The Soberanes Fire postponed nearly all of this year’s Philip Glass Days and Nights Festival events that were supposed to happen at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. They will return to bolster next year’s festival, which was already going to be a blow-out for Glass’s 80th birthday.
One event survived, moved to Sunset Center in Carmel on Sept. 23, keeping the continuity of the festival unbroken, and precipitating a special collaboration. There, Glass and Laurie Anderson perform together on the same stage.
Though they have been longtime friends and have inhabited overlapping art and music hemispheres for decades, they have rarely performed together.
Monterey County knows Glass well by now, through his annual Days and Nights Festival, through his prolific output of future-heralding, award-winning music, through his formidable stature (Tom Service in The Guardian called him “arguably the most influential composer across the whole range of the musical world”).
Anderson shares much in common with Glass – they’re both based out of New York, travel constantly, produce avant-garde work, practice Buddhism. But she is a singular artist.
You could see her on TV, in her white suit and white gloves, hair short and spiky, sawing arresting sounds out of her custom electric violins, dancing awkwardly like a robot, telling oblique stories about subjects mundane and profound, a parade of abstract and fractured images projected behind her.
You could see her in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s or ’00s, among a society of artists like David Byrne, Kronos Quartet, Brian Eno, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Robert Wilson, Peter Gabriel or her late husband Lou Reed, leader of the pioneering ’60s band The Velvet Underground. They were like superheroes, gifted with powers, or imbued with them through freak circumstances, or developed over years through training and practice in poetry, music, dance, writing, sculpting, filmmaking. Their mission: to help us discern and appreciate life more richly, consciously and meaningfully.
If you hadn’t seen or heard anyone quite like Anderson before – her wry, calm voice, her total commitment to her performance and storytelling – then she likely changed your perception of what it means to be an artist, a woman artist, an avant-garde artist who incorporated such an array of tools that the term multimedia artist was created to try to describe those like her. (She doesn’t like the term.)
She achieved artistic feats. She wrote a hit song called “O Superman” that is strange and comforting, unsettling and maternal, an electronic lullaby of spoken word and looped voices inspired by the Iran hostage crisis. She fought openly and covertly against presidents and their wars. She appeared on Sesame Street. She did music videos before they were called music videos. She served as artist-in-residence at NASA. She pioneered electronic music. She put out art music albums that charted. She became one of the most important women artists of her generation. She won the 2007 Gish Prize – joining other recipients of the prestigious American arts prize like Frank Gehry, Arthur Miller, Spike Lee and Maya Lin – for her “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
She recently made a feature film – a sort-of arthouse pastiche documentary called Heart of a Dog – about the passing of her beloved dog Lolabelle, and about other losses, like the loss of her beloved partner Reed. Speaking on Aug. 31 by phone from Italy, she says she’s practiced at not looking back. Fortunately, she sometimes bends that rule.
Weekly: You are on the jury there in Italy, at the Venice International Film Festival. What’s it been like so far?
Anderson: It’s a little crazy here in Venice. Everything’s running like two hours late. It’s all top secret. We can’t say one single thing [about jurying]. There are a lot of films. We’re going to see 20 films in eight days. We’re also just eating a lot of pasta so don’t feel bad for me.
Have you often been the only woman on the stage or on the dais or in the room full of other arts luminaries? And if so, how do you feel about it?
I definitely feel a kinship with Pauline Oliveros. She’s a real pioneer. Generations after us, there’s definitely lots more women doing our kind of art. It’s really encouraging. Not many people in my generation were doing that.
Are you amazed or alarmed by mobile phone technology and its integration into our lives?
I like that things are getting portable, cheap, small and smart. I can tour in a more interesting way. I don’t have to depend on big systems. I definitely feel I’ve never really worshipped technology, though I like using it and I’m a geek. I recognize these are pieces of plastic. They’re just what you make them.
How do you use Facebook?
I don’t use it at all. Somebody does it for me. I never check, edit or curate. I have already so many friends I don’t want any more friends. I’m not looking for more. I don’t love the [speed] of personal media. I’m actually trying to slow things down. The speed of it is not [helpful] for me at the moment.
What is it like for you pioneering into different mediums?
