Many titles have been affixed to Laurie Anderson’s name: polymath, poet, composer, filmmaker, activist, raconteur—and as of February 10, she can add Grammy-award winner to that list.
Anderson won the award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for Landfall, a collaboration with the prolific Kronos Quartet. Written in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the album was released by Nonesuch Records in early 2018 but began as a live multimedia performance five years earlier. Landfall blends Anderson’s electronic innovations and spoken word with Kronos’s impeccable performance to offer an exploration of loss after storm surges inundated the basement of her Manhattan home. The floodwaters laid waste to the myriad props, instruments, documents, and other materials she had collected over her storied career.
Tricycle spoke to Anderson, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, by phone about her latest award as she was preparing for a performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival at the Art Institute of Chicago.
You’ve certainly had a lot of mainstream success, but you never seem to court it directly. At this point in your career, what does it mean to win the Grammy for your album Landfall?
First of all, it was a record I made years ago, so it’s very odd to have it be considered. Also, I made it with the Kronos Quartet, and it really was a collaboration. So, it’d be a little bit odd not to completely share that with them—and also with all of the engineers. Frankly, it made me think about how many people participate in making a record. I usually work by myself—I’ll mix the record and then have it mastered. I’ll be really obsessed with it. But I didn’t mix this album at all. I just listened to the mixes that other people made. So I have a real appreciation for the collaborative process on this one.
The nicest part for me was that when I won, I suddenly heard from people that I hadn’t heard from in a while, saying, “Hey, congrats on the Grammy.” I realized, whoa, that [the album] had a ripple effect, and I felt this strange connection to the world that we have once in a while.
This was your fourth Grammy nomination. Do you think anything was different this time?
I’d be a poor person to try to analyze what happened. I have been on a lot of committees to give prizes, and it’s almost flukeish what wins sometimes. Giving a prize doesn’t necessarily mean that the winner is the best or even that people agreed that it was. One time, I was on a committee to give a sculpture prize, and all of the work was awful. We said, “We’re not going to give a prize.” And they said, “You have to give a prize.” And we said, “We can’t give a prize, and here’s why: then that person will make more of this stuff.”
The other thing you have to consider is that there’s so much music being made now. It’s overwhelming. When I first started making records, my own field of experimental—whatever you call it—music was tiny. And here I am at Pitchfork [Music Festival in Chicago] with so many young, experimental musicians doing things that are really exciting. It’s almost a genre now.
Landfall is inspired by Hurricane Sandy and the things you lost in the flood. Is this album influenced by Buddhist teachings on impermanence?
I’m not sure what influences what, but I know that being a Buddhist and being an artist are the same for me. In both cases, it’s a very simple situation in which you’re asked to do just one thing—and be aware of it. That’s what I’ve always tried to do as an artist. When I realized the similarities, the way they influenced each other got more and more intense. I’m not even sure it’s influence; they’re almost one thing that changes shape depending on what I’m doing. The parallels are particularly clear in improvisation, because that’s so focused on the present.
Related: Taking Chances: Laurie Anderson and John Cage in Conversation
Was there improvisation on this album?
We improvised a couple of the sections in Landfall; the members of Kronos are really great improvisers. I would say, “Let’s improvise around this phrase,” and then we would play and I would turn that into parts and put those parts into the score. And then we would improvise on top of that.
There was a lot of present-tense work in that process. For me, being in the present in music is one of the most exciting things I can do. It’s the closest to meditation that I can find. It feels like a real practice.
That’s what I’m doing here at Pitchfork: I’m performing some duets with the classically trained cellist Rubin Kodheli using a lot of electronic sounds. Kodheli can do anything, so it’s completely thrilling to play with him.
I’ve also heard you say that you push back against the idea that music or art is not about self-expression but about curiosity. Does that come out of your practice?
Well, I hope I didn’t say that, because it sounds so know-it-all. I don’t know what music is about. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard is about self-expression. I hope that was a misquote.
I’m paraphrasing, for sure.
Music is reinvented every time somebody whistles or makes a symphony. Tonight, I’m going to try a hypnosis project that has to do with sound and music, and I’m going to see what happens. It’s a combination of improv and stories that try to get you to feel the way sound goes into your ears and curls around and goes into your mind and mixes with the rest of the stuff that’s sitting in there—and to really feel what that’s like, in terms of a sensation.
This way of looking at sound and sensation is like what I’ve been trained to do with [Tibetan Buddhist teacher] Mingyur Rinpoche. I’ve been his student for a long time. This summer, I lost a lot of sight in one eye. As part of the treatment—which involved a gas bubble being injected into the eye—I had to keep my head down for ten days. So I listened to a lot of Mingyur’s teaching on sound and emptiness, and they were really wonderful. They were about listening to music in various capacities in your mind. For example, one involved listening intellectually, and another would be emotionally. He would play a piece of music and say, “Listen to this and instead of getting involved in the piece of music, step back and watch your emotions.” He played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is a string of emotions one after another—a new emotion every bar: triumph, despair, regret.
I follow some of his teaching when I’m writing now, and it’s a new way for me to think about music. So music and meditation are coming closer and closer.
Related: The Good Shepherd by Mingyur Rinpoche
In one of the songs on the album, you say, “99 percent of all animals that ever lived are now extinct.” What role does climate change play in this album?
Oh, gosh. I think it’s pretty embedded in the stories. I do believe that life as we know it will be disappearing from the planet. We’re the first human beings who have ever had to contemplate that and try to express it. What is it to tell the story of your own extinction? Stories are things that you tell to other people, and in this case, you would tell that story to no one. Is it still a story if you tell it to no one? My answer is: yes, it is. It’s an awesome job to do that.
I asked one of my teachers, “What happens to the big karmic wheel if we all become extinct?” He said, “Well, that’s why the Buddha talked about other universes.” I was like, “Whoa! That’s an amazing answer!” I’m always very happy when my worldview gets colossally expanded like that. Here we are on Earth, but it’s not the only thing happening.
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