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Performing Arts

Her Private Happy Meal

Laurie Anderson was getting bored, so she took jobs at McDonald's and elsewhere to prepare for 'Happiness.'

January 27, 2002|JOSEF WOODARD

NEW YORK — The weather outside is chilling, a typical mid-January day here. But Laurie Anderson's loft feels like a creative refuge, an escape from the outside world.

Anderson has long called this TriBeCa building home and factory, with its Hudson River view to die for. She happily gives a visitor a tour, showing off a humble equipment station, with a keyboard, basic mixing equipment and sound devices, and her headless electric violin. She points to a few Line 6 sound processors with the proud grin of a geek with a new toy. "These are great. Lou gave me them." Lou being Lou Reed, her romantic other.

This modest set-up, no more intricate than what you'd find in your local cocktail lounge, is the cockpit for "Happiness," a new work that Anderson will perform, in its premiere, at UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday and Thursday, and then take to UCLA on Feb. 9. By her often complex technological standards, the new solo work is a soul-searching, minimalist statement--an evening-long piece that interweaves songs and stories, accompanied by Anderson on violin and keyboards.

She is a native Midwesterner (born in Chicago; reared in Glen Ellyn, Ill.) who came to New York City at 20 and made a name in the performance art scene of the '70s. Her work, merging music, dance, theater, art and technology, crossed over to the pop scene with the fluke British hit "O Superman" in 1980. Hers is a friendly, quirky aesthetic, which partly accounts for her high profile and longevity in a field of one. She's the avant-gardist who came out of the cold.

Anderson's lair is only 10 blocks from ground zero, and although she was out of town Sept. 11, she says the event has radically altered her viewpoint. Along with tales of her experiences trying out various work situations (on an Amish farm and at a Manhattan McDonald's) and Zen river-rafting, her reactions to it are woven into "Happiness."

When the compact and soft-spoken Anderson, 54, sits down for an interview, she seems simultaneously present and lost in thought, the same lucid yet dreamy quality that she often brings to her performances. She chooses her studio's control room, which is packed with sound equipment and the inevitable computer running the industry standard Pro Tools recording program, but she points longingly out the window, noting, "This view is more important than anything else for me.

Question: "Songs and Stories from 'Moby-Dick,'" your last work, was a real production number, with props, technical elements, cast, and all. Was it necessary for you to unplug after that, to scale back?

Answer: Yes, I usually do something big and then something small. I could not improvise in that piece, not at all. It was like I had to get to a certain B flat at a certain time. I was always aware of the machine I was part of.

Also, it's really a big project trying to get that kind of financing, commissions together. A lot of that is going around with your hand out, saying, "Please, be interested in this," and doing your dog and pony show, saying, "Oh, it's going to look like this and this...." I just wanted to be on my own and see what happens. I love making images. I do miss that. On the other hand, I really appreciate the collaborative process [onstage] in this--it is so bare, there really is a lot more real contact with the audience. I can really feel it much more directly.

Q: How did you start the process of working on "Happiness"?

A: About eight months ago, I began culling stuff for it. I made some weird trips, because I realized I was bored with what I was doing. I needed another point of view. I needed to put myself in uncomfortable places. So that's what I did.

Another trip [is in] the piece called "The Green River." It was supposed to be studying the work of the Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Zen master who believed that mountains are aware. This was supposed to be two weeks of total silence, canoeing in Utah. And then our Zen teacher, each evening, would talk about the Dogen. I thought, "Boy, that sounds good."

I won't tell you the outcome, but it couldn't have been more opposite than that. I realized that I run my life on expectations.

It was going to be like a collection of those kinds of things. Then came Sept. 11, and pretty much everything changed for me, on just about every level of my life. It's very strange. I got back about a week later and was here a few days and then in Europe.

Q: When you came back to New York, did you find a completely changed city?

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