Laura Phillips “Laurie” Anderson (born June 5, 1947) is an American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director whose work spans performance art, pop music, and multimedia projects. Initially trained in violin and sculpting, Anderson pursued a variety of performance art projects in New York during the 1970s, making particular use of language, technology, and visual imagery. She became widely more known outside the art world in 1981 when her single “O Superman” reached number two on the UK pop charts. She also starred in and directed the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave.
Anderson is a pioneer in electronic music and has invented several devices that she has used in her recordings and performance art shows. In 1977, she created a tape-bow violin that uses recorded magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair and a magnetic tape head in the bridge. In the late 1990s, she developed a talking stick, a six-foot (1.8 m) long baton-like MIDI controller that can access and replicate sounds.
Anderson started dating Lou Reed in 1992, and was married to him from 2008 until his death in 2013.
Anderson was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, on June 5, 1947, the daughter of Mary Louise (née Rowland) and Arthur T. Anderson. She graduated from Glenbard West High School. She attended Mills College in California, and eventually graduated from Barnard College magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, studying art history. In 1972, she obtained an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. Her first performance-art piece—a symphony played on automobile horns—was performed in 1969. In 1970, she drew the underground comix Baloney Moccasins, which was published by George DiCaprio. In the early 1970s, she worked as an art instructor, as an art critic for magazines such as Artforum, and illustrated children’s books—the first of which was titled The Package, a mystery story in pictures alone.
She performed in New York during the 1970s. One of her most-cited performances, Duets on Ice, which she conducted in New York and other cities around the world, involved her playing the violin along with a recording while wearing ice skates with the blades frozen into a block of ice; the performance ended only when the ice had melted away. Two early pieces, “New York Social Life” and “Time to Go,” are included in the 1977 compilation New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, along with works by Pauline Oliveros and others. Two other pieces were included on Airwaves, a collection of audio pieces by various artists. She also recorded a lecture for Vision, a set of artist’s lectures released by Crown Point Press as a set of 6 LPs water in glass bottle.
Many of Anderson’s earliest recordings remain unreleased, or were only issued in limited quantities, such as her first single, “It’s Not the Bullet that Kills You (It’s the Hole)”. That song, along with “New York Social Life” and about a dozen others, were originally recorded for use in an art installation that consisted of a jukebox that played the different Anderson compositions, at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York City. Among the musicians on these early recordings are Peter Gordon on saxophone, Scott Johnson on guitar, Ken Deifik on harmonica, and Joe Kos on drums takeya glass water bottle. Photographs and descriptions of many of these early performances were included in Anderson’s retrospective book, Stories from the Nerve Bible.
During the late 1970s, Anderson made a number of additional recordings that were released either privately or included on compilations of avant-garde music, most notably releases by the Giorno Poetry Systems label run by New York poet John Giorno, an early intimate of Andy Warhol. Among the Giorno-released recordings was You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With, a double-album shared with Giorno and William Burroughs (the original release had one LP side for each artist, with the fourth side triple-grooved, one for each, so the listener would hear a different track, depending on the position of the needle). In 1978, she performed at The Nova Convention, a major conference involving many counter-culture figures and rising avant-garde musical stars, including William S. Burroughs, Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, Timothy Leary, Malcolm Goldstein, John Cage, and Allen Ginsberg. She also worked with comedian Andy Kaufman in the late 1970s.
In 1980 Anderson was awarded an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1982 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts—Film.
Anderson became widely known outside the art world in 1981 with the single “O Superman”, originally released in a limited quantity by B. George’s One Ten Records cheap replica football tops, which ultimately reached number two in the British charts. The sudden influx of orders from the UK (prompted partly by British station BBC Radio 1 playlisting the record) led to Anderson signing a 7-album deal with Warner Bros. Records, which re-released the single.
