The 1980s were the soft version of today, says famous New York avant-garde member Laurie Anderson. On a current tour called Let X = X, she plays old songs that don’t feel old to her. And she tells: how else for a multimedia artist who became famous precisely by mixing scenic storytelling with electronic pop, film and research on the edge of science and art.
The 76-year-old musician will perform next Tuesday, November 21, at Prague’s Archa Theater at the invitation of the Respect festival. She will be accompanied by the New York band Sex Mob. The Grammy winner recently had the largest exhibition retrospective in Stockholm, Sweden. “But I’m working a lot on new things, I’m preparing books and I’ve written an opera about the end of the world,” says the creator, who gave an interview to Aktuálně.cz in New York while she was recovering from covid.
Why do you invite the audience to roar together in the performance Let X = X, with which you are coming to Prague?
When Donald Trump was elected president, people reacted in different ways. I really liked Yoko Ono’s reaction: she screamed. She posted a video of the minute-long scream on Twitter. It wasn’t an artistic performance, it was a pure scream for life, an unregulated absolute scream. Then when Yoko Ono got sick and couldn’t perform in person, my friends and I organized several such sessions.
In the performance Let X = X, I suggest to the people in the audience to remember everything that annoys them, in politics, in wars, in their tangled lives. And let them scream together against it. A bit of primal yelling comes in handy sometimes. We measure the volume in every city. The Swedish audience in Gothenburg roared the loudest so far.
You arrive not long after working with advanced AI modules as an artist-in-residence in Adelaide, Australia. What interests you about her?
Musician Laurie Anderson. | Photo: Stephanie Diani
It was the Machine Learning Institute. Take these keywords – machine learning. Who do they learn from? From us, of course. And if you put notes from Twitter in the input, the output will be the style of Twitter. Unfortunately, because online statements can escalate to radical very quickly. I don’t know exactly what it is, I even still believe with a bit of naivety that people want to be good at heart. AI can mirror us very quickly: in fact, it can reach our imperfection and contradictions fantastically fast and on a large scale.
So are you critical of artificial intelligence?
Personally, I absolutely love AI! Because she is a wonderful co-worker. In Adelaide, they recorded everything I ever wrote and recorded into her memory. She was learning my vocabulary, my pace, my style. Then when they asked me what I would like, I asked them to have the artificial intelligence read the Bible. After all, so many authors, including myself, wave the Bible and refer to it: “The Bible says this and the Bible says that…” So we tuned into it the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts that make up the essential part of the Bible. The machine acted according to the nature of languages: where Greek originally dominated, it generated more rational texts, with Hebrew everything was more mystical. In the end, the artificial intelligence spit out a text 19 thousand pages long, the Bible in my opinion. Which is a rather scary document. The AI wrote it after crunching through all my work and interpreting my style in its own way. I learned a lot from him about my own language and how I look at the world. And how it relates to stories from the Bible.
Your new opera Ark, which is already written and should premiere in Manchester in 2024, is undoubtedly related to biblical stories. What is it about?
About the end of the world. That is, about the various versions of the end of the world, as mankind prepares them in various mythologies. The apocalypse is not exactly easy to imagine and conceptualize: so people sometimes choose instead a story about the beginning of the world, which is very similar. Monsters, snakes, gods are also produced there, explosions, floods and other disasters occur, there are motives of prejudice and fear. A bit like today. But stories about the first people can be told throughout history. As opposed to this: to whom can you relate the experience of the end of the world? To no one. That interests me as a storyteller. In times of planetary crisis, humanity faces the real possibility of dying out. Is a story a story if no one hears it? Anyway, it sounds like a pretty crazy story.
Laurie Anderson (76)
The American avant-garde artist combines music with the spoken word, film, dance and the visual side. She narrated mysteriously, wittily and critically in large multimedia performances, starting with the famous single O Superman from 1981, and then also on the recordings she made, for example, with the Kronos String Quartet.
She has always combined the fads of technology with the ancient medium of stories and storytelling: growing up in the visual and avant-garde literary scene has given her a well-laid-back perspective.
She returns to Prague’s Archa Theater for the first time since 2016, when she presented the film Psí srdce about the death of her husband, rocker Lou Reed, and their dog, who was taught to play the keyboard. Three years later, the Brno Philharmonic performed a piece in which Laurie Anderson narrates her own text about the last flight of Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
You revealed that in this upcoming opera of yours, the Christian God and Buddha conduct a dialogue. What are they talking about?
About what time is. I’m a composer, so time is a part of every composition I make. But at other times, I feel that it goes by without rules. Is there progress, are things clearly moving forward? Does karma exist? Why do I sometimes feel like I wrote my old songs yesterday? The flow of time carries us along in a very strange way. It may not sound plausible, but as an artist I have always wanted to deny time, to subvert it. That was one of my goals.
The group Sex Mob, with whom you are coming, has repeatedly performed with us. Trumpetist Steven Bernstein and his quartet have a humorous and avant-garde approach, having played covers of Abby, Nirvana and music from Bond films in their time. For a quarter of a century, it has belonged to downtown, i.e. the New York scene of individualists and eccentrics. But you haven’t recorded together yet. How did you get together?
I have experienced covid several times and this is one of the covid stories. We originally rehearsed only one song together – Lou Reed’s Gassed and Stoked, which we wanted to play at a concert honoring the memory of producer Hal Willner. He died three years ago, was behind a number of extraordinary concerts and liked to connect people in new unexpected collaborations. I wrote a complicated arrangement for Lou’s song, very different from the original version, and Steven Bernstein was the right person to arrange it and try it out. But then I caught covid, so the whole thing was cancelled. Frustrating experience. Then when I wanted to go back to the older songs, I remembered how we did with Sex Mob and approached them.
Do you think that today is somehow similar to the eighties, when you wrote songs from the Big Science, Mister Heartbreak or Home of the Brave albums?
I go to concerts with old songs about once every ten years. And I choose the ones that don’t look old to me. They can escape the situation in which I wrote them and speak to the present. They were created at a time when the United States was in a relatively conservative phase. Today it is even more extreme: nationalism, power, strong leaders… But I was also struck by one difference between those times and today: compassion is now considered unpatriotic. If you feel a sense of belonging with migrants, you are suddenly in the position of radicals who go against it. But as a Buddhist, I have been taught that human compassion and reciprocity are at the heart of things! An interesting contradiction.
Video: Single O Superman by Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson’s single O Superman even reached number two in the UK charts in 1981. | Video: Warner Bros.