Laurie Anderson: 'Dirtday!'
A chance to see this shape-shifting performance artist spin stories up close
Austin audiences have to be the luckiest around. Laurie Anderson in the intimate 400-seat McCullough Theatre? I actually checked the listings twice and then called Texas Performing Arts to ensure that it wasn't a typo. It is not. She arrives this week with her newest evening-length work, Dirtday!, a metanarrative about a fearful, post-9/11 State of the Union.
Anderson has created a genre unique to herself: a music and spoken word hybrid that transcends storytelling into an ether world of pure invention, intellectual bravado, and soul-stirring revelations. The big brushstroke labels frequently bandied about Anderson – musician, storyteller, performance artist – don't adequately describe her artistry. Perhaps the best term for giving the uninitiated a sense of what Anderson does is shape-shifter – and one who can bend time, so you experience it slowing down, then speeding up unexpectedly, with new insight bubbling up from her cross-genre fermentation.
In the late 1970s, the downtown New York City art scene was a hotbed of punk/New Wave and experimentation, with Anderson in the thick of it. She forged a distinctive and easily identifiable style of delivery, but her specific vocal cadence was born out of necessity. "Originally that came from performing in rock & roll clubs with crummy microphones and sound systems," Anderson says. "I decided to slow things down, especially at the Mudd Club, which I remember doing four times slower then normal."
This way of performing projects a voice of authority of überconsciousness, as if you are hearing it directly inside your head. The effect is intoxicating and creates a profound intimacy, like whispering. "It just became the way I did things," Anderson says. "Even in conversation, I've never rattled off one thing after another. I really like pauses and think of talking as a kind of music. Those pauses are as interesting as the words."
Anderson quickly graduated from New York rock clubs to theatres and festivals around the world, earning international cult status. Then she unexpectedly jumped the pop culture barrier with her song "O Superman." The single reached No. 2 on the British pop charts and the 8-minute video was in heavy rotation on MTV, establishing an even larger audience. Her rapid escalation was a mixture of sheer brilliance and cosmic timing – a rather apt description of her artistry.
The piece Anderson will perform in Austin is the third part of a trilogy. "Dirtday! was initially just going to be about music, centered around the violin. I was interested in exploring the beautiful grittiness, overtones, and harmonics you hear as a musician onstage," Anderson says. "I was going along the creative path, and then came Occupy Wall Street. I started to talk more and more about politics and social issues, which at first crept in as a few little lyrics, then eventually formed a series of stories that relate to one another, though sometimes obliquely."
Anderson is fearless and willing to traverse the abyss. "There is no method I use. Each time is so different and a little bit elusive. Like right now, I am working on a new piece for the Kronos Quartet, and even though I know how to write some string parts, I really have no idea how to write for a quartet. It's kind of mysterious. Now that should bother me, more then it actually does, but it doesn't that much. I say, 'Don't worry [that] you don't know; it can almost be an advantage.' It comes down to my basic interest, which is stories."
Perhaps what makes Anderson's work so compelling is her commitment to "make work that jumps across from one person to another." Perhaps making such simple, personal connections is the antidote to a world ruled by fear. Anderson's work not only jumps across to you, it poetically gobsmacks you, and in a small theatre with only 400 seats, it has the potential to be an infectious agent for real change.
Laurie Anderson performs Dirtday! Thursday and Friday, Sept. 20-21, 8pm, at the McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Dr. For more information, visit www.texasperformingarts.org.