“As Americans, we’re all spin doctors,” Laurie Anderson claims. She’s talking to me on the phone from New York about her latest work, Dirtday!, which, as with so much of her work, seems to have taken on a life of its own. Begun as a musical study centered on the violin and string modulations, it grew to encompass political territory during the Occupy Wall Street protests and then morphed into a series of short stories touching on evolution, history, and the question of why we dream.
It always comes back to story with Anderson, who for more than 30 years has created genre-defying works for the stage, blending sound and movement, image and spoken word in immersive, dreamlike productions. Election year, she explained, is “an interesting moment to look at stories because we’re all very aware of them.”
I’m excited about the exclamation point at the end of Dirtday!
Yeah, me too!
Tell me more about the title of this show.
Well, I was looking at my text messages and wondering why everything ended with an exclamation point, like, “I’ll see you soon!” and “What a good idea!” I think what it is that I’m trying to get tone into texts. It’s kind of overblown, but it’s one way of getting a voice into something. You can kind of hear someone saying, “Dirtday!” [she barks]. This show is all about the voice and how stories are told and how pauses work. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve sometimes been very frustrated with songs and lyrics: You have to stick to this structure, and it becomes almost oppressive sometimes. To me, talking is already music, and so I love to use different counterpoints with other types of rhythms so that you can start hearing different time signatures in a story. In a way, it’s like underscoring in a film. In film, you see a picture of a house, and you think, “What am I supposed to think about that house?” until you hear “dum dadumdum…” or “dada da dada da…,” and the music tells you what to feel about the house.
What kind of stories are you telling in Dirtday!?
Well, though I started out with political themes, the stories kind of veered off into different theories of evolution and ideas about why we dream, which nobody actually knows. I find it so incredible that you spend a third of your life dreaming, and nobody knows what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. There are so many theories, most of them discredited. You think you know yourself, but I don’t know myself; I don’t know why I’m dreaming. I think I’m not unusual in that our culture is so fractured. It’s a kind of interesting time to ask these questions.
Why do you think things feel so fractured?
Well, one thing I realized recently is that when I was born, there weren’t even two billion people in the world, and now they are over seven billion. And so now, every road I drive down, every building I’m in, there are over three times as many people as there used to be … and I wonder why it feels so different! It’s huge. The art world is so different. With all the art schools churning out artists, it’s a giant industry now.
Speaking of the art industry, you’ve always resisted being pigeonholed in one genre.
My work is my work. I don’t know what to call it, and I’m relieved that with the collapse of the music industry I no longer have to be in a bin. I realize the bins were there not to help people understand the music, but to sell it. Now I’m free not to be an electro-acoustic experimental whatever; I can do one thing one time and one thing another time.
Dirtday! is the third piece in a trilogy with your earlier works Happiness and The End of the Moon. Can you say more about that?
I didn’t sit down with Dirtday! to write a completion of the trilogy. I was going to write a really music-based piece because I’ve been working with software for the violin and was really excited about it. As a violinist, I stand there playing, and I hear a completely different thing from what the audience hears. I get to hear all this creaking and grinding and overtones … all these beautiful sounds I hear as music. So I thought: What if I can bring those beautiful sounds with all their complexity off the noise floor?
Then I was invited to go to Princeton by Toni Morrison to write some plays, and they were the most awful plays you’ve read in your life, but while I was out there realizing I was a terrible playwright, I met this guy who had developed the technology to change the sounds of the violin and make it more itself. So that was going to be the evening—just violin.
And then I started going to Occupy Wall Street meetings and getting involved in that, and I don’t know, I just started to get into trying to describe what was going on in the world with this group of people. It kept seeping and seeping, and I added a few lyrics to the music, and then suddenly it changed into these short stories. So now it’s a combination of those two worlds: string modulations and very gritty stuff along with lots of electronics and the stories. Generally I have to figure out what the leading component is in a given work, and in the end, the stories were the leader. So that happened inadvertently.
