on a new kind of music

Currents manages to masterfully stay on track, as perhaps the archetype of our generation’s omnivorous nature and the 21st century’s new philosophy of history; a past, present and future which exist simultaneously, here, in one gorgeous musical tapestry.

If there is anything we’ve learned about music in the 21st century’s second decade, it is the uniquely innovative power of the music obsessed.

Before I go further let me clarify. Yes, for a couple of decades now we’ve had the record store equivalents of dumpster divers blowing our collective minds, here’s looking at you DJ Shadow, you know the kind, the “DJ’s” of the 90’s and early 2000’s who collectively changed our definition of what a DJ is and can be, and, perhaps inadvertently, for better and for worse, opened the door for the 21st century’s ubiquitous character, the producer as musician. (For the better part of that duality we’re looking at Daft Punk, and, for the worse, well, that’s neither here nor there.)

But where the musically over-literate of the 90’s and early 2000’s confined their nostalgia-inducing output to the recombination and retexturalization of music we forgot we loved and the sounds of which it was composed, the nostalgia-obsessed of the more recent 21st century have taken the concept one step further, using those sounds not as material but solely as influence, to create new music that sounds wholly familiar.

Continue reading “on a new kind of music”

Ramblings on why we love minimalism so much

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It is, however, singularly more difficult to explain what that really means, and how it is that simplicity and repetition can affect our brains and emotions in such powerful ways.

Lately I’ve been rereading what is one of my favorite treatises on modern art, a sort of modern art apologetics if you will, Pictures of Nothing, an AW Mellon Lectures volume, compiled from talks given by Kirk Varnedoe at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2003.


It’s a defense, in a way, of modern, abstract art since the time of Pollock, and Varnedoe treads waist-deep into the incredibly difficult terrain of defending modern artists and their “pictures of nothing.” It’s a lucid, wholly unpretentious accounting of the artists and their motivations, which have come to compose our modern art history, and Varnedoe is one of those arts world people who invites people in, instead of locking them out.

But I digress.

Varnedoe’s arguments pushed me back towards the place in my head from which I initially determined I would write about art, in which I would refuse to let the traditional critical dialogues be sufficient and would instead, strive always for an analysis, or an argument, which would make the most sense, to the most people, when writing about a subject. In other words, I would eschew dense art-speak and write for more than the .005 percent of the population who can (or want to) decipher it.

The old, transformation by reduction line, in defense of highly simplistic shapes or repetitive notes in music, is a great example.

The idea, in a very general sense, is that by cutting away all excess, anything that could be construed as a distraction from the essence, an artist can create for his viewers or listeners, an environment in which they can rediscover the beauty inherent in, for example, a square, or, if we’re using the music metaphor, an F-sharp, in a way that is impossible when the note is surrounded by hundreds of others.

In the words of Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, writing for ArtForum in 1974, artists, sculptors specifically but the same applies across medium, in this new minimal vein, (I want to say he was referring to the work of Carl André but the subject escapes me, regardless its applicable in a broader way) sought a “phenomenological reduction of the experience of sculpture to its essential condition.”

The assertion being that silence in music, or space in art, allows the mind to more easily process a visual or auditory moment.

But that doesn’t explain, really, how it is an art object or piece of music that is seemingly so simple, can affect our brain in such powerful ways.

A couple of ramblings on why I think that might be the case now follow.


Part of it is, for me, the intimate connection we feel to the music or art as the artistic representation of our time. For me, it has always seemed like the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, for example, was my music. Not mine in the sense of me personally, but mine in the sense of my generation’s. Now part of that is certainly indebted to the fact that I grew up with the music. It wasn’t shocking as it may have been to those who knew life before it. The same could be said for Carl Andre’s floor pieces.

But the fact remains that a minimalistic bent in art and music, makes sense to me (us), it seems to be the art of the present. Our present. And as such, we feel a powerful connection to it. Historical forms of art, or music, are exactly that, historical, and despite the fact that many of them incontestably maintain some of the same intensity and inner energy they must have possessed when they were created, the connection we have to our music is necessarily different.

There are two ways you can take this, first of all, it could be a chicken vs. egg thing. Do we feel a connection to the music simply because it is our contemporary and it is inherent to human nature to feel connected to something you associate with certain aspects of your life, or do we feel a connection to the music for a deeper reason? For the latter, in other words, do we feel a connection to this new kind of art because the language it is speaking, is directly related to our language, our internal language or philosophy, specifically?

Of course, really, you could postulate even further, concerning whether the art’s language defined our cultural language as a whole, or whether it was influenced by cultural history. Everything is a factor of everything else and I’m not a philosopher so won’t make an attempt at answering the question. Not quite ready for that.

Suffice to say, I posit modern music/art’s appeal is directly related to its contemporaneity with us as its audience.

Varnedoe, in another possible defense, writes of the art of the minimalists, take Robert Ryman for an example, and makes the not immediately obvious observation that “you can’t hang them next to anything else.” Like I said, not immediately obvious, but allow me to explain.

Picture yourself in a room with six paintings by Picasso, or Francisco Goya and hanging in the midst of the exquisite paintings of either master, is a Robert Ryman. A white canvas which reveals nothing more than white until it is examined closer. Upon which painting does your eye rest?

Robert Ryman

Everything else is destroyed in the wake of the work of Judd, or Ryman, or the music of Glass, or Adams.

It almost seems like, for a beginner, it would be so much easier to understand the power of minimal art, if that very thing happened. If instead of walking into a room, like I recently did for Carl André’s retrospective at Dia:Beacon, and encountering work after work on the floor, one were to walk into a room full of figurative paintings and one André floor piece. The powerful statement of the work would make more sense wouldn’t it?

Of course art exhibitions aren’t designed for entry-level arts enthusiasts, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The work, in the rather uncommon context I described above, would make you stop and think. You’d ask yourself why, and, unless you’re an incurably, uncurious person, you’d wonder why it’s there, how it got to be there and what it means.

It’s involvement with you as the spectator would be “immediate” in the words of Varnedoe. In other words, you wouldn’t have to get up close and personal with the work to see what it included. It’s right there, all laid out for you. In this case, your gut reaction, of surprise, or immediacy, would be correct. In all honesty, you don’t really have to engage with it any further. You’ve already grasped its meaning.

And there-in lies its power.

I believe one of the stumbling blocks for audiences listening to a Cage piece, or examining a Judd sculpture, is the ignorance many have of the “artist’s” intention. The artists and musicians of minimalism weren’t really interested in art in the traditional sense, which makes it hard (impossible for some) to relate to their work in an artistic way. In the traditional way. They didn’t really want you to. Many artists of the period, Judd and André for example, were pretty vocal about not wanting to be a part of art. André’s “idea of art was related to some kind of abstraction, from something outside of art.”


André, Judd, Cage, Reich, they all wanted their viewers or listeners to examine the idea of experience. They saw their work as an experimental departure, which is why context, in art, is often key, much of the work on view at spaces and museums of canonical artists like Judd and André, was never intended to be seen. We value it now from an art historical standpoint as we tell the story of how an important artist becomes an important artist. But even apart from that, much of André’s work, even the completed work, was still simply an experiment.

I could go on forever. Part of the appeal for me, specifically as it concerns visual art, is the minimalist’s penchant for creating useful art, entailing a strong belief in the power of design and simplicity, to better our lives. Something I believe in wholeheartedly, and another aspect of this movement that is worth exploring in more detail. It’s easy to say good design betters lives, much harder to actually explain how/why in an empirical sense.

I’ve got to stop there though. In summation? Art of one’s time is powerful. The most powerful. And minimalism’s power lies in its simplicity, especially when confronted in the context of traditional, historical art. You can’t look at anything else. And that’s all that needs to be said.

the music that made 2014

Top music of 2014, in this blogger’s humble opinion.

I’m an obsessive list-maker, but there are only several times in a year when it is completely acceptable to indulge the habit and the end of year round-up is just that.

I have yet to focus on any one cultural medium as obsessively as music so for now, it’s the only list I feel perfectly comfortable putting out into the world. Perhaps in 2015, thanks to new writing gigs and resolutions, I’ll have more lists to share when this time comes around again.

If it weren’t for Spotify I don’t know that my list would be as exhaustive as I believe it is. The program catalogs and stores the music I listened to for me, without me even having to ask (if only the same could be true for other media, as it is, I must rely on my rather unreliable self for my reminisces on art, film, theater and literature.)

Looking at this list I have learned some things about myself.

  • First of all, up until Spotify I was a dedicated album listener, now, as you can see, I listen to far more singles than albums, something I plan, in 2015, to rectify.
  • I err on the side of independent electronic music. That will always be true.
  • I listen to far too little classical music, in large part because I’ve confined myself to a number of blogs and magazines for new music options, none of which cover the genre. Another thing I plan to rectify in 2015.
  • Sometimes songs, Coffee by Sylvan Esso for instance, I still, to this day, would not list as one of my favorite songs. That fact notwithstanding, I wound up listening to the song far too much to deny its influence on my year, hence, its inclusion below.
  • It’s funny that you can have a favorite album and yet not be able to pick out one song as a favorite. Not sure why that would be, just an observation.
  • I’m still waiting for another album to change my life as much as Destroyer’s Kaputt. (2011). Perhaps never again.

The lists are in no particular order. Perhaps my listening habits will strike you as provincial, or boring. Perhaps I’ll inspire you to listen to a few new songs. Either way, for what it’s worth, here’s my year in music.


  1. Coffee – Sylvan Esso
  2. Capitol – TRST
  3. Faith – I Break Horses
  4. Wanderlust – Wild Beasts
  5. A Long Walk Home for Parted Lovers – Yumi Zouma
  6. Murmurs – Hundred Waters
  7. It Will Draw me Over to it Like it Always Does – Ricky Eat Acid
  8. On A Path – Owen Pallett
  9. Wye Oak – Despicable Animal
  10. Archie, Marry Me – Alvvays
  11. Shut In – Strand of Oaks
  12. Blush – Mr. Twin Sister
  13. A Glimpse – Rustie
  14. I Wanna Get Better – Bleachers
  15. Queen- Perfume Genius
  16. The Way I Feel – DOSS
  17. Do it Again – Robyn & Royksopp
  18. How Can You Really – Foxygen
  19. Champions of Red Wine – The New Pornographers
  20. Dig – Nothing
  21. Our Love – Sharon Van Etten
  22. Kong – Notwist
  23. QT – QT
  24. The War on Drugs – Under the Pressure
  25. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
  26. Todd Terje – Johnny and Mary
  27. Tuesday – I love makonnen
  28. Seasons – Future Islands
  29. Sick Beat – Kero Kero Bonito
  30. Divinity – Porter Robinson


  1. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell
  2. Wye Oak – Shriek
  3. Sea When Absent – Sunny Day in Glasgow
  4. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
  5. Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers
  6. TOPS – Picture You staring
  7. Sharon Van Etten – Taking Chances
  8. Owen Pallet – In Conflict
  9. War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
  10. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
  11. Twin Sister – Mr. Twin Sister

In which I review a concert, because I can

San Fermin is a band that reconfirms why you see live music in the first place, and makes you wonder how in the hell, you were lucky enough to be one of 60 people to watch their magic onstage.

Dallas audiences suck. It doesn’t seem to matter who takes the stage, it could be fucking Outkast, nine times out of ten at least 85% of the audience at any given show will stand emotionlessly for the entirety of the set. I don’t get it, and I don’t like it, but I’m resigned to it.

So the odds were certainly stacked against Brooklyn-based San Fermin, a relative unknown in these parts, when they took the stage at Dallas’ Club Dada on Sunday night to all of 60 people.

photo 1

First, about the band. San Fermin is really Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Ludwig-Leone, a classically trained musician, composed all the music and lyrics for San Fermin’s self-titled debut which dropped late last year.

His music is hard to categorize. The debut is a concept album of sorts, tracks alternating between experimental musical interludes, and big, boisterous anthemic ballads. It’s a conversation between a man and a woman (reminiscent a little of the Stars duo), about love, loss and being human, and before I wax poetic, I will offer that, yes, the lyrics, with their quasi-religious bent, can border on schmaltz, but, unlike Stars, they always seem to be grounded in reality, albeit a rather hyper-serious, emo reality.

Make plans and we’ll buy new things, try to fix it up Sonsick at the tee-ball games, oh, oh,” the lead female vocalist sings in one of the album’s standouts.

