Laurie Anderson inaugurated her recording career nearly 40 years ago with a song titled “It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the hole.”
She has been called the premier performance artist of our time, the creator of avant-pop music and electronic solo operas that combine visuals, words and music as a way of exploring the surrealism of everyday life — its terrors, its sadness and, just occasionally, its joys.
Anderson’s own view of the matter is not quite so grand. “I don’t think of my work as avant-garde,” she has said repeatedly. “I’m just a storyteller.” She names stand-up comedy as the closest parallel to what she does.
To be sure, there were wry moments throughout Anderson’s 80-minute, intermission-free concert at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Saturday night, a rare (and quickly sold-out) Twin Cities appearance sponsored by the Walker Art Center, Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (as part of its Liquid Music Series).
A few in the audience might have thought of Henny Youngman and his violin as the 68-year-old Anderson, an elfin figure standing alone center-stage at her keyboard, played drones and dreamy, melancholy interludes on her electric violin.
But Anderson’s predilection for Zen-like whimsy and stories that tend to drift off rather than finish with a punch line has never overshadowed her seriousness as an artist nor her political engagement, and certainly didn’t on this occasion.
Titled “The Language of the Future,” the concert was a mix of pieces old and new. The subtitle, “Letters To Jack,” was the spine of the evening. As Anderson told it, she was 13 in 1960 when she ran for student president in her hometown of Glen Ellyn, Ill. She wrote a letter to John Kennedy, who was then running for president against Richard Nixon, asking him for political advice. To her surprise, Kennedy wrote back. His chief suggestion: find out what the students want and then promise to give it to them.
After she won the election, she wrote Kennedy a note, saying, ”Best wishes on your own campaign.” He sent her a dozen roses.
Later in the show she imagines writing Kennedy about life in 2016. “Dear Jack: The world is different now. Everyone has guns.” She continues the thread in her finale, switching to one of her trademark Vocoder voices, with a letter to Donald Trump who, like Kennedy, promises his constituents everything. But what a difference in manner — and manners — between the two. Her message to Trump: “Love is all that matters.”
Equally effective was a dreamlike memory evoking the terror of childhood: her slow, painful recovery from a swimming accident, having broken her back during a misjudged dive. A few of the evening’s shorter pieces acted as filler of the shaggy-dog variety: a failed book club, a trip to Bali. Her visual images — slides and film projected onto an upstage screen, suggesting loneliness and despair — were as evocative as ever. She credits Brian Scott for the lighting design and Shane Koss for the smoothly coordinated tech presentation.
There were hits and misses Saturday night. Anderson remains a treasure, nonetheless.
Her latest film documentary, “Heart of a Dog,” as poignant a work as she has ever produced, will be shown on HBO starting April 25. (The audio recording is out on Nonesuch.) It is dedicated to her husband, Lou Reed, who died in 2013.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.