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Laurie Anderson

When discussing the works of Laurie Anderson, critics often are forced to resort to wild hyphenation: The performance-artist-storyteller-avant-garde-composer-violinist-installation-artist-electronic-musician is viewed to be a standout in a field of one. Her singular success—both critical and commercial—has allowed her to define and redefine herself and her work with seemingly little external generic pressure. She is believed to have created the genre herself, after all. That being said, Anderson’s latest work, Happiness, which she will perform at the Egg on Saturday, represents a conscious attempt on the artist’s part to escape her routine.

“I was finding that I was disappointed in things,” Anderson explains during a recent phone interview. “I thought, ‘Well, what did I expect?’ You know? So I had to start thinking about that. And I realized that in a lot of ways, I was just experiencing what I had expected, and I thought, ‘Well, this is boring.’ ”

In order to slip the stultifying bonds of her day-to-day life, Anderson sought out experiences that would make the blood of your average downtown artist run icy: She spent time on an Amish farm, took a Zen rafting trip and even worked in a McDonald’s. And in each, she found her expectations upended.

Though her experience on the farm—which she hoped would serve as an “antidote” to an overly technical life—proved less than ideal (Anderson says hesitatingly, “They had kind of narrow social skills”), her experience in food service was surprisingly rewarding.

“I worked there for two weeks, so what do you know in two weeks? Well, something,” she says. “You know how you can walk into an office, a place where people are doing something, and you can pretty quickly take the temperature? Like, are they having a good time or do they just hate what they’re doing totally? And you can sense that pretty quickly. And in McDonald’s—it’s embarrassing to say, because it’s such a cliché with the Happy Meals and all—I did have a really positive experience.”

She had nearly completed the piece when the events of Sept. 11 catastrophically changed the routines of millions, Anderson among them. Though she was touring at the time of the attack, she shortly thereafter returned to perform in her home of more than 30 years.

“I played in Town Hall on the 19th, and that was one of the wildest situations I’ve ever played in,” Anderson recalls. “Because live music, really any performance, is about the present; and people had totally been living in the present for a week. They had no idea, really, what was going to happen next.”

In that context, the sudden vacuum of certainty, Anderson found her examination focused to a fine point.

“What do you want? What do you want here?” she asks, not entirely hypothetically. “And it’s the very standard thing that happens to people when something big happens: They look at their priorities and think, ‘Gee, I’m wasting my time doing this.’ ”

What are your expectations? Who are you in context? What do you want? These questions seemed to boil down to one overarching, unifying question for Anderson: Who do you think you are? In Happiness, Anderson addresses that question directly and personally:

“Towards the end of this performance, it moves toward what I call, sort of, stories about stories—things I would typically say to someone to explain, I don’t know, who I was, to friends or something. Or, this or that happened to me. And in trying to rethink them, or tell them in a public way, I realized how I had reinvented those stories and how telling them had changed them a lot.”

Although known for her use of technology and stagecraft, Anderson has purposefully kept Happiness spare. There’s no imagery, and the instrumentation is limited to “basically a keyboard, a violin, some foot pedals—stuff like that.” The point, says Anderson, is to allow for spontaneity—her own and that of the audience.

“It’s collaborative in the sense that you can take it a lot of places yourself,” she says. “What I hate most is when someone tells me what to think or do, I just so much resent that. I feel like, ‘You don’t even know me.’ So, I’m really afraid of doing that myself. What I’m hoping to do is make enough good questions, and not hammer anyone over the head with anything.”

Laurie Anderson will perform Happiness at the Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) on Saturday (April 27). Tickets for the 8 PM show are $28. For tickets or more information, 473-1845.

—John Rodat

Russell Baker

Humorist, essayist, journalist and biographer Russell Baker will be at the University at Albany tonight (Thursday), as a featured reader for the New York State Writers Institute’s Visiting Writer Series.

From 1962 to 1998, Baker was the author of the nationally syndicated New York Times column, Observer, and he’s been the host of the PBS television series Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Known for his clever wit and perceptive political commentary, Baker is a two-time Pulitzer prizewinner, first for distinguished commentary in 1979 and then for the autobiography Growing Up in 1983. He’s the author of 17 books in all, including the aforementioned book that was published in 1982 and the autobiography The Good Times (1989), the essay collections Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), So This Is Depravity (1980) and There’s a Country in My Cellar (1990), as well as the anthologies The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor (1993).

Russell Baker will read as part of the New York State Writers Institute tonight (Thursday, April 25) at 8 PM at the University at Albany’s Page Hall (downtown campus, 135 Western Ave., Albany). The event is free. Call 442-5620 for more information.

Orchestrated Objects

Picture this: two top-notch photographers working together on an exhibit intended to capture “what is exceptional in the everyday world.” American photographers Jed Devine and Abelardo Morell have done just that with their two- person contemporary photography show Orchestrated Objects. Held at Union College’s Nott Memorial, Orchestrated Objects will explore how, “technology of the past can create work very much of the present.” Devine’s work embodies the 19th-century technique of printing luminous photographs on translucent rag paper coated with a platinum-palladium emulsion. Morel’s camera obscura captures the pre-photographic technique using contemporary methods.

Orchestrated Objects runs through May 19 at Union College’s Nott Memorial (Schenectady). Call 388-6729 for information.

 

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