Laurie Anderson

Musician on the moon

Laurie Anderson image by Claus Biegert

Laurie Anderson image © Claus Biegert

The moon over Manhattan. Its reflection dances across the choppy surface of the Hudson, etches a jagged, glittery wake. This roof garden terrace above a studio on Canal Street offers a spectacular 360 degree view of the City. Further off, wedged in spotlights between sea and sky, the Statue of Liberty addresses the gaining dusk. A helicopter sweeps past at nearly eyelevel. Laurie Anderson gazes up at the night's emerging stars; at her feet, Lolabelle, a fox terrier, is anxious to hit the streets.

Later we're down below walking along the riverbank. Lolabelle's attention is fixed on Laurie's tennis ball. It's late summer, 2002, night, with the moon so round and so near that it intrudes into our conversation. "Soon I'll know more," Laurie says, her chin gesturing heavenwards.

Soon? More? What is she talking about?

"NASA invited me to become their first artist-in-residence."

Wow! So is she going to occupy an office at the US space agency?

"Well, we'll see about that," she says, almost keen on the idea.

The moon wanders New Jersey-wards and Laurie's domestic partner, the rock 'n roll artist Lou Reed, checks in on her cell phone.

Good night, Laurie!

* * *

Lolabelle back on the leash, Laurie ambles towards the corner – Laurie Anderson, the violinist, composer, creator of musical instruments, sculptor, filmmaker, performance artist, pamphleteer, singer, arctic explorer, activist, writer, dreamer, storyteller... She grew up with seven brothers and sisters in Chicago, then left early for New York where she studied violin and visual arts at Columbia University. Soon, she took her art to the streets, balancing on skates atop blocks of ice while playing the violin – ice gone, show over.

Then, for a streetwise experimental artist, something unexpected happened: she had a hit. In 1981 O Superman climbed to the top of the British pop charts. Encouraged by the surprise success, Laurie continued to experiment, taking to the stage with an electric violin she had modified by replacing the hair in the bow with audio tape and mounting a magnetic tape head in the bridge. Yes the instrument sang, or said, or half-sang, depending. Then came the six-foot light stick that broke into song when touched.

Soon the musical achievement of this energetic multi-talent was measured alongside such avant garde New York musicians as Philip Glass, Steven Reich, Meredith Monk, Moondog, and John Cage... Her mixed media installations stormed the world's museums of modern art, she toured the globe with her performances, and then one day her name somehow filtered through the security channels at the US Space Agency. The offer arrived per phone: no artistic strings attached, would she care to create a performance piece for NASA? Being the experimentalist that she is, Laurie said or half-sang Yes.

I follow this elf-like, graceful figure until she disappears around the corner. When does she actually find time to sleep? We've been meeting now for some twenty years – trade stories, catch up, and it seems that Laurie is always juggling a thousand new projects...

* * *

Six months later, shopping with Laurie at a farmer's market in Chelsea – she had some time between appointments – I learn the first news about how the space things are proceeding. She had been to Houston, where she went through a sort of orientation into, straining for the stars, the agency's strange high-tech parallel world. Walking down a hallway lined with representations of nebulous spiral galaxies and emerging star clusters, she asked: "How do these spherical colors come about? What are they trying to tell us?"

"I wasn't prepared for the answer," she tells me. "The colors are a detail NASA adds, what people would like to imagine... we haven't moved a step forwards since Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted in churches his 18th century Italian rococo firmaments pink and majestic blue… and they call this science?" There is indignation in her voice, indignation mixed with amusement. "If I simply did what people wanted, I could never climb from the trap of leaving impressions that please." Then comes the big news: "I imagine that theories and formulas have a type of permanent beauty. But such beauty can't be a victim of fashion."

Her research of the heavens ended up a journey through space that never left earth. She interviewed employees at the Space Telescope Science Institute, at the Johnson Space Center, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "I met people that I never would have met otherwise." She stood in the control tower of a virtual airport at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicone Valley and looked out over a mock-up Martian landscape. "You seriously begin to entertain the idea that the red planet needs landscaping – could use some greenery," she says. And what did she see through the NASA telescopes? "I'm more interested in photographic images and representations than in the pointy lights themselves." The scientists had a trying time fathoming their first artist-in-residence. Once, while she was jotting down something in a little notebook, a NASA-man wanted to know whether she was creating a poem.

While Laurie moved about in the rarefied atmosphere of astro-physicists and shuttle engineers, back on earth the news was consumed by violence, the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib dominating the headlines. "At moments like this it's not easy to be an American and to live in this culture... I try to come to terms with the conflicting streams of thought in the world and still stay sane... George Orwell's future vision of a world with Big Brother watching over your shoulder has turned real." At moments things are simply too much. When Bush declared war on Iraq, Laurie, together with some artist colleagues, took out a page in newspapers: Not in my Name. Laurie never loses the warm twinkle in her eyes, not even when things turn grim, dark. "In 1991 at a Buddhist ceremony with the Dalai Lama I took an oath: I pledged for the remainder of my life to be open and friendly."

* * *

June, 2005, on the banks of the Rhein. Laurie's back in Germany on tour with her one-woman-show, The End of the Moon. Why the end?

Laurie says, "In the romantic age people gave the moon lots of space, but now that's over, behind us... When JFK took office a new romantic began: space as the Final Frontier. Moon astronauts were the 20th century's frontiersman, and the Apollo missions symbolized humankind's expansion heavenwards. Now that's all done and behind us as well. Today nanotechnology is the Final Frontier. Nanotechnology tinkering a stairwell to Mars... who cares about the moon? It's the end of the moon."

As she was putting the finishing touches on her latest performance piece, NASA requested a copy of the text – but Laurie declined. "I said, artists don't grant sneak previews before the first performance... I invited them to the premiere... some came, and I could see they enjoyed it."

August, 2006, a short email from the Caribbean: "Hello from the tropics where I'm swimming with fishes... full moon... I play tennis with Lolabelle – okay, not with rackets but with sound... she hears the ball bounce and can catch it in the light of the moon... the heavens are incredible... as always an inspiration... I'm composing like mad."


Earth orbit: born on June 5, 1947, in Chicago; grew up with seven brothers and sisters; studied classical violin, art history, and sculpture; world-wide tours as musician and performance artist; brought out ten albums; honorary doctorate from the Philadelphia College of the Arts; art stipendium from NASA; installation at the World Expo in Japan.

First contact with the universe: at the age of five with long looks up at the stars. "To this day I'm fascinated. The heavens are for me a comfort and inspiration. Telescopes don't interest me."

Thoughts on earth: "I try to consciously sort out the world's conflicting streams without going crazy. I try to see the world as it is; not, as it should be."

Behavior under a full moon: plays ball with Lolabelle – best far away from a big city's halo.

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus