On Laurie Anderson’s Strange Magic

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“You know, the reason I love the stars is that we cannot hurt them,” Laurie Anderson observed between snatches of hypnotic rhythm during her show at BAM last night. “We can’t burn them, we can’t melt them, we can’t make them overflow, we can’t flood them or burn them up. So we keep reaching for them.”

Anderson’s performance art is full of these little observations. They are part poetry and part punchline, aimed at startling the audience out of the reverie that the music has set them in. In another context, they would make excellent Snapple fact stoner jokes. (“You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,/but you’re always falling/With each step you fall forward slightly./And then catch yourself from falling./ Over and over, you’re falling.”) The thing that Anderson never says, but could always follow up with, is “didn’t that blow your mind, man?” But she is too wise to underline the strangeness verbally. Instead, she intensifies it with hypnotically repeating audio patterns. Her shows feed on the oddity of the human condition, marveling at the creations we have made and their undergirding logic.

Her new show, Landfall, a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, weaves together these piquant observations with the Quartet’s dreamy, lush instrumentation. The team finished Landfall as Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, and the storm and its aftermath haunt the show. As words and codes and cryptic phrases flash behind the group’s head mesmerizingly, Anderson gives little snippets about the time. She talks about coming down to her basement to see the flooding, all the carefully saved mementoes from former shows floating in the basement, along with photos of her dog. “It was so beautiful,” she said, quietly. “And so magic. And so…catastrophic.”

This is the thing about Laurie Anderson, is that when you see her perform you are entering a temple of her own construction. It is one filled with bits of intriguing and startling information, with snippets of dreams recalled and nightmares lived. “Performance artist” doesn’t seem to do her justice, though it is the closest catch-all term for what she does. She is a musician, an inventor, an explorer, an artist, a dry, witty observer. She created several of her own instruments and filters that she applies to do “audio drag,” transforming her voice into the booming echo of authority. She is a performance artist, but also something like a psychonaut reporter, gleaning truths and reporting them to the masses. They come not only from her research, but conducting an expansive and interesting life. Anderson was NASA’s first and only artist-in-residence; she also played a straight man for Andy Kaufman and did a voice for The Rugrats Movie. In every show, her boundless curiosity informs the shape of the performance. I have seen her many times, and no show is quite the same. She is always adding and subtracting, never allowing herself to settle into a comfortable pattern. The overwhelming sensation you leave a Laurie Anderson show with is having touched beauty, having understood, for a little bit, how vast and weird and brutal and wonderful the world is.

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.

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