Laurie Anderson, the 71-year-old performance artist, storyteller, musician and wife of Lou Reed, was looking out at the fog. She seemed exhausted, but her green eyes were alert. I met her in her green room in the middle of a packed four-day festival at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, where she was joined by her colleagues, the Tibetan monk Tenzin Choegyal, bassist Greg Cohen, and guitarist Steward Hurwood. In her soft voice, she spoke to me about loud drones, structural sound, and the apocalypse.
VAN: The last time you came to Hamburg was 2017, with Wim Wenders. How did you end up connecting with the Elbphilharmonie?
Laurie Anderson: I got very lucky. I came to Hamburg and Wim told me, “You should really see this fantastic place.” So I came here and I ran into Greg Cohen, who was playing with Woody Allen. It was the night when the Femen activists came naked on stage, with the message on their bare breasts about pederasty, and they had made their bodies very slippery, so the guards couldn’t grab them. Woody didn’t know what it was about. He is becoming a little gaga, you know. A little old. He didn’t understand, he was more like, “Oh, they don’t have clothes on, that’s cool.” Greg was whispering, “we really have to stop the show now,” but it continued, which was good.
Anyway, Greg introduced me to Nils Hansen from the Elbphilharmonie. We had a really great conversation, and he just asked, “Don’t you want to do the Reflector thing here one day?” And I was like, “Oh yes.” By the way, I just heard a fantastic concert at the Elbphilharmonie.
Simon Rattle with Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” I studied Spacial Sound, which was one thing, but this was different: two complete orchestras facing each other. What happened was something I’ve never heard before. The sound began to spiral and made these shapes, like a big ice cream cone spiraling upwards. I was like: “Am I in a piece of sound sculpture?” The double orchestra had this astounding effect. I’d never heard Bartók that way. It was like a ship built up in the air. I was sitting fairly far up and I would be so curious to listen to that piece again from another spot.
Simon had a good time, because I think he knew what was happening. This was really not normal, it was something special. He almost fell over, I’ve never seen that with a conductor. There was a little bar to prevent him from falling, but still it almost happened. I spend the whole evening admiring the sound, like in a dream.
As musicians and composers we make works for the architecture of time, and really there is no perfect concert hall for anything, but the Elbphilharmonie is like a giant waterfall or something. The steps that go down—it’s a flow, not a blast. In many concert halls you have a blast of sound coming toward you. And I am trying to work with music in another way, and so this is a perfect place for me.
Will the acoustic change the works you’re presenting at the Elbphilharmonie, such as “Here Comes the Ocean”?
For example, I’ve always been attached to the drones. Lou also worked with them very much. They are earbleedingly loud; it’s music you can walk into. It’s a little bit like meditation for me with the microtones. It’ll be a bit different here: I hope we’ll be able to do something more spacial with “Here Comes the Ocean.”
I heard your “Songs from the Bardo,” with texts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The subtitle of the book is “Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo.” The subject matter is very religious. Did you ever have doubts about bringing this kind of material to the stage?
It’s a tough text. And I was very grateful that people were ready to listen to it. The translation is by Tenzin Choegyal, the Tibetan monk who played and sang with us. He now lives in Australia. I think it’s wonderful how the Tibetan diaspora has given the world these teachings. You think that there’s nothing worse than the Chinese invasion that killed so many monks. But what happens when all the Tibetans are forced out? They go and bring their meditation techniques to the world. So we would maybe not know about this without the Chinese. That is strange. There are always a few more sides than you think.
Back to the concert: I was surprised because we’d never played this before and we didn’t really rehearse it, I have to say. It was largely improvised and we had a couple of things where we had some ideas. My idea for the Reflector festival in general is that it’s improv. It’s about giving people the opportunity to live in the present. I had to really pay attention to the people playing: I was floating on a kind of crazy cloud, and I kept trying to slow it down more—you have to stop your mind to listen to this stuff. I just tried to focus on the meaning of the words, and that made me even slower…You realize this is a study on the nature of mind. It is quite an amazing thing to learn.
What does the Book of the Dead teach you personally?
I am a storyteller. And I think we should find ways to talk about the end of things. About death, or the end of humanity on the planet. We will not live here forever. My teacher tells me, “Try to feel sad, without being sad.” This is very good distinction. The world is full of sad things, if you don’t see them you are an idiot. It is not fine. But especially in our times it’s important to not become that. Do not become sad. Don’t push it away, accept it—but don’t become it.
Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, “Landfall”
Does that also describe how you feel about this political moment in the U.S.?
I often feel helpless. Anytime we start a movement, it gets crushed. It’s like in every fascist state. At first you laugh, then you imitate laughter, then you stop laughing. You simply don’t know what to do. So my study on the nature of the mind is even more important to me now. To understand how it is.
The division of the world into us and them—Mexicans crossing the border, or Syrians fleeing to Italy—is really fascinating to me. It’s always like, “We’re the real people.” That’s Trump’s thing. Brian Eno told me I have to read this book, How to Lose a Country, by the Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran. I just finished it and it’s rocking my world. She describes the seven steps of how a country goes from a democracy to a fascist state, from the Turkish point of view. It’s terrifying; I can see it happening. I am not blind. It’s been happening for decades, this gradual merge into corporate government. If children die in a school, Trump says, “That’s the price we pay for our freedom.” You’re like, “What? Did I hear that right?” And it happens over and over again. So you have to listen on another level.
How you found ways of dealing with these issues in your art? Your performance “Habeas Corpus” at the Park Avenue Armory focused on human rights abuses at Guantánamo.
As an artist I like to understand how things work. I only refer to that in my performances, because I hate it when people say, “You should do this, you should do that.” I never try to do that. I provoke, I put some little things in to consider. That’s the best I can do.
At Lou Reed’s funeral, 50 days after his death, you spoke about some of the principles you live by: fearlessness and an active bullshit detector, among other things. What do you think are important principles for young musicians?
It’s hard for me to speak to a group of people. Speaking for myself, I was very inspired by the kindness of an early teacher. We were these naughty little kids, and he treated us like professionals. Asking, “How would you phrase this?” I was so thankful because I had never gotten a gift like that from anybody: the gift of respect. For a kid that’s just huge.
For musicians it is very important to know that you are not just expressing yourself. You are communicating to another person. Of course it is also about subsuming your ego and becoming part of a machine, which can be very fascinating. But for some musicians, I think the best thing to do would be to never play classical music again. Just close the book and do something else. Because sometimes you are trained to do something and then you wake up and think, “This is not for me, not anymore.” Sometimes your instinct tells you to let go. Let go then.
I went through that when I was 16. I was going to be a classical violinist, and I stopped completely. The reason I stopped was I realized I would never learn anything else. I would never learn physics…So I had to stop, because you have to play all the time if you want to be successful. But the real reason was: I wasn’t good enough. I could maybe have had a job in an orchestra, but I couldn’t have become a soloist. I wanted a life that I felt, and I didn’t want to force myself. Even though I loved it so much. Stopping felt like stepping off a cliff. I was like, “Why have you been practicing so much since you were six?” And the answer was, I was sharpening my ear and opening my mind. ¶