Your shows are built around advanced technology. What do you think about the effects of technology on human relationships and communication?
Well, we communicate in a much more telegraphic way, of course, and when it’s a little more telegraphic, I find that I make more mistakes. My short-form communications sometimes convey the wrong idea, and I always try to think: Just pick up the phone, and this person will be able to tell through the tone of your voice that even though you’re saying “What a good idea!” you don’t really think it’s a good idea at all.
We’re so exquisite that we can understand that someone who’s saying “Yes” is actually saying “No way,” but we need sound to hear that. Everything goes through phases, and I think that with texting, eventually we’ll be able to use sound, and that will move toward smoother communication. I don’t think we’re getting necessarily cruder; I do think we’re getting more distracted. Long phone conversations are becoming “Yes, I’ll do that, boom.” It’s more of a business world now. As an artist I have to ask myself very often, Who am I working for? What am I doing this for? To have a big audience? That’s never been my goal. I have to ask those questions and answer them honestly because that’s really important.
And what’s your answer these days?
It depends on which project I’m talking about. With Dirtday! I hope that people who have followed my records et cetera will take an interest. I guess they’re the ones I hope will come out. When I do paintings, as I have been doing recently, it’s kind of a hobby, and I’m talking to painting, in a sense. To me it doesn’t seem that different, honestly. I use the same size gesture when I’m painting as when I’m playing the violin. It’s the same process for me in a slightly different vocabulary. I try to find the same sense of shock or surprise; I try to avoid clichés, to get a certain kind of energy in it.
I just spent the morning moving a bunch of rocks around. Why am I doing that? I’m trying to build an outdoor fire thing. Why? Because I love rocks and fire. When you ask about your motivation it comes down to what brings you a lot of joy. With Dirtday! I began with the violin because playing the violin is the most fun I can imagine. I can create clouds of sound that become dark little strands and then bloom into these big pink things. It’s godlike. It wasn’t there, and then you put it there; you made this thing. With music it’s great because it doesn’t take up any room. Paintings do take up room in this increasingly crowded world of ours.
You mentioned the gesture of painting and of playing the violin. How important is the body and physical movement to your creative process?
It depends on the piece again. Sometimes I’m immersed in the visual element, and sometimes I’m a voice standing off to the side. I think of these shapes as moving shapes, I guess, and whether I’m particularly moving as I make them is not so important. I do enjoy watching dancers work with the music I make because sometimes they move with and sometimes they move against the dominant arc of the piece, and sometimes they almost become it. Of course, the best is not to illustrate things but to do something that adds to it somehow.
Why are stories important?
Well, I suppose they are ways to define who we are and ways to get through the world. I’m also very suspicious of stories, and one of my main goals in meditation is to get rid of them—to recognize that that’s just another story. When we invent our stories about who we think we are, they get us through life. Otherwise it gets easy to be sort of lost. So you go, “I’ll tell myself the story that I’m the kind of person who would go to college and then write a novel and live on this kind of street …” until you go, “Wait, that’s just a story! I can rewrite it; I’m the one who wrote it in the first place.”
We are born with some things that are hard to change, but we also design ourselves. Then we convince ourselves that that’s who we really are. The example I think of most is something frustrating happens you want to scream, but you convince yourself, “I’m not the kind of person who screams.” But the problem is, you still want to scream! So why not go back to the assumption and tinker with it just a little—“I’m not someone who ordinarily screams, but under certain circumstances …” What happened to the feeling of freedom? For me, that’s the importance of stories: that you can tell one, and then you can tell one that’s really different, and it’s equally true.
That’s really important in an election year. You vote for the guy whose story you like the best. As Americans, we’re all spin doctors, so we not only analyze the story; we also analyze the spin. So it’s an interesting moment to look at stories because we’re all very aware of them.
To define who I am and what I want, I have to ask what story I’m telling, and whether I like that story.
Laurie Anderson will perform Dirtday! at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, October 23, at 8 .pm. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.