Celebrating a Musical Innovator

Guild Hall will honor Laurie Anderson for a lifetime of work on Monday in New York City. Lucie Jansch

   With a rich and varied body of work and now in her 60s, these are the days when Laurie Anderson has become, not necessarily an éminence grise, but certainly an artist in maturity and accepting its rewards.
    Or, in her case, lifetime achievement awards, of which she has begun to receive several, the latest to be bestowed by Guild Hall on Monday night. Ms. Anderson has been named as one of the 2011 honorees at the Guild Hall Academy of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Awards dinner in New York City. She will receive the honor for performing arts. Others to be honored are Jon Robin Baitz for literary arts, Bruce Weber for visual arts, and Dina Merrill, who will receive a special award.
    While some might choose a moment like this to look back and appreciate all she has achieved, Ms. Anderson is “pretty much moving forward,” she said on Friday. “I’m not good at taking stock.” Still, she said, putting together a retrospective last year and building an archive of her work, which she has undertaken recently, have given her some perspective on how her career has evolved.
    “It’s interesting to look back and see how often I had a brand-new idea and realized that it was a similar idea from 30 years ago that I had just retooled. I realized that there was a great consistency to what I’ve done.”
    What she has done is an impressive roster of studio albums such as “Big Science,” which contained “O, Superman,” a hit in the United Kingdom, “Mr. Heartbreak,” “Homeland,” and the live album “United States.” She has collaborated with William S. Burroughs, Peter Gabriel, John Zorn, Jean Michel Varre, and Lou Reed (whom she married in 2008). Her film work includes “Home of the Brave,” which is a concert film, and “What Do You Mean We?” She also provided a character’s voice for “The Rugrats Movie.”
    Ms. Anderson has made audiobooks for the Dalai Lama and Don DeLillo, put together numerous art shows and exhibitions, and was even named a NASA artist in residence in 2004. Her most recent exhibition was “Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo,” a multimedia show of drawings, video, text, and sculpture that used the Tibetan Book of the Dead as its inspiration. It was on view in Philadelphia this past fall.
    Although she came to music early, having played violin with the Chicago Youth Orchestra, her degrees are in art history from Barnard and fine arts from Columbia University. In 1972 in Genoa, Italy, in one of her earliest performance art pieces, “Duets on Ice,” she played violin while standing on ice skates frozen in blocks of ice. The concert was over when the ice melted away.
    Not satisfied with the technology available to transform her music electronically, she took it upon herself to invent her own in the late 1970s, using magnetic recording tape in the bow and bridge of a violin to have prerecorded music at her disposal. She has modified the innovation over the years to take advantage of new technology as it became available. She also devised something called a talking stick that can, in her words, “access and replicate any sound” wirelessly. She came up with a variety of voice filters that she uses in her work, as well.
    There is much more to come, and soon. She is recording music for another album and has an exhibition of new paintings planned for May.
    With her spiky hair and simple downtown look, which has not changed much in decades, she appears timeless and open, similar to her art. Asked to reflect on why her performances are oddly accessible even as they challenge the perceptions and ideas of the audience, she said, “The things I do are not exotic, in terms of material. They are everyday things looked at upside down or from a weird angle, a few different points of view.”
    How she relates to an audience is something she tries not to think about too much. Because she doesn’t­ want to overevaluate her observations beforehand, she might include one that she then discovers only she thinks is funny. “I’m able to accept that, because you can’t always communicate well.” She won’t play to an audience, but she will gauge her performance on how the audience reacts to it. “Audiences think they’re invisible, but I can see if I’m making my point or not in people’s expressions.”
    Her shows used to be more tightly structured, but she has become much more improvisational lately. “I couldn’t imagine until a couple of years ago going out and having no idea of what I was going to do.” She said it works best in small groups or in little clubs. “At the Montreal Jazz Festival, there was a huge audience and it didn’t go very well,” even though jazz itself is an improvisational medium. “It didn’t connect. It’s part of that voodoo, the unknown. You’re not out there making shoes, where you have some control. Sometimes it’s not going to happen.”
    With so many outlets for her creativity, “My focus shifts as my schedule shifts,” she said. “When I wake up in the morning it is nice to say, ‘Do I feel like making a painting or music today?’ It’s a privileged life and there is not one moment when I’m not grateful for it.”
    In her down time she can be found in Springs, out in the air, walking by herself or with a group from the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society. “It’s the most beautiful place to walk, through woods and water. It’s great fun.” She might also see friends here or catch up on her reading.
    With regular appearances at events in the summer and her involvement in work at the Parrish Art Museum and now at Guild Hall, she enjoys the South Fork art scene, she said. It was not something she had planned. “I’m glad that it happened organically, getting to know people that way. I like when things just sort of evolve.”
    While she often spends time in hermetic contemplation or reading, she does try to vary her inspirations. “I learn a lot overhearing conversations. I get out when I can and try not to get too focused on audio files and obsessive details. It can depend on the big picture or one small thing. On a rainy day like today, I’m focusing on tiny technical things. It seemed a good day to be inside.”
    With her voice radiating warmth and comfort through the echo of cold wet drops hitting metal and pavement outside, it sounded like the perfect thing to do.
    Tickets are still available for the Guild Hall event on Monday, with cocktails at 6:30 p.m. and dinner at 7:30 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. Starting at $400 for young patrons and $1,000 for patrons, tickets can be purchased through ckaller@guildhall.org.