Last October, in the midst of the pandemic, Laurie Anderson appeared at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum to recreate one of her earliest works. Wearing ice skates attached to frozen blocks of ice, she played her violin along with a tape recording stashed cleverly inside her instrument. When the ice melted, her performance ended. Bow over bridge, blades over ice: "Duets on Ice" is a meditation on balance and time.
Anderson has been playing the violin since age five. She performed with the Chicago Youth Orchestra, and might have pursued a career as a concert violinist. But in 1966 her curiosity brought her to New York City, where she enrolled in Barnard to study art, while keeping a separate studio downtown. Anderson explains that she was careful not to mix her academic work with the art she was trying to make: "I just wanted to try to find my own way," she says.
Anderson went on to study sculpture at Columbia and worked a series of jobs in the art world, including teaching art to school kids as part of a program sponsored by the Whitney Museum. There, she met fellow artist B. George, who recalls Anderson describing her interests: "I sort of knew what 'performance' was," says George, "a new word artists were using [at the time] to describe working in a more public way rather than creating paintings or sculptures intended for display in museums and galleries."
This new approach was gaining steam in SoHo. Joined by an electronic whiz, Bob Bielecki, Anderson and George searched the streets for inspiration — and spare parts. "You could buy anything," George recalls of thrifting in New York, "I think Bobby [Bielecki] once said he got a lunar landing module from the space probe on Canal Street for five bucks!"
Anderson remembers rifling through boxes of electronic wares, wondering what they were, and what they could be made to do. In an early experiment, they strung Anderson's bow with audio tape and rigged the bridge with a tape head. As she moved her bow back and forth, she could make the instrument talk.
Anderson also started writing songs. Clocking in at over eight minutes, "O Superman" wasn't standard pop fare. Recorded in 1981 with a modest grant from the NEA, it was an expression of techno-skepticism forged in aftermath of the U.S. military's failed attempt to free American hostages being held in Iran.
George released "O Superman" on One Ten Records, a small independent label he had founded primarily to distribute audio recordings made by visual artists. He also shopped the song around to bigger labels, but says the breakthrough happened in the U.K., where he was invited to spin it as a guest DJ on John Peel's influential radio show.
George says Peel loved the song, as did his audience. The next day it was picked up by other popular radio shows, and quickly shot up to No. 2 on the U.K. charts. Executives at Warner Brothers took notice, signing Anderson to an eight-album record deal. Her 1982 debut, Big Science, sold over 100,000 copies. Her 1984 follow up, Mister Heartbreak, which features appearances by Peter Gabriel, Nile Rodgers and William S. Burroughs, outperformed that.
Critics hailed Anderson as a crossover sensation, but she says that was never her goal.
"I didn't want to be in the pop world," she explains. Instead, she focused on creating multimedia performance works that defied easy categorization – there was a traveling show based on Moby Dick, and an exploration of time and space set in motion by her experiences as NASA's first (and only) artist in residence.
She also worked with a diverse range of artists, such as the choreographer Trisha Brown and the composer Philip Glass, who has known Anderson since the early 1970s and describes her as one of his oldest friends. Glass says he has always considered performing to be Anderson's strongest suit, and praises her ability to improvise intuitively.
One of Anderson's most significant creative partners was her husband, the late rock icon Lou Reed, whom she met in 1992 at a music festival in Munich organized by John Zorn. She credits Reed for inspiring her all-in approach to her work, which was "so much a part of the fabric of [their] life, making things and doing things, and having fun and being curious."
She also brought that sensibility to her collaboration with Kronos Quartet, says founder David Harrington, who describes improv sessions at her studio that would last for hours at a stretch. Anderson would record every note, Harrington recalls, and then analyze the results in preparation for their next meeting. "It was like being in a laboratory," Harrington says. "She would look into the microscope and see things we didn't see or hear."
Anderson was interested in how things that start out as one thing can become something else. After Hurricane Sandy flooded her basement in 2012, decades of lost belongings surfaced in the music, referenced in the song "Everything is Floating." When Reed died the following year, that devastating loss also became part of their work.
"Her voice and the way she inflected the words changed," recalls Harrington, "and became deeper, and deeper, and deeper."
Anderson and Kronos Quartet won a Grammy for their 2018 album, Landfall. Since then she's remained attuned to questions of transience, imagining what it's like to fall through time into other worlds. As the recipient of Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry, she currently is presenting an ongoing series of remote lectures. A major retrospective of her multimedia work, Laurie Anderson: The Weather, is slated to open at the Hirshhorn as soon as the pandemic allows.
The writer and critic Jonathan Cott recalls a recent conversation with Anderson about Tolstoy's use of defamiliarization. Her response was there's no need to "make it strange," because so much of life already is. As if to prove her point, not long before Big Science returned to circulation as a blood-red vinyl LP on April 9, Anderson went to New York's Javits Center to receive a vaccine shot — and left with a sticker bearing a striking visual similarity to the record sleeve of "O Superman."