Laurie Anderson on the Sounds of the Future

The multi-faceted artist sees a future in which artists change our auditory experiences

Laurie Anderson
"The idea of musical chops—instrumental mastery—will still be around," says Laurie Anderson. Andrew Marks / Retna

Few artists have been on the cutting edge as long as Laurie Anderson, the 63-year-old musician, writer and painter who achieved wide fame in 1981 with “O Superman,” a haunting song with robotic overtones that felt like a message from the future. Anderson—who was NASA’s first (and, as yet, only) artist-in-residence, in 2002—mounted her new multimedia show Delusion this past February at the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver. New York City-based writer Jamie Katz caught up with Anderson at her studio in Lower Manhattan.

Can you imagine what we might be listening to in 2050?
Here’s my prediction. We’re now used to massively easy, highly compressed downloads of music, which have very low sound quality. You don’t hear any of the life on an MP3. It’s been squished beyond recognition. So I think people will want to hear beautiful sound again, and we’ll be able to create amazing sound systems, either in people’s homes or just everywhere. The stereo sound we rely on today—two boxes, left and right—is obviously a completely imprecise way to represent the way we hear. Our ears are much more complicated than that. I think there’ll be really amazing acoustical spaces to listen to things in, and the sound replication will be hyper-real as well.

What do you think great artists might be doing?
They’ll have access to enormous libraries of sounds. Even now I’m able to access almost any sound that’s ever been made. I do think the idea of musical chops—instrumental mastery—will still be around. Some of the more advanced experimental recordings are being done at ZKM, a famous German art and technical media center. I went there to visit and talk about sound. Walked into a huge room with hundreds of huge German microphones all over the place. And in the middle of this room was a guy wearing no clothes, shivering, playing the flute. I thought, what’s going on? Microphones were inside his flute. He was without clothes because they were making too much noise. The sounds from a single note were astounding. It felt like your head was a barn, and a big wind was blowing in one ear and bouncing around the walls and then turning into a pitch and then into overtones and then slowly falling to the ground. It was fantastically beautiful.

Do you spend much time online?
I’m not on Facebook. I’m a miniaturist and a confessional writer, so it seems like it would be a natural form for me. I also like that the writing is meant to be conversational. But I like to work on things six different ways before I put them in a public situation, and the immediacy of the Web is not conducive to that. I also find it tyrannical. I’m not sure yet whether it encourages people to be more creative or to mold themselves more carefully to fit into the clean design of Facebook.

What qualities must an artist bring to her work regardless of the era, medium or technology?
I would just say one word—openness. And you could also say awareness. That’s what I treasure in other people’s work—when they create something that makes you go, “Whoa, I never saw that.” In a way, what artists really do is extend your senses and your awareness of things. For me, the making of stuff—the creation of artworks—is not really to the point. The point is to experience things more intensely. I hear people commenting that culture is dying, but it’s not true. People are making lots of fantastic things. You don’t know about it, that’s all. It’s really hard to squash artists. They keep appearing and making things.

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