Resident genius

  • by Sari Staver
  • Tuesday November 20, 2018
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Laurie Anderson: "I'm still having a blast." Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Laurie Anderson: "I'm still having a blast." Photo: Ebru Yildiz

Avant-garde artist and pop music icon Laurie Anderson will present five different concerts in San Francisco beginning Nov. 28, as part of her tenure as Resident Artistic Director at SFJAZZ Center, a music venue in Hayes Valley that is considered the first free-standing building in the U.S. built for jazz performance and education.

Anderson, a creative pioneer best-known for her music, multimedia presentations and innovative use of technology, was named a resident artistic director earlier this year, an invitation she said "was a tremendous honor that I accepted immediately."

In a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Anderson said the opportunity to spend more than a week in the Bay Area, with creative freedom to perform, "is something I have been looking forward to" since the invitation came last June. "I love San Francisco and look forward to connecting with friends and family" between performances, she said.

As a writer, director, visual artist and vocalist, Anderson has created a series of groundbreaking works that span the worlds of art, theater, and experimental music. She is credited with inventing several experimental musical instruments, including the tape-bow violin, talking stick, and voice filters. Her first performance piece, a symphony played on automobile horns, was performed in 1969.

First introduced to mainstream pop culture through her single "O Superman" from her 1981 debut album "Big Science" and the large-scale theater piece "United States," Anderson released a series of albums including "Mister Heartbreak," "Strange Angels," "Bright Red," "Life on a String," and "Homeland." She has collaborated with many artists including her late husband Lou Reed, Pater Gabriel, Philip Glass, William S. Burroughs, Spalding Gray and the Kronos Quartet.

Her performances in San Francisco feature collaborations with a number of other artists. Following her first performance, a listening party on Nov. 28 that has already sold out, Anderson performs "Songs for Women" on Nov. 29 with Bay Area musician Tammy Hall, whose piece "For Miss Jones" inspired the concert. Hall is a popular pianist, organist, composer, and arranger, and has performed extensively in Japan, Europe, and Mexico, including a 30-city tour with Queen Esther Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers.

"I love music that's written for a real person and tries to capture her in a song. I thought it would be interesting to do a collection of pieces we've both written for women, and make it into a celebration that crosses back and forth from jazz to stories to electronics," said Anderson. The program hasn't been finalized yet, and "may very well include some spontaneous choices," she added.

The third evening, held at Grace Cathedral on Nov. 30, is entitled "Lou Reed Drones," and is described by Anderson as "something between an installation and performance," and features "the hypnotic overtones and harmonics of guitar feedback." Accompanied by British guitarist Stewart Hurwood and German saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, the evening will also include a viola duet with Eyving Kang.

The set-up for Lou Reed Drones at Grace Cathedral. Photo: Courtesy Laurie Anderson  

Anderson was married to Reed from 2008-13, when he died. Beginning in the late 1990s, the couple collaborated on a number of recordings. Anderson told the B.A.R. she has performed the "Drones" piece 10 times, the first in 2013 at a memorial service just after Reed died.

The fourth performance at SFJAZZ is "Songs for Men," an "evening of improv with the amazing Scott Amendola," a San Francisco drummer and composer whose styles include jazz, blues, rock, and new music.

The final concert, on Dec. 2, is entitled "Scenes from My Radio Play," and includes themes and variations on the characters and situations in her play. Anderson will be joined by English musician Fred Firth, who will "invoke hypnosis, memory, old juke joints, canoe trips, and love."

Anderson, 71, began her career in the 1970s in downtown New York City, on the street or in informal art spaces, including a memorable event when she stood on a block of ice playing her violin while wearing ice skates. When the ice melted, the performance ended.

Over the next three decades, her work also included visual art, poetry, film, photography, and multimedia presentations. Virtual reality has recently captured her interest. She has toured around the world and has presented her work everywhere from small art spaces to grand concert halls, and everything in-between.

Anderson's most recent album "Landfall," released last February, was her first collaboration with Kronos Quartet, and was inspired by her experience of Hurricane Sandy in New York. The Washington Post described it as "riveting and gorgeous."

In addition to "Landfall," Anderson also released a new book last February, "All the Things I Lost in the Flood: Essays on Pictures, Language and Code," published by Skira Rizzoli. The book came about after she began looking through her four decades of work, looking at many projects with a fresh eye, and leading her to write a collection of essays on the way language entered her visual work.

In recent years, Anderson has also created a number of virtual reality experiences, most recently one at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, a multi-functional constellation of galleries and installations, on display through 2019.

Throughout her career, Anderson has received dozens of awards, including three Grammy nominations and a Guggenheim Fellowship for the Creative Arts. She has also received a National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2015, she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for directing the documentary "Heart of a Dog."

As Anderson approaches her sixth decade as a performer, she has no plans to slow down. Her life, she said, is "divided in many ways" that include writing, music, film, and technology. "I have a lot of fun doing things, and I'm still having a blast," she said.

"I don't consider what I do 'work,'" she said. "So the notion of kicking back makes no sense to me. I already feel like I'm unemployed and just fooling around, just doing things I enjoy."

Anderson repeated a recent conversation she had with composer Philip Glass, who suggested she had just "started to do her late work," and predicted it would be "very different" from her early- or middle-period work.

"I know it's true of his work, and I hope it will also be true of mine," she said.

In addition to performing, Anderson said she is spending an increasing amount of time studying and practicing meditation.

"Studying the nature of the mind is baffling and exciting. It helps my work and my concentration, and helps me to understand who I am and who other people are. It's a confusing time to be alive.

"I'm weirdly grateful to live in these turbulent and challenging times."

Info & tickets: go to the SFJazz website at