Laurie Anderson interview: "It’s been a wonderful, kind of hallucinatory year"

The composer, performer and storyteller talks about life after Lou Reed, her history in the record business—and her upcoming shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival

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Laurie Anderson in her studio in New York.

Laurie Anderson in her studio in New York. Photograph: Lucie Jansch


The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s season-spanning Next Wave Festival kicks off in September, with a series of gigs organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records. Laurie Anderson—a longtime part of both organizations’ rosters—will be presenting a new evening-length piece, titled Landfall, from September 23-27. She spoke to us on the phone about some of her new approaches to life and work, and about her long history in New York.

Time Out New York: Last time you and I talked, it was around the release of your album Homeland. I haven’t had a chance to offer you my condolences on the loss of your husband, Lou Reed, last year.
Laurie Anderson: Oh, thank you for that. I really appreciate it.

The last time I saw you both was at the Occupy Lincoln Center protest, in late 2011.
You were there?

I was reporting on it. Like you, I went to see Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera, and then jumped the fence afterward to hear him speak at the protest. And then both you and Lou spoke, too.
That was a pretty wonderful evening.

Looking at the lineup of Nonesuch artists at BAM for fall, I was thinking about your connections to people like Glass—for whom you wrote some lyrics on the Songs from Liquid Days album—and also about your connection to New York City more broadly. But I realized I didn’t know exactly when you hooked up with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When was that?
Way back. It was the first or second Next Wave series; that was when I did United States I-IV. They were pretty cool about that.

It's a long piece to start out with!
It was a two-night thing! Yeah. And they said, that’s cool, why not? My experience of being at BAM, the first time I went, was probably A Letter for Queen Victoria, which was all night. And you’d just go and bring your sleeping bag, and sit in the balcony—and once in a while you'd drift off and then kind of drift back. So two nights seems brief, after that.

That was an early stage work by director Robert Wilson.
That was Bob Wilson. And it was a really beautiful, giant, long shaggy-dog story. I really loved it. And [I thought], how beautiful, that music can go on for, like, 12 hours. Why not? And what is this place allowing this to happen? It was very different from anything else going on in New York. And now there are a lot of people doing very similar things to BAM. But they’re still, in many ways, way ahead of the game.

You worked closely with BAM’s early president, Harvey Lichtenstein, right?
He was the first person I met there, and he was very encouraging to me about making things. There were only, like, three places in the world where United States I-IV was done as a full work: Zurich, London and New York. And it was really because of Harvey that it worked. Last year, I decided it was time to update. I decided to do something called United States V, and then.… [Pause] It’s still in the works.

I’ve had to postpone a lot of things, so I will get back to that. But it’s been a wonderful, kind of hallucinatory year for me. I’ve learned probably more than I’ve ever learned in my whole life, so it’s been really great, from that point of view. I just decided to stop doing things for a while, and try to learn what was right in front of me. So that’s why that’s kind of delayed a bit.

What have you been learning?
I really, ah, kind of see things differently. Fundamentally differently now than I did a year ago. I've found that I really have to rethink pretty much everything I know about time, love, work. Just everything!

And so I thought, what an amazing opportunity. Because that door swings open maybe once in your life, if you’re really lucky. And I thought, well, I’m really gonna see what this means. So it’s just been me studying things, and not particularly working, or putting them in work. It’s a relief because, you know, often my life goes right into my work! And this doesn’t fit very well. So I’m just seeing what it is, what it feels like, and it's really luxurious. It’s a wonderful thing not to have to just experience and produce. Because that’s not even possible to do right now.

Anyway! Landfall.

Right—you may not be working on new stuff, and yet here’s a brand-new piece for BAM, which has its roots in your experience of Superstorm Sandy a couple years back.
Yeah, the things in it are not so much about [the past year]. Landfall is specifically about Sandy—stories in and around that idea. And working on that with the Kronos Quartet was a huge amount of fun. I usually compare playing with them to getting in a really fast car and breaking the speed limit. I’m kind of the fifth wheel with my souped-up viola and electronics and stuff, and I’m like, how did I get so lucky to play with these people?

Most of the stuff I wrote on a viola that was heavily processed. I would work with the quartet and say, could you translate this piece, and they’d immediately play it as a quartet, almost as if they were one instrument. They’re really amazing in terms of arrangements. I also had a lot of help with the orchestration from Jacob Garchik; he’s really a fantastic musician, and has worked with them a lot.

How long have you known the longstanding members in Kronos?
Forever! We’re in the same circles. So when they asked, “Can you write something for us?” I was like, didn’t I already do that? [Laughs] But they’re doing a lot of improvising on this. I also recorded a lot of their improvising, and that became written parts. It was fun, because sometimes they’d say, “How did you think of that part?” Well, because you played it! That’s your idea, right there. It's really an interesting blend of free and fairly tight.

You also started working with Nonesuch back in the ’90s, right?
Yeah, [Nonesuch president] Bob Hurwitz and [senior vice president] David Bither both kind of took the Warner refugees [in the 1990s]. It was nice to have a record company; [the business] was so wildly out of control at that point. Your company was sold 15 times, and you had no idea who you were working with. Bob and David were really instrumental in making it a little calmer after all of those years of, like, “Who’s in charge? Maybe nobody.” And you don’t feel like it’s just some weird "just business" deal. They really do love music.

And that’s unusual.
That’s very unusual for a music company.

You mentioned Jacob Garchik, who’s a wonderful trombone player and composer in his own right. Like a lot of people, he can move back and forth between gigs in the jazz world, doing arranging work for you, and working with Kronos. And that mobility feels, to me, like a post-BAM career. And a post-Nonesuch thing, too, maybe.
Yeah, it is. Those borders are pretty blurry now—between BAM people and pop people. Blurrier than they used to be. I think that’s a really good thing because I never liked those sorts of categories anyway. It didn’t really matter to me. It was always much more about selling records than…defining your own music or style. What bin should we put you in? [Adopts robotic, Laurie Anderson-style radio announcer voice] Electronica? Spoken word? [Laughs]

That’s one of my least favorite terms, spoken word. It really sounds ridiculous and clunky. Whoever invented that should…rethink it!

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