“O Superman” was part of a larger stage work titled United States and was included on the album Big Science. Prior to the release of Big Science, Anderson returned to Giorno Poetry Systems to record the album You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With; Anderson recorded one side of the 2-LP set, with William S. Burroughs and John Giorno recording a side each, and the fourth side featured a separate groove for each artist. This was followed by the back-to-back releases of her albums Mister Heartbreak and United States Live, the latter of which was a five-LP (and, later, 4-CD) recording of her 2-evening stage show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She also appeared in a television special produced by Nam June Paik broadcast on New Years Day 1984, entitled “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” (the title being inspired by Orwell’s novel 1984).
She next starred in and directed the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave and also composed the soundtracks for the Spalding Gray films Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box. During this time she also contributed music to Robert Wilson’s “Alcestis” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also hosted the PBS series Alive from Off Center during 1987, after having had produced the short film What You Mean We? for the series the year before. What You Mean We? introduced a new character played by Anderson: “The Clone”, a digitally alerted masculine counterpart to Anderson who later “co-hosted” with her when she did her presenting stint on Alive from Off Center. Elements of The Clone were later incorporated into the titular “puppet” of her later work, Puppet Motel. In that year, she also appeared on Peter Gabriel’s album So, in the song “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”.
Release of Anderson’s first post-Home of the Brave album, 1989’s Strange Angels, was delayed for more than a year in order for Anderson to take singing lessons. This was due to the album being more musically inclined (in terms of singing) than her previous works. The single “Babydoll” was a moderate hit on the Modern Rock Charts in 1989.
In 1991, she was a member of the jury at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival. In the same year, Anderson appeared in The Human Face, a feature arts documentary directed by artist-filmmakers Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson for BBC TV. Anderson was the presenter in this documentary on the history of the face in art and science. Her face was transformed using latex masks and digital special effects as she introduced ideas about the relationship between physiognomy and perception. Her varied career in the early 1990s included voice-acting in the animated film The Rugrats Movie. In 1994 she created a CD-ROM titled Puppet Motel, which was followed by Bright Red, co-produced by Brian Eno, and another spoken-word album, The Ugly One with the Jewels. This was then followed by an appearance on the 1997 charity single Perfect Day.
In 1996, Anderson performed with Diego Frenkel (La Portuária) and Aterciopelados for the AIDS benefit album Silencio=Muerte: Red Hot + Latin produced by the Red Hot Organization.
An interval of more than half a decade followed before her next album release. During this time, she wrote a supplemental article on the cultural character of New York City for the Encyclopædia Britannica and created a number of multimedia presentations, most notably one inspired by Moby-Dick (Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, 1999–2000). One of the central themes in Anderson’s work is exploring the effects of technology on human relationships and communication.
Life on a String appeared in 2001, by which time she signed a new contract with another Warner Music label, Nonesuch Records. Life on a String was a mixture of new works (including one song recalling the death of her father) and works from the Moby Dick presentation. In 2001, she recorded the audiobook version of Don DeLillo’s novel The Body Artist. Anderson went on tour performing a selection of her best-known musical pieces in 2001. One of these performances was recorded in New York City a week after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and included a performance of “O Superman.” This concert was released in early 2002 as the double CD Live in New York.
In 2003, Anderson became NASA’s first artist-in-residence, which inspired her performance piece, The End of the Moon. She mounted a succession of themed shows and composed a piece for Expo 2005 in Japan. In 2005, Anderson visited Russia’s space programme—the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre and mission control—with The Arts Catalyst and took part in The Arts Catalyst’s Space Soon event at the Roundhouse to reflect on her experiences. She was part of the team that created the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Later that year, she collaborated with the choreographer Trisha Brown and filmmaker Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo on the acclaimed multimedia project O Zlozony/O Composite for the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet premiered at the Opera Garnier in Paris in December 2004. Anderson has also collaborated with William S. Burroughs, Jean Dupuy, Arto Lindsay, Bill Laswell, Ian Ritchie, Peter Gabriel, Perry Hoberman, David Sylvian, Jean Michel Jarre, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Nona Hendryx, Bobby McFerrin, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dave Stewart, Peter Gordon, Adrian Belew, Hector Zazou, and Lou Reed.