It’s baroque, avant pop in the vein of Sufjan Stevens, the Antlers or the Dirty Projectors, infused with that experimental, classical finesse the Dirty Projectors are famous for, but Ludwig-Leone imbues his music with more stunning, “weak knees,” moments thanks to a penchant for emotional climaxes.

The members of the band fluctuate, Allen Tate, the lead singer whose voice and vocal stylings have drawn comparisons to the National’s Matt Berninger, seems to be the mainstay. The seven-member band onstage at Dada was composed of the female lead (a part gorgeously recorded on the album by the Lucius duo), a trumpet player, guitarist, drummer, violinist/back-up vocalist, a saxophonist and Ludwig-Leone on keyboards. It’s a big band.

photo 3

So about Sunday night. Here’s the thing, no matter what you think, or didn’t think, or thought you thought, of “San Fermin,” the album, assuming you thought of it at all, when you see San Fermin the band, live on stage, it’s like getting pumped with some serious auditory electricity, a “sonic baptism” as a previous reviewer called it. Live, the serious, polished band of the album, turns into a powerhouse of indie pop and experimental jazz. They’re so obviously kids having fun, but they just happen to be kids with serious musical chops indulging in the opportunity to sing some of the most breathless indie pop of the last couple of years, and despite the very real risk of taking the rather serious pop of the album too seriously, they know how to tread the line between sober solemnity and energetic enthusiasm.

The band ran through almost all of the songs from the album, improvising a little bit, but for the most part, mimicking the recorded versions. As expected they started with album openers “Renaissance!” and “Crueler Kind,” before launching into some new songs Ludwig-Leone has written on tour.

“Bar,” with its blaring horns and an especially powerful back and forth between the two lead singers was unsurprisingly a highlight, as was the conclusion “Daedalus (what we have),” with its softly, billowing keyboard and strings which, as with everything Ludwig-Leone writes, stops just before it explodes.

So yeah, back to Dallas audiences sucking. Despite the fact that the audience for the show was composed of, like I said, I would guess about 60 people (if only I could blame that on it being a Sunday), I couldn’t tell you the last time I felt a Dallas club with that much energy.

By the time the band was wrapping up their twelve-song set, everyone in the place seemed to be dancing, throwing their fists, clapping, singing, and most of all, smiling.

The exhausting tour schedules these bands are usually in the middle of during a stop in Dallas, typically ensures that bands, if they don’t seem tired, at least don’t seem too excited about their material anymore. Understandable. But these kids could have been singing these songs for the first time for all we would have known, and instead of seeming more tired as the show went on, they seemed to suck up more and more energy as the set wore on, and it was infectious.

San Fermin is young, and they’re un-tested, and who knows what a follow-up to the epic concept album that is “San Fermin,” will look like. But the show on Sunday night at Dada was one of those shows that makes you question the sanity of your friends, and really anyone, who wasn’t there. You know those shows. A show that reconfirms why you see live music in the first place, and makes you wonder how in the hell, you were lucky enough to be one of 60 people to watch the magic onstage.

Let’s Talk About the Inaccessibility of Modern Art

There’s a certain segment of the population that seems to perpetually bemoan the lack of curious consumers.

We sit around at bars discussing the lack of an audience for theater, music or art, and host panels seeking to discover how we build the new audience for art, theater or classical music.

Why are there so few people interested in stepping out of their comfort zone and experiencing something new?

In the theoretical once upon a time, and probably the actual one, everyone (or at least most) read about art. Everyone went to the theater. Everyone knew the composer of the day. Everyone discussed the arts and everyone loved them.

Then the 20th century happened. In the words of composer and critic Theodor Adorno, “New music has taken upon itself all of the darkness and guilt of the world.” Sure he was referring to music but the assertion could just as easily be broadened to include the entire world of art.

European and American artists and composers and writers in the early 20th century saw violence like the world hadn’t seen for hundreds of years. The manifold amount of changes wrought by technology and innovation in fin de siècle Europe and America meant nothing about life before would ever be the same. Then World War One and World War Two turned the world completely upside down. How could we go back to the way the world was before? The answer was that we couldn’t.

Modernism was here.

This sense of unease and uncertainty about the future and growing economic disparity, complicated by death on an unforeseen scale, inevitably made its way into the art world with dramatic results.

