By Chloe Lizotte
Ever since her first performances at the tail end of the ’60s, Laurie Anderson’s art has explored the fundamentals of communication. After her 1981 single “O Superman” became a surprise hit off of her debut album Big Science, Anderson continued experimenting with music and sound art; she’s invented electronic instruments like the tape-bow violin and developed vocal modifiers to express new characters. Her career is also truly interdisciplinary, spanning filmmaking, virtual reality, lecture series, comedy (through wrestling with Andy Kaufman), and even a CD-ROM, 1995’s The Puppet Motel. When revisiting her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, Anderson’s electronics-based practice feels inclusive—a suggestion that stories, even when filtered through the technology that surrounds and surveils us, can still channel something vulnerable and irreducibly human. Anderson also recently narrated Lisa Rovner’s documentary Sisters with Transistors, which chronicles the female sonic experimenters who pioneered the history of electronic music.
To start, I was wondering if you could talk about how you became involved with Sisters with Transistors?
It was so late… the film was already done. I’m very proud to be part of it, because it’s really an amazing story, and one that people don’t know at all. I was part of this scene in the ’70s, and women were not particularly recognized… I was in crazy festivals with many of these people, like Maryanne Amacher and Laurie Spiegel, in Europe, or California, which, for some reason, was more receptive to electronic music in some of the colleges. New York was not such a good scene for that. Later, The Kitchen was more open to it. But where women got to do stuff was Germany, which was a very wonderful place to work, and France, to some extent, although the scene there was quite academic. But you’d still see each other in the weird parts of festivals. The headliners were always the guys—always.
Anyway, this story was familiar to me, but I was thrilled to see it expressed in a coherent way. It’s hard to look at so many different people’s work and see it as a scene, or a trend. And often those are very artificial. But this one didn’t feel that way to me. It was a network of work—you knew about their work, and they knew about yours. But it was very, let’s say, unofficial. It didn’t go through the main channels. There was certainly never a geographical scene, because it was people from all over the world doing this.
You mention playing with some of the film’s subjects in festival sidebars—how did it feel to be a part of that grassroots electronics community?
It felt a little bit disconnected. You’re usually so busy setting up your own thing, and trying to troubleshoot it and make it work, that meeting the other artists was usually just like, “Oooh! You’re doing that. That’s cool.” Then you’d get to see her perform for only a minute or something.
I’m a big fan of [Norwegian author] Karl Ove Knausgård. I love the kind of detail that he goes into with his characters. I love knowing that he feels self-conscious pushing a baby carriage, I know how he feels when he’s going shopping for shoes, I know what store he’s going to—all this stuff. A couple of years before the pandemic, I was in a Norwegian electronic music festival. I was the only woman in that festival. And the work that was being presented was... I don’t know, I’d seen a lot of it before, it wasn’t particularly original, but it was a real guys’ scene. The great thing about that was that Karl Ove had so well described himself, and it was such a character type of Norwegian artists. I played with these guys and then I sort of knew. I know how you feel about your mother. I know where you go to shop for shoes on Saturday. I know you don’t feel comfortable pushing the baby carriage on a Sunday.
What I’m trying to say is that in electronics you’re working in a field of ideas and approaches that are weirdly standardized. It’s not the kind of thing that is so expressive. I’ve tried to use electronics expressively. Sisters with Transistors is about women and energy. It’s women going, “What is this energy? Can I push it there?” That part of it really interests me. Laurie Spiegel, she was more of a researcher, and she would follow these lines where they took her. I really admire the sisters who were looking at energy—people like Éliane Radigue. But I was using this for storytelling and narrative purposes, more of an instrument than an experimentation.
“I’m happy to be living in a moment where we’re just not buying that story where men did everything, that it’s their story and we’re just tagging along—which is surprisingly, still, the main narrative in our culture. ”
So much of Sisters with Transistors is about that energy—the way that electronic expression can channel the person behind it. I was curious how you’ve navigated that in your own art: using technology to express something human?
The thing about energy… here’s an example. [Loads up Zoom filter of an AI-generated face.] I woke up this morning with this puzzle of, “What are thoughts?” I am often left with some weird question from the night before. This is the one that was racing through my mind.
Let me find somebody else… [Loads up a new AI filter.] Here’s a GAN: a person who has never lived. Do you know the GANs people?