From the late 1990s Anderson and Lou Reed collaborated on a number of recordings together. Anderson contributed to “Call on Me” from Reed’s collaborative project The Raven, on the tracks “Rouge” and “Rock Minuet” from Reed’s Ecstasy, and “Hang on to Your Emotions” from Reed’s Set the Twilight Reeling; Lou Reed contributes to the tracks “In Our Sleep” from Laurie Anderson’s Bright Red and “One Beautiful Evening” from Anderson’s Life on a String. They were married on April 12, 2008 in a private ceremony in Boulder, Colorado. Nonesuch Records, a book of drawings titled Night Life, and a brand new album released in 2010 called Homeland.
In 2005, her exhibition The Waters Reglitterized opened at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City. According to the press release by Sean Kelly, the work is a diary of dreams and their literal recreation as works of art. This work, created in the process of re-experiencing or re-working her dreams while awake, uses the language of dreams to investigate the dream itself. The resulting pieces include drawings, prints, and high-definition video. The installation ran until October 22, 2005. In 2006, she contributed a song to Plague Songs, a collection of songs related to the 10 Biblical plagues.
In 2006 Anderson was awarded a Residency at the American Academy in Rome. She narrated Ric Burns’ Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, which was first televised in September 2006 as part of the PBS American Masters series. Anderson also performed in Came So Far for Beauty, the Leonard Cohen tribute event held in the Point Theatre, Dublin, Ireland, on October 4–5, 2006.
Material from Homeland was performed at small work-in-progress shows in New York throughout May 2007, most notably at the Highline Ballroom on May 17–18, supported by a 4-piece band with spontaneous lighting and video visuals mixed live throughout the performances by Willie Williams and Mark Coniglio, respectively. A European tour of the Homeland work in progress then took place, including performances on September 28 and 29, 2007, at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin; on October 17–19 at the Melbourne International Arts Festival; in Russia at the Moscow Dom Muzyky concert-hall on April 26, 2008. The work was performed across the Atlantic in Toronto, Canada, June 14, 2008, with husband Lou Reed, making the “Lost Art of Conversation” a duet with vocals and guitar, with his ambling style contrasting with Anderson’s tightly wound performance. Anderson’s Homeland Tour performed at several locations across the United States as well, such as at the Ferst Center for the Arts, Atlanta, Georgia; The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City; and Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois, co-presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
In February 2010, Laurie Anderson premiered a new theatrical work, entitled Delusion, at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. This piece was commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad and the Barbican Centre, London.
Anderson was honored with the Women’s Project Theater Woman of Achievement Award in March 2010.
In May/June 2010, Anderson curated the Vivid Live festival in Sydney, Australia together with Lou Reed. Her new album Homeland was released on June 22.
She performed “Only an Expert” on July 15, 2010 on the Late Show with David Letterman, and her song “Gravity’s Angel” was featured on the Fox TV show So You Think You Can Dance the same day.
She appears as a guest musician on several tracks from experimental jazz musician Colin Stetson’s 2011 album New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges.
Anderson developed a theatrical work, entitled “Another Day in America”. The first public showings of this work-in-progress took place in Calgary, Alberta in January 2012 as part of Theatre Junction GRAND’s 2011–12 season and One Yellow Rabbit’s annual arts festival, the High Performance Rodeo.
Anderson was named the Inaugural Distinguished Artist-In-Residence at The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center(EMPAC) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in May 2012.
Anderson received the Honorary Doctor of Arts from the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in 2013.
In June/July 2013, Anderson performed “The Language of the Future” and guest curate at the River to River Festival in New York City.
In November 2013 she was the featured Guest of Honor at the B3 Biennale of the Moving Image in Frankfurt, Germany
Anderson has invented several experimental musical instruments that she has used in her recordings and performances.
