The versatile, eclectic multimedia artist and musician Laurie Anderson has taken stock of her life's work, pursuing reissues and retrospectives while always forging ahead.



For nearly five decades, Laurie Anderson has explored the connections between art and technology. Her performance works include a multimedia opera, a musical concert for dogs and a virtual reality installation where words and drawings come to life. Anderson's 1982 debut album "Big Science" is being reissued this month. Allyson McCabe catches up with an artist who has always been ahead of her time.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Last October, Laurie Anderson appeared at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum to recreate one of her earliest works, "Duets On Ice."


MCCABE: While wearing ice skates frozen into blocks of ice, she played her violin along with a recording cleverly stashed inside the instrument. When the ice melted away, her performance ended. Anderson might have pursued a career as a concert violinist, but in 1966, her curiosity brought her to New York City to study art and to make it.

LAURIE ANDERSON: At Barnard, they thought making art was very messy, and they'd rather that you didn't do that. So I had my studio downtown and then studied at the school and didn't mix them because I thought if I mixed these, I'm going to start making really academic stuff and correct stuff. And I just want to try to find out my own way.

MCCABE: In the early '70s, the Whitney Museum hired artists to teach school kids. B. George recalls meeting Anderson on the first day of class.

B GEORGE: She said she did performances, and I sort of knew what that was - a new word that was being used to sort of describe people who said they were in the art world but worked in a more public way and not making paintings or sculptures.

MCCABE: Joined by electronics whiz Bob Bielecki, they searched the streets for inspiration and spare parts.

GEORGE: You could buy anything there. I think Bobby once said he got a lunar landing module from the space probe on Canal Street for five bucks. It was, like, great stuff.

ANDERSON: You know, just a heaven for somebody who could just rifle through these boxes and go, what's this? I wonder what that does.

MCCABE: In one of their experiments, they strung Anderson's violin bow with audio tape and rigged the bridge with a tape head. As Anderson moved her bow back and forth, she could make it talk.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No one, no pair one (ph).

MCCABE: She also started writing songs. Clocking in at over eight minutes, "O Superman" wasn't your standard pop fare.


ANDERSON: (Singing) Ha, ha, ha (ph). O, Superman, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

MCCABE: George released the song on his own independent label then spun it as a guest on John Peel's influential BBC radio show. After it shot up the U.K. charts, Warner Bros. signed Anderson to an eight-album record deal.


ANDERSON: (Singing) Ha, ha, ha. Mom and Dad, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

MCCABE: Her 1982 debut "Big Science" sold over 100,000 copies. Her 1984 follow-up, featuring appearances by Peter Gabriel, Nile Rodgers and William S. Burroughs, topped that. Critics hailed Anderson as a crossover sensation, but she says that was never her goal.

ANDERSON: I didn't want to be in the pop world. I really didn't. It didn't appeal to me because I was an artist. I wanted to go and make exciting shows in Europe. You know, I didn't want to do records.

MCCABE: Instead, Anderson created a multimedia traveling show based on "Moby Dick" and an exploration of space set in motion by her experience as NASA's first and only artist in residence. She worked with artists across genres, including her husband, the rock icon Lou Reed.


LAURIE ANDERSON AND LOU REED: (Singing) In our sleep as we speak, listen to the drums beat as we speak.

ANDERSON: He worked all the time, but it was all just so much part of the fabric of life, making things and doing things and having fun and being curious.

MCCABE: Anderson brought that sensibility to her collaboration with Kronos Quartet, recalls founder David Harrington.

DAVID HARRINGTON: We went to her studio and improvised together for a few hours at a time, and she recorded every note (laughter). There were a lot of experiments. It was like being in a laboratory, and she would look into the microscope and see things that we didn't see or hear.

MCCABE: As in her earlier work, Anderson was interested in how things that start out as one thing can become something else. When Hurricane Sandy flooded her basement in 2012, decades of lost belongings surfaced in the music.


ANDERSON: A fiberglass plane, a motorcycle, countless papers and books.

MCCABE: When Reed died the following year, Harrington says that devastating loss also became part of their work.

HARRINGTON: Her voice and the way she inflected the words changed and became deeper and deeper and deeper.


ANDERSON: Now, recently, I got a book listing all the animal species that have disappeared off the face of the Earth.

MCCABE: Anderson and Kronos Quartet won a Grammy for their 2018 album "Landfall." Since then, she's remained attuned to questions of transience, imagining what it's like to fall through time into other worlds.

ANDERSON: I don't think of things now as losing or finding or, you know, some big lost and found department. I really think that things are probably all happening at once and that you're losing and finding at the same time.

MCCABE: "Big Science" is the first of several album reissues on the horizon. The Hirshhorn will open a major retrospective as soon as the pandemic permits. Anderson, meanwhile, is working on an entirely new slate of projects, as always.

For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.