Strange Angel

Laurie Anderson breaks her own rules--again

NT: As a veteran of the avant-garde, do you hold out hope that the Web could help decommercialize art, especially the distribution of popular music, by cutting out the middlemen?

LA: Funny thing about those middlemen--they always seem to find the middle. And if they can't find it, they'll stamp one out. I did hold that hope for a few minutes until I realized that, well, the Web's just sort of a big mall. We're a country of salespeople, and we'll find ways to sell it. So, no, I think that unfortunately the Web's not going to be this Utopian thing. And it's not the Web's fault. It's all these people who are thinking "How can I make money on the Net?" And they'll find a way. Because that is all they think about.

NT: On your own Web page, The Green Room [voyagerco.com], you recently installed a series of automated writing programs [where users set strict parameters on diction and the computer spits a short story back at them]. What was the impetus there?

LA: I really just wanted a way for you to figure out what you want to say. I realized that a lot of times I write to find out what I actually think. Because unless you really have to articulate a thought, sometimes it remains a little bit vague. So those programs are a way to generate a lot of different kinds of words and throw them against a wall and see which ones feel interesting and get you out of your rut.

Initially, that project came out of a desire to write a song using only the 100 most frequently used words in the English language. Of course, those words depend on your mode of selection. I culled them from a McGraw-Hill database of written English, so I wound up with sort of the most common words in news-magazine English. And I started working only with that list because I wanted to get away from my habit of using the same kinds of words in my work.

It's part of the same motivation that makes me want to do a stripped-down tour. The idea of "What can I do with 100 of the most simple words; what can I make of that?" But the thing about that list is that there are only like six nouns. Most of the words are linguistic glue--"before, after, when, beyond, around, because." The nouns were like "man, time, place." So I went up to another cut--250 words this time. I kind of hoped to get the word "women" in there, but "women" is not even in the most-used 250 words. They do, however, include "boy" and "boys." But no "women" and no "girls" or "girl."

NT: That's rather telling.
LA: Yeah. I had a feeling we were a special-interest group, but I didn't know it was that extreme.

NT: Any other surprising omissions?
LA: Well, "love" isn't there. But then neither is "anger." I'm friends with this writer Salman Rushdie, and he came by while I was working on this list and pointed out that there aren't many negative words on it. He said, "For example, you can't say anything very violent. The only way you could . . ." And then he looked at the list, and picking out words one by one, he said, "I would like to end your life." And we all were sitting around this table at lunch going "Wow, Salman, what a choice of sentence there, man." It was really a conversation stopper. It was like, "Whoah. Wonder what that guy has on his mind?"

NT: You have that line in "Monkey's Paw" [Strange Angels, 1989]: "Well, I stopped in at the body shop and said to the guy, 'I want stereo FM installed in my teeth . . . and, while you're at it, why don't you give me some of those high-heeled feet?'" Are there any cyberpunk sci-fi-style biotech enhancements you would actually go for if they became available?

LA: I'd like to be able to fly whenever I want, so I might go for some wings. I'd also like the sensation of being incredibly small or incredibly big. Oh, yeah, there's a lot of things I'd like to do in that area.

NT: What do you see as the human body's greatest weakness?
LA: That we die.
NT: Which you almost did three years ago in the Himalayas [Anderson was stricken with severe altitude sickness at 22,000 feet on an expedition to find Llama Latso, the fabled lake where the next Dalai Lama's name is written on the surface of the water in code]. Visionary hallucinations are a common effect of AS--did you experience any?

LA: Oh, yes. Golden bells ringing on the horizon, going "boom, boom, boom." The whole sky pulsating. Voices calling to me. I lost my hearing for two days and the only thing I could hear were those bells and the voices. Once I got beyond the pain, it was very euphoric. I was laughing a lot of the time. It was wild and beautiful, the most intense experience of my life, by far.

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