Laurie Anderson has a 'great delusion'

Israel is about to get a lesson in the art of communication when the American performance artist returns to Tel Aviv.

Laurie Anderson 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Laurie Anderson 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
The musical aspects of Laurie Anderson’s one-woman theatrical show Delusion almost came as an afterthought. Premiered at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, Delusion’s swirling world of short plays has been described its creator as a “simultaneously contemplative and whimsical epic about longing, identity, and memory. Delusion invokes both humor and terror, conjuring up elves, mysteries, ghost ships, and dead relatives to spin poetic stories and imagery into gold.”
“I was concentrating on the story so much that at some point, I thought, ‘well, I need some musical aspects too,’” Anderson told The Jerusalem Post recently during a phone conversation from her studio in New York City, ahead of her two performances of the show – on June 17 at the Shuni Amphitheater in Binyamina and June 19 at Hechal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv.
Combining the visual and musical has never been much of a problem for the 64-year-old experimental performance artist, who does everything from playing violin and keyboards to sculpting, writing and inventing new instruments.
“My recording studio and visual studios are touching – they’re only divided by a glass partition, so I’m always going back and forth,” she said.
“I like trying to make things fit the visual rhythm of what I’m hearing.”
That integrative discipline has been evident for decades, well before Anderson briefly flirted with mainstream success with her 1981 ‘hit’ “O Superman.”
Born in a Chicago suburb, Anderson studied violin as a child and attended Barnard College in New York, graduating with a degree in art history, and then earning an MFA in sculpture from Columbia. By the mid 1970s, she was staging spoken word, musical and visual performances at festivals and galleries around the world, establishing herself as an avant garde performance artist.
However she was barely known outside the art world until she recording the 11-minute “O Superman” for a tiny New York label. Featuring electronic drones, opaque lyrics and electronically treated half spoken, half-sung vocals, the song became an unlikely hit in England, and to a lesser extent in the US. Warner Bros. signed to a contract which resulted in the popular album Big Science, drawn from her earlier seven-hour multi-media performance United States.
1984’s Mister Heartbreak, her most overtly pop-oriented work, saw her collaborating with rockers like Peter Gabriel and Adrian Belew and even skirting the outer edges of the American Top 100. Her chart success peaked in 1986 with the concert film Home of the Brave, which like Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, both musically and visually helped define an era.
Anderson reacted to her mainstream flirtation with bemusement and detachment, and never again altered her experimental bent for the masses.
“Mainstream success certainly wasn’t what I was looking for,” she said, adding that she wasn’t seduced by it.
“If you get what you’re not looking for, then it doesn’t leave as much of an impression. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but I wasn’t looking to become a star. I come from the art world where we think that the more people that like it, then the worse it is.
“But I’ve never been apologetic about my success. I’ve tried to have a good time and take it in stride.”
Anderson devoted the next several years to performance tours, theatrical productions and her relationship and subsequent marriage in 2008 to New York rocker Lou Reed.
She and Reed have collaborated over the years on a number of songs including “Call on Me” from Reed’s collaborative project The Raven, on the tracks “Rouge” and “Rock Minuet” from Reed’s Estasy and “Hang on to Your Emotions” from Reed’s Set the Twilight Reeling.
Reed repaid the favor by playing on “In Our Sleep” from Anderson’s Bright Red and “One Beautiful Evening” from Anderson’s Life on a String. The guitarist accompanied Anderson during her last performance in Tel Aviv in 2005, but she confirmed that he would not be part of the Delusion tour, in which she’s the only performer.
“I’ve staged a few different versions of the show, some playing with other people and then by myself, and I began to understand more what it’s all about. ‘Ooops, it’s better not to bury everything beneath other instrument.’” she said.
“The danger is if you have too much stuff, so I tried to work with just the essentials.”
The New York Times described the show as featuring Anderson spinning “curious tales and observations in the impish, matter-of-fact speaking voice that has become one of her trademarks (and in the folksy, electronically manipulated baritone that has become another).”
Among those tales are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our families, our country and the world, and the porous border between history and myth.
They include an “account of a lawsuit about the ownership of the moon that morphs into a meditation on the roots of the Russian space program in the work of a 19thcentury mystic,” a story of an Icelandic farmer which serves as a backdrop for a discussion of Anderson’s Swedish and Irish family roots, and in what the Times describes as the oddest, “her memory of a dream in which she gives birth to her pet terrier.”
Add instrumental interludes in which Anderson wanders the stage playing her electric violin, or hypnotic, raucous techno music is splashed throughout the room in what she calls “electronic puppetry,” and video is shown on various parts of the sparsely decorated stage, and you get a true multimedia experience that Anderson has become known for.
“Delusion is basically 20 short stories, almost like a novel of interlocking stories invoking both humor and terror that touch upon elves, ghost ships and poetic imagery,” said Anderson.
Because she felt that the stories might be relentless in their intensity, Anderson decided to break them up with music.
“It allows you to get out of the story for a moment, so it’s not a constant,” she said.
For anyone who’s fallen into the web of Anderson’s wildly captivating performances, the only delusion is worrying that it will end.