Laurie Anderson’s new album is about anticipation, dread, destruction and beauty
It can be tough to keep up with the work of Laurie Anderson.
While the 70-year-old will probably forever be most popularly known for her astounding ‘hit’ of 1981, ‘O Superman’, her work across the disciplines of music, film and art in general is wildly varied and always fascinating.
Anderson returns to Australia this year for a series of varied performances as Artist In Residence at the Gold Coast’s Home of the Arts, and a whole different set of experiences planned for those heading to Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival.
But, prior to this trip, she’s talking about Landfall, an album in collaboration with legendary, arty San Franciscan string ensemble Kronos Quartet which she released earlier this year.
It was Anderson’s first time working with the group, which – given the similar scenes they have both worked around over the past four decades.
“We were just in the same world,” Anderson told Double J’s Tim Shiel. “One day David said, ‘We never did anything together’. It was a surprise to us because we knew each other and we were in the same world. It was kind of weird we had never done anything together.
“He said, ‘Would you write something for us?’ and I was like, ‘God, David, thanks for asking, but I don’t know how to write [for] a quartet’ but he was so encouraging, he was realty great about that.”
Something of an intermediary was employed to ensure that Anderson’s ideas would seamlessly transfer to the group.
“I worked with mostly my own viola and tried to make it trigger a lot of sounds. I got a lot of help from Jacob Garchik who was working with the quartet often and kind of translates musicians and composes ideas for them, so he helped me a lot and the quartet helped me a lot.
“I would play these things for them and ask, ‘can you play those?’ and they would play them. Every time they did, it would be just great interpretations and ideas. A then they would say, ‘Okay, let’s do it really slow like you did’, so it was back and forth like that for a while.
“It was really wonderful to try and make something out of live experience as opposed to ‘Here are the notes, play these notes off this piece of paper’. It wasn’t like that at all.”
The devastating Hurricane Sandy, in which Anderson was affected, seems like the focal point of the record, though Anderson says that’s not necessarily so.
“No, the superstorm blew in at the end,” Anderson explained. “I had been working with him about lots of different kinds of stories. Strangely, they were all things that were about turning into another material, or air or into sound, or making some transformation, or becoming extinct in some kind of cycle.
“So, when a storm came through and pulverised everything, I was so shocked at first. I really couldn’t believe it. How could it have that kind of force? When I went down to my basement to fish a few things out I thought, ‘Oh I’m sure I can get some stuff and it’ll be fine’. But seawater is powerful it just pulverised stuff and turned it into oatmeal, unrecognisable stuff. I was just totally devastated.
“That storm happened really happened towards the end of the process of writing this and so many things were about this evaporation and disintegration or transformation process, I thought the storm might be a good way to frame it.”
Anderson was at her home in New York City when Sandy hit, and admits she was overcome with the intense beauty of this freakish weather event before realising its power.
“I think when you talk to people who are in very big weather events now, one of the first things you see when you see a giant wave coming towards you, or when you see a river come up through the park and surround your building so that you’re an island, the very first thing is that it’s so wildly beautiful, before you realise it’s not going to work out well for you.
“I had a friend who was in the tsunami in Thailand a few years ago and that was his sensation as well. People on the beach saw this coming and they laughed and smiled. That only lasted half a second before they would potentially die very quickly.
“These rogue weather events are happening more often on our planet and it fills us with wonder and awe and kinda dread because they happen so often now.”
Rather than being about the storm itself, Anderson said Landfall has more to do with the dread of knowing something bad is going to happen. You just have to wait it out.
“There was a lot of waiting for that storm and imagining it,” she said. “I was just thinking of all the million different things you go through when you’re waiting or dreading for things.
"Also, what happens when you first experience things, when you don’t know if it’s going to be a threat or not. Like, maybe someone says something to you and it hasn’t become an obsession yet, or even a threat, but you just wait for a second and go, ‘Is this bad for me or good for me?’.
“I love going into those moments where you don’t know what it is yet, and that’s the feeling waiting for a storm too. There’s a lot of weird anticipation and it’s a very interesting moment to not know, so I tried to make the framework of the record the storm, because it had so many different things in it: anticipation, dread, destruction and kind of beauty as well.”
Laurie Anderson performs at Dark Mofo on Wednesday 13 June, her exhibition Chalkroom takes place from Thursday 14 June to Sunday 24. More info here.
She also performs at Home of the Arts, Gold Coast from Wednesday 20 to Sunday 24 June. More info here.