Are you talking about the AI, “This Person Does Not Exist” phenomenon?
I like it.
I do too. Because I don’t particularly feel that I exist, except as some sort of frequency...a combination of a frequency and a dream or a thought. I’m probably going to use some of these characters in an opera that I’m doing, sort of a soap opera. It’s actually about their inventor, Irna Phillips, the original soap opera writer. She worked at WGN Chicago, and her characters were almost always women who wanted to have careers. And this rubbed the soap people the wrong way. And the sponsors didn’t really like it; these women were supposed to stay home and use the sponsors’ soap products. But most of her characters were women, and they were trying to get out in the world. A little bit similar to the Sisters!
I’m happy to be living in a moment where we’re just not buying that story where men did everything, that it’s their story and we’re just tagging along—which is surprisingly, still, the main narrative in our culture. One of the most troubling things, to me, about the pandemic is that the people who are bearing the brunt of it are women. The ones who are drinking more, and who are more exhausted, more broke. But I had such high hopes when I was a part of that scene in the ’70s… I mean, I’m not trying to say that the more people think I’m doing something worthwhile, the more worthwhile it is. I think, in a way, the opposite... if a lot of people think you’re doing something worthwhile, you’d better worry about it!
What sorts of technology, or forms of expression, do you feel drawn to now?
Last night, we did something called Party in the Bardo at the Park Avenue Armory. The dress rehearsal was so terrible because we were using these drones… massive guitar feedback situations. It’s very complicated to make other sounds work with them. And so yesterday morning I decided to just dive in and carve a whole lot of different spaces—I did 15, with only the saxophones, with only the percussion, and suddenly it was just breathtaking, a beautiful piece of music, because there was room for all the frequencies. I added some words, too, because I need to put words in. At first, I thought it would just be a meditation, and the main words would be the words of the people, the New Yorkers who had died of COVID. Reading each of the 32,000 names. That really stopped me in my tracks a few times last night, with all of these things flying around the space.
It was very intense. I guess bardos are places where things have 50 times the intensity of our life: what happens if you compress energy into something, and then try to express it and send it to someone? I feel that it actually worked, and I very rarely feel that way in concerts. But people are very vulnerable now and they’re open to being open. That was really happening last night. And I remembered why I love music, these massive things going on. It was really incredible—this percussionist with these two big gongs, and these big low drums going Boooshhhm! Vernon Reid, who’s doing these wild guitar solos. And then nothing—just a little tiny piano from Jason Moran. And some words, and then come these tsunamis of feedback.
How do you find yourself relating to your earlier work these days, now that you’re looking back through this documentary, or with Home of the Brave running again?
I’m doing a show at the Hirshhorn Museum [in D.C.] in the fall, and I was just looking at an old video I made called “Songs for Lines/Songs for Waves.” It’s on YouTube, in fact, which is weird. It’s this person who I kind of recognize, and I sort of remember being that person. But then, when that person—who is me, as a kid—started to talk, I was like, I think I’ve changed so much—but I haven’t changed at all.
It’s a piece where I play violin, one with the tape-bow: this instrument that has tape on it instead of horse hair. I was very interested in epigrams, maxims, anagrams, palindromes. Because they’re audio palindromes, they’re never predictable. One of the bows that I had recorded was a sentence from Lenin. Not John Lennon!
Yes, Lenin. “Ethics is the aesthetics of the future.” And I thought: how could that be true? To align what’s good and what’s beautiful is something that means a lot to me, and it changes all the time. Sometimes horrendous things can be beautiful, and silly, ridiculous things can be good. These are just words, and you can make them be anything, really, so how good is that? Anyway, I’m playing this phrase over and over: Ethics is the aesthetics of the future. I would never end the word with -ture, I would just go fu-. The aesthetics of the fu-, the fu-, the future. It was kind of dorky, but I just thought... what does this person want? Why is she doing this kind of electronics? Is it some kind of manifesto, in there? What is it?
It’s curious to look back on your artistic childhood. For me, Sisters with Transistors was about that. Really going into, well, what is it that women have when they look at this kind of energy? How are they thinking to organize it, and to what end? There’s as many answers to that question as there are questions. •
Chloe Lizotte is the Contributing Editor at Le Cinéma Club. She writes regularly for Reverse Shot and Screen Slate, with additional bylines in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Vulture, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.