“Everything purely aesthetic has no cultural value,” philosopher Otto Weininger once said, more or less capturing the zeitgeist of art in the early 20th century.

The bourgeois worship of art, in the words of Alex Ross, turned modern artists away from aesthetics at the same time as it “made possible the extremes of modern art.”

Artists were infallible, as they had been for many years, but all of a sudden artists began increasingly isolating themselves. Adamantly rejecting the tastes of the masses, their creations became more and more difficult, almost impossible for most people to understand, but we were more or less forced to accept them. The incomprehensibility of life demanded nothing less.

The history of 20th century art is a study in revolution and counter-revolution; a continuous struggle on the part of artists to move further and further away from public taste and approval into an insulated world of other artists and the like-minded that could appreciate their complex, physical art and music. Familiarity was totally rejected.

In the words of Schoenberg, “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.”

Arnold Schonberg
Arnold Schonberg

Artists and musicians didn’t need or want the public, something brought to a culmination with composer Milton Babbitt’s admonishment to isolation, “Who cares if you listen?”

Who cares indeed.

Which brings me to my point. I’m edging closer and closer to the conclusion (and for those of you who reached it years ago, don’t hate), that contemporary artists, musicians, etc., don’t want you to like their work. When art became conceptual, cerebral and philosophical, it forced artists into a world of art education in which technique matters, but only in relation to the idea, which is paramount. Naturally the ability to elucidate the idea takes practice, often years of it, practice which is aided by arts institutions who have commodified centuries of art into these ideas, offering classes in critical theory and performance studies.

When an artist spend as much time thinking as they do creating, it’s little wonder they emerge with a rather stilted way of talking to and interacting with those who haven’t devoted years of their life to academics.

That of course translates to their art, and well, we’re left with Babbitt.

Rauschenberg with White Painting
Rauschenberg with White Painting. Yes, it’s art. But mostly it’s an idea.

I say all of this not to villainize the over-educated artist. I understand. If I too could throw around Wittgenstein’s ideas like I was discussing something that happened yesterday, I’m sure I’d have a hard time not feeling like my art was above most people’s level of comprehension.

I say all of this as well, knowing full well that there are numerous artists making work that is easily accessible by large swathes of the population and does not suffer critical revulsion in spite of its lack of academicism, (although typically there is a very academic explanation for even an apparently unacademic work of art).

I say it simply because it is. And it’s a massive shift in the way art has historically been approached and created. AND it’s a transformation in thought that doesn’t get a whole lot of discussion.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I personally enjoy digging into the research behind the work, learning more about the theorist who or personal history that informs a work. But I understand that many people don’t and/or don’t realize that that is now part of the artist/audience contract.

Schoenberg was one of the first to express the ideology behind the new art that was defined by its inaccessibility rather than vice versa, but he helped to launch a revolution in the ways we do or don’t approach art. It is what it is. But lets stop pretending like it isn’t.

What happens when alternative culture is co-opted by the mainstream?

David Foster Wallace may have been one of the most outspoken cultural critics to point out that although at one point irony was a powerful weapon of artistic response, especially in the 60’s and 70’s when trust in establishments such as the government seemed especially misplaced, irony has since become so mainstream it is now necessary in the creation of art simply in order to achieve acceptance. To imply your cultural complicity.

Sukhdev Sandhu, another cultural critic, refers to the same in an essay on music in which he describes the trajectory of critically acceptable music. The sentimentality and ‘schmaltz’ of earlier musical periods has been replaced in the recent past with the idea that music’s value is defined more by its ‘realness’ and ‘truth.’ Scholarly writing on music today looks for neophilia, an illustration of the musician’s subcultural awareness, or, as in Wallace’s take on irony, resistance towards the mainstream. Emotion, ‘yearning,’ as Sandhu says, is rejected, critical acceptance being reserved for the alternative.

The problem?

The alternative has now become the mainstream.

We’ve reached a point in Western culture at which everything we once viewed as revolutionary or anti-establishment has become the establishment.

Sure irony was once a culture’s useful critique, a tool to “Lay waste to corruption and hypocrisy,” to respond to the vapidity of US culture. Certainly, the emergence of ‘alternative’ music in the late 20th century; the anarchic sound of the Sex Pistols or the vocalization of a marginalized subculture in early West-coast rap, served as a much needed dose of reality in a world whose popular music had for too long been dominated by the majority.

