The sound of her voice: Laurie Anderson in Iowa City

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson visits with guests at the Englert Theatre Tuesday. — photo by Kent Williams

Starting Mission Creek 2014 with Laurie Anderson was simultaneously comforting and unsettling, not unlike her body of work. I attended a discussion she had with MFA students Tuesday on-stage at the Englert Theatre, prior to her lecture that evening. My experience with her performances made her a tall person, inhabited by large ideas. But she’s actually a slight woman, about 5 feet 3 inches at the most, who walks with the grace of a long-time yoga practitioner.

In this personal setting, the ideas she discussed with students felt human-scaled. She emphasized the importance of ignoring the disapproval of the “art police” who want you to do one thing for which you can be recognized. Beyond the words she spoke, Anderson also seems to have a reality distortion field. Her resting face is a wry smile, as though she’s always on the verge of laughter. But it isn’t the laughter of derision; it seems to come from a deep well of existential amusement. Listening to her talk as an artist is to believe anything is possible.

Her talk to a packed Englert audience later in the evening was actually no less personal; the same discursive, sidetracked anti-narrative. There was oblique reference to losing her husband and partner Lou Reed, but about the projects Reed left for her to finish when he died, including a martial arts movie. Reed was definitely on the minds of the audience; during the questions, one man expressed sympathy with the changes in her life, and offered to give her a hug, which she accepted.

Anderson showed part of a movie she was working on, which included her elderly dog playing a Casio keyboard, and serene, disorienting footage shot with a digital camera attached to the roof of a car and pointed at the sky, accompanied by ambient music and her pitch-shifted voice, reading one of her confounding and strangely soothing essays.

The following night, while Saxophonist Curt Oren was performing at The Yacht Club, he talked about how boring Laurie Anderson’s talk was. He noted her rambling delivery and seemed to think her story about her dog being menaced by turkey buzzards as a metaphor for 9/11 apparently felt trite.

Maybe there’s a point to what he says. What were we all doing listening to a 60-something woman in strange shoes delivering a monologue about what she’s been up to? For me, I’ve had 33 years of Anderson bending my perception of the world. She is, above all, a soothing voice un-sticking me from the assumptions that populate my mind like familiar furniture. My relationship to her work means I’m perfectly fine with hearing whatever’s on Laurie Anderson’s mind, in any context.

Though Oren felt Anderson failed to put together a show with a clear point and narrative flow, he hadn’t (as I had) listen to “Big Science” over and over again, hypnotized by Anderson’s sly, playful voice. She crystallized, for many, how deeply weird it was that millions of people talk to a box attached to their telephone, saying “Hi! I’m not here right now.” That all happened before Oren was born.

To Oren, she was getting away with something. She doesn’t have to work as hard as he does to connect to an audience and to have his art taken seriously. Oren can’t just show up and tell stories off the top of his head. Though it should be noted that talking extemporaneously was also part of his performance.

At the same time, maybe Oren’s rant about Anderson was somehow part of his ongoing performance. Who can know? He’s every bit the prankster and provacateur that Anderson is.

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that art, to be Art, must disturb. Anderson may be contemporary art’s most gentle disturber. The sound of her voice is hypnotic, inviting, wry and caring. She’s everyone’s kindly, weird aunt who listens patiently to your favorite pop songs, but then plays Webern for you in response. The most touching story she told at the Englert was about interviewing John Cage and asking him if he thought things were getting worse or better? She beamed, remembering the kindly glow of the elderly Cage, who told her “Better!” Anderson has found a way in her work to disturb and comfort at the same time. Her work has some of Cage’s optimism, but she doesn’t shy away from meditations on loss, death and loneliness.

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