Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 30, 2010

A multimedia meditation

Laurie Anderson brings her latest artistic vision — stories, songs and strings — to Stanford

by Rebecca Wallace

If Laurie Anderson ran a museum, the artists could come in at night and add new brushstrokes to their paintings whenever they wanted.

"Why not just change it?" she asked. "There's some idea that a work must be finished."

The pioneering multimedia artist feels the same way about her new work, "Delusion." So it's hard to spell out exactly what her performance will be like in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium next week.

Described as "a meditation on life and language" with music, stories, songs and video, "Delusion" premiered in February at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and has been evolving ever since. During shows in London earlier this month, for instance, Anderson added references to British politics. At Stanford on May 5, she said, there will be "a whole new version."

"It's always changing," she said of the work during a phone interview. "It changes with the winds."

Anderson, too, seems oft-blown by the breezes. Especially the jet stream. The 62-year-old New York artist, who began her recording career in 1980 with the minimalist song "O Superman," is living on the go these days, jetting around with various projects. She was just in Rio planning an exhibit of her films and musical instruments she designed. In Europe, the recent ash cloud tangled her travels (leading to "a long, exhausting bus ride through Portugal"), and she sounds a bit apprehensive about an upcoming trip to Iceland. For the moment, at least, she's stateside.

Anderson, who has also published six books, began writing "Delusion" as two plays for two people struggling with contradictory points of view that never resolve. She wasn't even going to be in the plays. But then she found the work going in different directions, as it is wont to do when you're an artist schooled in so many media.

"You start working on an opera and it turns into a potato print," Anderson joked. "Which is fine, unless you're the person who commissioned the opera."

In the middle of writing "Delusion," Anderson wanted to include some images, and then some film, and then some music. Before long, it became a multimedia work with her songs, spoken-word passages and visual designs. She also plays violin, with guest horn players Colin Stetson and Doug Wieselman set to accompany on May 5.

Still, stories remain the core; the work centers on 20-some short tales, many exploring the ways people's minds spin, others branching off in different directions. Many were inspired by dreams. One, Anderson says, gives a new take on the old carrot-and-stick tale in which a human waves a carrot to get a donkey to do something. This particular donkey has had enough of carrots.

Earlier incarnations of "Delusion" have included meditations on the space program — apropos for Anderson, who became NASA's first artist-in-residence in 2002.

An audio clip posted by London's Barbican Theatre, where Anderson performed earlier this month, is a snippet from the "Delusion" story "Who Owns the Moon?" In it, she muses on an international debate with gentle humor: "The Russians said: 'Wait a second. We were there first.' And the Americans said: 'No, no, no, no, no. We had the first guys there.' And the Italians said, 'Well, we saw it first.'"

When asked whether this story will be in the next performance of "Delusion," Anderson responded, not unkindly, "We'll see."

Other topics Anderson explored in the London performances included the war in Iraq, "Moby Dick" and the nature of happiness, Times reviewer Donald Hutera wrote earlier this month.

"It's up to us to connect the dots between her deceptively glib, loose musings," he wrote.

Hutera called the visual imagery on stage "dreamy and artificial," with the music sometimes "harsh" and "dense" and sometimes filled with "gentler, almost folkloric melodies." His conclusion: "It all adds up to a kind of lulling, questioning multimedia essay on the cosmos, coupled with an elegy for unconditional love."

"Delusion" is also a sad piece, Anderson said, noting that "a few people die" in it. She said: "I really enjoy feeling sad. I've recently made the discovery that you can feel sad and not be sad. You don't have to be whatever you're talking about."

Over the years, Anderson has often been praised for use of technology in the arts, which has included electronically altering her voice and building experimental musical instruments. But she's not averse to basic ink on paper. One of her projects that she sounds the most pleased about is writing another book, gathering more of the stories she constantly absorbs from the people around her.

"To be able to build something out of words," she said, "is so magic."

What: Multimedia artist Laurie Anderson presents her new work "Delusion," through Stanford Lively Arts.

Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 5

Cost: $26-$60 for adults, $10 for Stanford students, with other discounts available for youth, groups and other students

Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS. Anderson will also give a free talk at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 4, in Stanford's Pigott Theater as part of the Art + Invention Speaker Series.

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