But imitating the revolutionary work of a Thomas Pynchon or a Robert Rauschenberg or recreating the sound of 2Pac or the Ramones isn’t, in and of itself, grounds for artistic acceptance. A groundbreaking new way of making art is groundbreaking in its novelty. When the work is recreated, the revolution is over, and, well, you get where I’m going.

Robert Rauschenberg - Untitled, 1963
Robert Rauschenberg – Untitled, 1963

When Mike Will Made It produces Miley Cyrus’s albums. When LA’s Hammer Museum produces a show of artists who practice institutional critique. When upper middle-class teenagers wear GG Allin t-shirts….

The ‘alternative’ has lost its definition.

David Foster Wallace:

And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

Whether its irony or some other form of cultural critique in art or music, when something becomes what is expected, we stop trying. When artists, I’ve heard the example of Richard Phillips, can create insincere art contributing nothing new to the conversation, and we are more or less asked accept it at face value ‘because it’s ironic,’ we’ve begun the gradual destruction of an intelligent culture. We’ve stopped asking questions and we’ve stopped having to explain ourselves, assuming, because we are perpetuating cultural norms, our work is self-evident and valid in its own right.


And irony (insert other culturally acceptable means of expression here) means safety.

So what’s next?

In short, the risk of failure. The risk inherent in creating art that is different and perhaps in direct contrast to what the art world has been trained to accept. Risk being labeled sentimental or ‘full of conviction.’ And perhaps the idea of good art can move past irony into sincerity into an art that can ‘open possibilities for the future’ instead of wallowing in its own nihilism and irony. After all, being right is the opposite of being original. You can’t be both.

The move in music criticism towards acceptance and the well-argued and well-defended justification of divergent musical styles once considered inauthentic, naive or simplistic, is a start. When other art forms, visual art in particular, can begin to ask the same of its critics, perhaps a new kind of artist will again grace the spotlight and the age of an absolute which requests the ironic or the rebellious before originality and authenticity can be granted, will be over.

Musings. 4.6.14

Fail. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett

Photo by Repeat Pattern
Photo by Repeat Pattern

Ryuhei Asano, AKA Lee, makes soundscapey, sample-based music which he pairs with his own drawings in attempt to recreate his feelings. This stuff is good.

The superior man is distressed by his want of ability. – Confucius

Learned from Milton Glaser this week:

  • treat your audience as citizens first and only secondly as consumers. and never treat them as a commodity.
  • the dyad of clarity and ambiguity: allow your work to be ambiguous and your audience becomes complicity in the artistic process
  • advertising can transcend reality by seeking to practice the above in its creation. it can reach the status of art and in itself become worthy of meditation

The deepest role of art is creating an alternative reality. – Milton Glaser

Glaser’s ‘Mad Men’ poster (photo by Andy Mills)
Glaser’s ‘Mad Men’ poster (photo by Andy Mills)

 Sara Cwynar. A shot glass with the leaning tower of pisa. A t-shirt boasting of a trip to the great wall of China. Souvenir kitsch and its unfortunate consequence; emptying history of meaning. Cwynar takes as her subject the image and the fallacy of the thinking that a souvenir photograph can capture the living world in its print. The layers of material with which she covers her staged and appropriated photographs is intended to disrupt the false sense of authenticity we receive from a photo. Her fascination with kitsch is born of the fact that history is over and our attempts at its preservation are flawed and meaningless.

Sara Cwynar “Girl from Contact Sheet 2” 2014


Laurie Anderson, Performance Art vs. Theater, and Minimalism

Laurie Anderson “works in real time.” That’s her take on what differentiates her from theater artists. A response to that age-old question of what really is the difference between certain performance art and theater.

Anderson, who made a name for herself in the aftermath of performance art movements such as Fluxus and minimalist musicians such as John Cage, has experience with many different mediums, separating herself from the Fluxus artists whose ‘happenings’ earned them a spot in the art history book but whose artistic merits rested more firmly in the tradition of philosophy and protest movements than it did in true art (although that term’s definition is up for debate.)

