Anderson’s Dirtday! expresses bafflement at today’s world

Laurie Anderson returns to Cal Performances with Dirtday! Photo: Lucie Jansch

When Cal Performances presents musician-storyteller Laurie Anderson’s Dirtday!, the third part of a trilogy and co-commissioning project begun in 2002, one thing is certain: she won’t be “put in a bin”.

“I try not to label myself,” she says, while seeking words to define her genre in a phone interview several weeks before her Sept. 18 Berkeley appearance. “Music is freer now, there’s no necessity to categorize.” 

It’s an admirable statement, but grasping her complex, ever-evolving career is an unwieldy endeavor without specifics. It helps to anchor a mental picture of Anderson in 1947 Chicago, where she was born and studied violin, and Columbia University, where she became a part of the 1970s experimental art scene.

“Nobody ever said, ‘What do you want to be, a painter, a writer, a sculptor?’ I never decided — and I’m very glad about that. I move through different worlds.”

In the 1980s and ’90s Anderson moved through fame, with her single “O Superman” reaching number two on the British pop charts and critical acclaim for her film, television and theatrical explorations.

“It’s my preset. I’m restless,” she admits.

The characteristic, which she says has a downside in that she’s not “conveniently a part of one thing,” accurately replicates the flux she sees in life and has made a part of Dirtday!.

“The show says, ‘We’re going to go over there, but while we’re on the way, we’re going to ramble,’” she laughs.

Initially, Anderson started with the idea of bringing the actual sound a musician experiences while playing the violin “up off the noise floor”. She wanted to project the creaks and scratches she says evaporate with distance as sound is projected into a theater.

“I thought, ‘That’s going to be beautiful,’” she recalls. “But then I went to an Occupy Wall Street event. It was wonderful and fascinating and important. My mind started going in that direction.”

It’s a typical declaration from Anderson: one creative exploration, begun with a cloistered mindset, links to another and is transformed.

“Music became an emotional cuing thing and a way to pace it in another meter than the language was going. It ended up being a crazy, wonderful mixture of this way of doing music.”

Using Tide, a software program for violin, Anderson calls it “a spoken language interrupted by melodic phrases and scored by different types of beats.” Unlike most traveling musicians, she will arrive at Zellerbach Hall with a surprising amount of equipment.

“I pick studio equipment and put it on a stage. Other people don’t do that because it’s fragile and is made to sit where there’s air conditioning and never be moved. I love studio equipment because it’s precise and flexible, so I do truck it around. I keep a screwdriver and during a show, I’ve been known to tuck down and repair it,” she admits.

A self-professed technology geek, Anderson bypasses Twitter and Facebook (“I have plenty of friends and don’t need another public forum, but I’m interested in the immediacy,” she says), for larger systems.

“I designed a park in Switzerland with singing trees. That, to me, is interesting, because I think people listen to crummy sound on MP3s.”

Dirtday! will feature Anderson, accompanied only by limited visual elements and with less of the mind-boggling installations that define her early career.

The stories, she insists, are journalistic, but indicate her shock and bafflement at today’s world, where homelessness may be a new norm.

“Tent cities: it’s not more of a public discussion,” she says in amazement. “People living in last-resorts kind of situations has become not so rare. I felt describing that simply, not dressed up or made epic, was my kind of journalism.”

During her many visits to Berkeley, Anderson says she is fond of hanging out amid students and going to bookstores. Her affinity for the audience here is evident when she ends the interview with a reflection on what she has experienced during repeated residencies at Cal Performances.

“I’ve learned to assume that people want you to do something good. They want to come to something good: they want you to succeed. That’s helped me a lot, that everybody wants art to break the rules, to be beautiful.”

Dirtday! will be performed at Zellerbach Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. Ticket prices start at $22. 

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