I don’t feel that way. I’ve always done work in all medias, ever since [I was] 5 years old. It hasn’t changed. I don’t see a huge difference between them. Same with the violin. I’m asking the same questions: Is it big, small, dangerous, beautiful enough? Painting, too. I’m doing a lot of virtual reality things. It’s a huge amount of fun, a ridiculous amount of fun. It’s creating worlds. It’s so familiar because they’re mental experiences as much as physical. You can create a space, everything’s real, you can walk in it, influence it, but when you look down you have no body, hands or feet. It’s wild. I am in the experimental phase. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with it yet.
Do you look back much?
I have a [Tibetan Buddhist] teacher named Mingyur Rinpoche. He says, “Don’t look back.” He’s very emphatic. Don’t look in future either. As a writer I do look back quite a lot. I try not to look back to judge or see where I’m going, but how it makes sense as a big story.
I saw video of the Lincoln Center performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha where you, Philip and Lou Reed joined a group of Occupy protesters outside. What’s your relationship with Philip like?
I’ve known him 40 years. He’s one of the people I most admire in the world. His dedication to music, first and foremost. His dedication to helping people. He’s generous in so many different ways: Tibet House, Days and Nights, getting the younger artists a forum. He’s one of two or three heroes I have in my life.
What are you and Philip Glass going to perform at Sunset Center?
We’re going to base it on some things we did last year [at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee]. Hopefully have some surprises as well. It’s so much fun to play with Philip. I know his music so well that it’s really fun and a crazy challenge to try to find the common ground we have. There’s a lot. It’s been wonderful.
What’s been your favorite reaction or commentary to Heart of a Dog?
A lot of people have told me it’s helped them in their own attitude toward various things. I just finished dubbing the film in Italian. It gave me great appreciation for the beauty of the language.
What do you think of arts education in the U.S.? What is wrong with it and what is right with it?
I’m not really an expert in this. But I have a feeling it’s inadequate. Even when I was a kid there wasn’t a lot, and there’s less now. It’s so crucial. A few months ago I did a couple of shows at Kennedy Center and afterward they gave me some of [John F. Kennedy’s] books. In one of them, Kennedy’s writing about the function of art. I cried when I read the book. He said: Poetry and art are at the heart of the country.
I have not heard another president talk that way – it’s mostly guns and bombs. What an amazing thing to say. I happen to agree with [him]. Spiritual energy is what drives people. You can see in our election the thing that animates people most… my friend, a poet, thought about it, and said the thing everyone has in common was fear. That sent a chill in my spine, the truth of that. It’s a very primitive emotion. It’s more like a state. The fact that it drives us in so many ways and can be invoked so easily is proof of its power. As an artist I try to be empathetic and be free. I try to fight ideas and feelings of fear. I don’t want to be ruled by that. I have to thank my early teachers. I learned from my art teachers how to invent things and not accept things as they are. In first grade, the art teacher would come in after the bell rang. Otherwise our lives were ruled by bells. Math, ring. Science, ring. History, ring. She would come in with a big floppy hat and say, “What would you like to paint?” I want to be like her. You have to teach young people to live fearless lives at a young age.
Education. Example. Being happy. Trying not to think that having things will solve your problems. Try to resist the motivation of getting more and more stuff. Capitalism is quite a disaster for human relations and certain kinds of making instincts. Consumerism is really hard on people. It has nothing to do with your happiness. Nothing. Zero. Maybe I shouldn’t make it so harsh because if you’re hungry it’s hard to be happy. So many people are in poverty and the middle class has all but disappeared.
Now I have great sympathy for people who listen to Donald Trump. Even though I think he’s mentally ill, I appreciate that he says to people “Something’s very wrong here.” It is a terrible situation. The average American savings is $500, one flat tire away from homelessness. That Occupy event in Lincoln Center was part of a group we started called Occupy Art. They did a lot of actions. That was one of them. There’s Phil’s opera on civil disobedience. That’s great people are dressing up and going to see it, but what does it look like on the street when police are out in force?
Will you do “Wichita Vortex Sutra”? at the Carmel performance?
Philip and I performed that last summer. I hope we reprise that. I love playing it.