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20 septembre 2008

Anderson surveys the state of our 'Homeland'

By BRENT JOHNSON, Special to the Times, Friday, September 19, 2008

Laurie Anderson is arguably the most famous performance artist in popular culture. Only, you might not want to call her a "performance artist." "I never knew what that meant," the 61-year-old jokes via phone from her New York studio on a recent Wednesday morning. "It sounds so clumsy. Like a bad translation from another language."

Her preference?

"My passport says 'artist,'" Anderson says. "It just kind of covers whatever. I suppose if I'm with a gun to my head, I'd say multimedia artist. Because I make books and movies and stories and records and shows."

Her latest project is a concert titled "Homeland," a musical meditation on American life and culture in the wake of Sept. 11 that Anderson will perform tomorrow night at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. It's awash in electronic soundscapes and the poetic half-sung/half-spoken narratives that have made Anderson a leading avant-garde musician.

She riffs on freedom, politics, underwear models, Oprah and iPod-toting children who are packing on pudge in an increasingly sedentary world. The goal was to approach the piece as a journalist, reporting sans opinion on what she sees in her country.

"I think so much of American media is about entertainment -- journalists doing entertainment," says Anderson, who mans keyboards and vocals in the show, backed by a four-piece band. "I thought, 'Well, why not some entertainers do some journalism?'"

It's another medium Anderson can add to an already varied biography. The Chicago-area native studied violin as a child and later earned a sculpture degree from Columbia University. Soon, she was writing symphonies played by automobile horns and staging other odd performances throughout the 1970s.

With her short-cropped hair and droning vocal delivery, Anderson leapt into the mainstream in 1981 with "O Superman," an eight-minute electronic single that surprisingly became a No. 2 pop hit in the U.K., and was later featured on her acclaimed debut album, "Big Science." She's also written children's books, made documentary films, collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno and even invented musical instruments -- like the "talking stick," an electronic keyboard-saxophone hybrid.

The genesis of "Homeland" can be traced back to a Japanese translator. Anderson was in Japan working on a film of "short fables," and one of them focused on the feeling of losing something. "You know, when you feel like, 'Wow, I lost something,' but you can't put your finger on what it was," she explains. "Was it your car keys? Was it your girlfriend?"

The translator wanted to clarify, though: What was it exactly that Anderson lost, and when did she lose it? Remembering that she wrote the story just as the United States was beginning its invasion of Iraq, Anderson came to a realization.

"What I lost was my country," she says. "I thought, 'Maybe I better write about this. How does where you live affect what you do or what you think about yourself?' That's not necessarily what 'Homeland' is about in the end, but that was why I started writing it."

Anderson composed most of "Homeland" while touring the globe, improvising with other musicians. She has since performed the piece in Europe, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Appropriately, the American tour of the concert falls in the middle of presidential election.

"Everybody's listening to their stories ..." Anderson says of the candidates. "There's one guy saying, 'We're gonna be in a war that lasts 100 years.' People are going, 'Where did you get that story?' The world is made of stories. The difference with these kind of stories is ... I'm trying to describe things the way they are -- not the way I think they should be."

One subject Anderson doesn't broach directly is the Sept. 11 attacks -- although the heightened sense of paranoia that resulted from the event is implied. "When you say 'homeland' for Americans, it's not like an American word," Anderson explains. "It's too fuzzy. It sounds kind of like 'fatherland' or something. People don't talk about their homeland. They talk about how they feel about their country. A second word that is the fill-in-the-blank word is 'security.'"

Also missing from the show are the giant movie screens or multimedia backdrops that Anderson has often featured in her performances. The setting is sparse: mostly Anderson, the band and a darkened stage. "It's all about words ...," says Anderson, who will next unveil an orchestral piece in Holland. "I thought, 'How do you really feature words?' Well, you make it pretty dark, and you let peoples' imaginations go wild."

In April, a few words from longtime companion Lou Reed altered Anderson's life on a personal level. Anderson was talking with the New York rock icon about all the things she's never done. "We were always going to get married," she recalls, "and he said, 'How about tomorrow?' I said, 'Um, do you think tomorrow's a little soon?' But we did. We got married the next day."

A $10 fee at the courthouse in Boulder, Colo., was all it took. "It was so great, because we didn't have all this stuff around it: guests, family," Anderson says. "It was just Lou, me and a tree."

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