obsession.” Anderson occasionaly quotes long passages of Melville’s text verbtim; overall, however, she uses little of the actual text, sometimes taking single phrases to initiate a new song or simply writing something new. Musically, the whole is completely computer-generated yet has a lush, graceful quality to it. Anderson used a new invention called the talking stick, a wireless instrument that can replicate any preprogrammed sound when touched and that is also used as an acting prop (such as a staff or a harpoon) as well as a light source. Two of the songs from this work were released on the 2001 CD Life on a String.

Musical Legacy
Laurie Anderson was single-handedly responsible for redefining performance art. Alargely twentieth century genre, performance art had a history of being somewhat obscure and esoteric, often taking a hostile stance toward audiences, as in the Dada movement of the 1920’s and the Fluxusmovement of the 1960’s. In Anderson’s work, high and low multimedia arts are successfully merged, and communication and accessibility are at the core of her staged performances.

Anderson has also been key in developing new electronic sound worlds both from digital sources and in her manipulation of the violin, and she is a leader at voicing the cultural concerns of the modernworld, whether in her staged performances, her art installations, or her video shorts. She has fundamentally changed the way music and narration are performed together on stage.

Anderson has been the recipient of many awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship. ¶