The tape-bow violin is an instrument created by Laurie Anderson in 1977. It uses recorded magnetic tape in place of the traditional horsehair in the bow, and a magnetic tape head in the bridge. Anderson has updated and modified this device over the years.
She can be seen using a later generation of this device in her film Home of the Brave during the “Late Show” segment in which she manipulates a sentence recorded by William S. Burroughs. This version of the violin discarded magnetic tape and instead used MIDI-based audio samples, triggered by contact with the bow.
The talking stick is a 6-foot-long baton-like MIDI controller. It was used in the Moby-Dick tour in 1999–2000. She described it in program notes as follows:
The Talking Stick is a new instrument that I designed in collaboration with a team from Interval Research and Bob Bielecki. It is a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound. It works on the principle of granular synthesis. This is the technique of breaking sound into tiny segments, called grains, and then playing them back in different ways. The computer rearranges the sound fragments into continuous strings or random clusters that are played back in overlapping sequences to create new textures. The grains are very short, a few hundredths of a second. Granular synthesis can sound smooth or choppy depending on the size of the grain and the rate at which they’re played. The grains are like film frames. If you slow them down enough, you begin to hear them separately.
A recurring motif in Anderson’s work is the use of a voice filter which deepens her voice into a masculine register, a technique which Anderson has referred to as “audio drag”. Anderson has long used the resulting character in her work as a “voice of authority” or conscience, although she later decided that he had lost much of his authority and instead began utilizing the voice to provide historical or sociopolitical commentary how to squeeze a lemon by hand, as he does on “Another Day in America”, a piece from her 2010 album Homeland.
For much of Anderson’s career, the character was nameless or called the Voice of Authority, although more recently, he was dubbed Fenway Bergamot at Lou Reed’s suggestion. The cover of Homeland depicts Anderson in character as Bergamot, with streaks of black makeup to give her a moustache and thick, masculine eyebrows.
In “The Cultural Ambassador”, a piece on her album The Ugly One with the Jewels, Anderson explained some of her perspective on the character:
(Anderson:) I was carrying a lot of electronics so I had to keep unpacking everything and plugging it in and demonstrating how it all worked, and I guess I did seem a little fishy—a lot of this stuff wakes up displaying LED program readouts that have names like Atom Smasher, and so it took a while to convince them that they weren’t some kind of portable espionage system. So I’ve done quite a few of these sort of impromptu new music concerts for small groups of detectives and customs agents and I’d have to keep setting all this stuff up and they’d listen for a while and they’d say: So uh, what’s this? And I’d pull out something like
(Bergamot:) this filter, and say, now this is what I like to think of as the voice of authority. And it would take me a while to tell them how I used it for songs that were, you know, about various forms of control, and they would say, now why would you want to talk like that? And I’d look around at the SWAT teams, and the undercover agents, and the dogs, and the radio in the corner, tuned to the Super Bowl coverage of the war. And I’d say, take a wild guess.
The single “Sharkey’s Day” was for many years the theme song of Lifetime Television. Anderson also recorded a number of limited-release singles in the late 1970s (many issued from the Holly Soloman Gallery), songs from which were included on a number of compilations, including Giorno Poetry Systems’ The Nova Convention and You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With. Over the years she has performed on recordings by other musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and Jean Michel Jarre. She also contributed lyrics to the Philip Glass album Songs from Liquid Days, and contributed a spoken-word piece to a tribute album in honor of John Cage.
Formal music videos have been produced for:
In addition, in lieu of making another music video for her Strange Angels album, Anderson taped a series of 1- to 2-minute “Personal Service Announcements” in which she spoke about issues such as the U.S. national debt and the arts scene. Some of the music used in these productions came from her soundtrack of Swimming to Cambodia. The PSAs were frequently shown between music videos on VH-1 in early 1990.