Professionally trained, Anderson is a renaissance man when it comes to artistic practices; she writes music, she designs sets, she writes dialogue, sings, acts, and more. If you see something on stage at an Anderson performance, she designed and most often fabricated the piece or set.

I’m drawn to Anderson for many reasons, not least of which is her innate ability to defy easy classification.


The recipient of an extensive education in the visual arts, Anderson achieved notoriety for, for lack of a better term, performance art, but has left a lasting legacy that is often most closely associated with independent music, owing in large part to her radio ‘hit,’ “O, Superman.”

Despite what she’s known for now, in Anderson’s prime, she spearheaded a form of performance art that bridged the gap between the ‘happenings’ of the 1960’s and the opportunities that video would provide artists and performance artists in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But Anderson’s sensory overload productions were only part of what earned her a place in the history books. It goes without saying there has been no shortage of meaningless ‘art’ that stimulates plenty of senses. No, to enter the canon, as it were, Anderson had to create content and dialogue and a production that would coalesce to deliver something imbued with meaning and importance. That’s exactly what she did.

In the 1970’s Anderson began performing a set of performances she collectively entitled “United States.”

In the over seven hour work which skips precariously between topics, Anderson simply used her unique style to portray the (or at least a) collective American dream, in this case broken up into four parts: transportation, politics, money and love, resulting in what was referred to by the New York Times as a “pop Opera.”


The lengthy staging featured Anderson performing her act solo. Singing, ‘dancing,’ miming, talking, conversing (with herself), performing ‘stand-up’ and playing musical instruments (many of which she had altered or straight up invented. She was a pioneer in the combination of unique synthesizers). She tells stories, she sings songs, she changes her voice (Anderson is synonymous with instruments which could alter her voice so she could perform as numerous characters). Sometimes she makes sense, sometimes she doesn’t. Images are projected, props are used, she uses and re-uses musical themes and more. If you’d seen it (or if you have), some of it you’d like, some of it would speak to you, some of it you’d hate, some of it wouldn’t make any sense but you’d probably leave feeling like you hadn’t totally wasted your time and you’d certainly leave impressed by Anderson’s talent and creativity.

Despite the way it sounds, Anderson’s work is strangely minimal. Not minimal in the visual or even sensual sense, but rather in the artistic, performative sense. A sense wherein the performance itself is defined as the copresence of the performer and their audience. One cannot exist without the other. And just as with minimal art, the experience of the artwork is dependent upon the temporal and spatial condition in which the audience member views the artwork.

Here’s what I mean, and here’s a key differentiator between performance art (at least Anderson’s style) and theater.

While it may not always be the case, it can be widely agreed upon that playwrights very predictably utilize their work to vocalize or artistically express their philosophy, worldview or some kind of life experience.

Anderson doesn’t do that.

If you go to an Anderson performance expecting to learn about Anderson, you’re shit out of luck.


Anderson’s performance art is minimal in that she utilizes herself as a medium, “elucidating ideas and notions from a cast of characters” without ever indicating when she is playing Anderson and when she’s simply using her voice to as the vehicle for someone else.

Anderson’s purposeful obscuring of herself (both implicitly and explicitly through disguising her voice) in order to express myriad viewpoints and portray myriad characters allows her audience members to draw their own conclusions and experience the art in their own way, just as a viewer experiences not Donald Judd’s silver boxes, but rather the space between and around them.

She skews our collective notion of performance art, subverting it to her own aims of forcing us to question where the thoughts and voices she is acting as a channel for are coming from. Are they coming from us? Are they coming from our friends? Are they simply imaginary?

According to Anderson, her approach to theater and performance leaves her “freer to be disjunctive and jagged and to focus on incidents, ideas, collisions.” The fact that there is no cohesive structure, no attempt to create true characters or project the future allows room for the audience to work with the creator in orchestrating a complete work of art. Just as Judd and others rely on audience members to complete their sculpture with spatial experience of it.

Anderson was and is an incredibly unique artist whose artwork defies categorization while redefining what we think of as performance art. She’s hard to understand, combining frenetic, sensational productions while at the same time serving as the proponent for a unique, minimalist take on performance. And, as mentioned previously, despite a prolific output, you’ve been fooled if you think you know anything about Anderson from her art.