In conversation about Hurricane Sandy, the subject of her new album with Kronos Quartet, Landfall (out Feb. 16), New York-based violinist and performance artist Laurie Anderson shares two anecdotes. One is about taking her dog out to urinate during the storm, and seeing how “his little dog-brain was kind of blown” by the scene. The other details a caper perpetrated by the musician and her late husband, Lou Reed.
“We tried to sandbag our street,” remembers Anderson over the phone from an artists’ colony in California. “We didn’t have any sandbags in our building. We saw that across the street, they had a lot of ’em, but their building had already flooded. So we ran over and got their sandbags. [laughs] But they were okay with that; we saved our building that way.”
Those are the good memories. As explained in the Landfall spoken-word track “Everything Is Floating”—and implied by the tense strings and foreboding electronic beats that make up the LP—Sandy stole a lot more than sandbags from Anderson; “old keyboards,” “props from old performances,” and “countless papers and books” were reduced to “junk.” But Anderson’s past is alive and well in her other new release this month, All the Things I Lost in the Flood (out now), a retrospective book covering projects from throughout her career. Paired together, Anderson’s February 2018 offerings tell a complete story, one of disappearance and accomplishment, absence and manifestation.
The music Anderson composed for herself and Kronos—the string quartet behind the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream—is autobiographical, with song titles like “The Electricity Goes Out and We Move to a Hotel” and “Riding Bicycles Through the Muddy Streets.” An especially poignant moment comes shortly after she lists the possessions that have been irreparably damaged: “And I thought, ‘How beautiful. How magic. And how catastrophic.’” The honesty in that statement—the ability to see it from both angles—is hard to shake.
“Some of the best writing that I know has that duality in it,” says Anderson. “I suppose there’s really beautiful, ecstatic poetry and stuff. But unless it has something that’s heart-rippingly sad in it, too, I kind of don’t get it. [laughs] I really love the mixture.”
The album’s centerpiece is the eerie “Nothing Left But Their Names,” which lasts for nearly ten minutes and finds Anderson musing on topics seemingly unrelated to Sandy, like extinct animal species and the Hebrew letter alef. More than just her words, Anderson’s voice stands out here, too—she pitches it down, taking on a persona nicknamed “Fenway Bergamot.”
“It was a voice that I invented originally as something called ‘The Voice of Authority,’ and it was meant to get out of my own point of view more often, and be able to see things from another point of view, which works really well,” explains Anderson. “And if you have a voice that’s [speaks in a high-pitched voice] ‘Yeah, like this’ or [speaks in a low-pitched voice] ‘Like that,’ you use different words and talk about different things. So that was why I did it, to escape my own perspective, largely.”
Anderson’s wholly unique viewpoint, though, is what has propelled her through five decades of experimental art, a journey that somehow includes both a Moby-Dick opera and musical performances for an intended audience of dogs. All the Things I Lost in the Flood explores those projects and more through essays and photographs, presenting Anderson’s career as a single, eccentric piece of music in many movements. Looking back on her career during the making of the book, Anderson was able to see how certain branches of herself had grown longer over time.
“I kept repeating myself,” says Anderson. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a brand-new idea.’ For example, a lot of these floor pieces that I did. There’s a film called Sidewalk that’s on the floor, or projected on the floor, and has certain ways that it works with time. And I realized, ‘Wait a second. I did that in 1971,’ in something called Note Tone, about backwards imagery. And it wasn’t like, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s all the same.’ I’m unconsciously building on some of these ideas. So, that was exciting to me to realize.”
Another piece discussed in the book, a 1996 installation called The Parrot, contains a notion that could also be seen as a motif in Anderson’s work: “The purpose of art is to provide what life cannot.” The line feels almost like a slogan, or mission statement for Anderson.
“[Art] can jolt you into an emotional state very quickly, and sometimes in your life, you don’t realize that that’s happening,” says Anderson. “Let’s say you’ve just had a disastrous breakup, and it’s mixed up with a lot of contradictory feelings about it, with other conversations. And then you hear a song that’s so purely about loss that you just go, ‘Oh my god, that’s exactly how I feel.’ And so I think it can distill certain things that maybe you don’t do in your daily life. That you, for a million reasons, you don’t let yourself feel those things. But then a song or a painting or something can go, ‘This is how you feel.’ And you’re like, ‘Ooh, you’re right.’ [laughs] ‘That is exactly how I feel.’”