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How Laurie Anderson And Philip Glass Were About To Change The World

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After meeting in the artistic SoHo loft scene in the early 1970s, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass have been frequent collaborators.
Susana Gonzalez, AFP/Getty Images
After meeting in the artistic SoHo loft scene in the early 1970s, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass have been frequent collaborators.

American composer Philip Glass turns 80 years old on January 31. To mark the occasion, we asked several of Glass' colleagues and collaborators to pick a piece of his music and write about it. You can read essays on NPR Music by Paul Simon, filmmaker Errol Morris and composers Nico Muhly and David Lang.

We also asked Laurie Anderson. She wrote about Glass' piano Etude No. 10, saying she finds "new ways to breathe" each time she plays it.

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We also wanted to talk to her about first meeting Glass and collaborating with him in the blossoming communal arts scene of writers, dancers, sculptors and composers in lower Manhattan in the early 1970s. Some of the music that fueled that artistic cooperative came from Glass, the young experimenter who held extended rehearsals in his SoHo loft. Anderson recalls listening to those musical marathons for eight hours in a row, staring at the ceiling and letting the sound wash over her.

In 1981, the song "O Superman" became a hit for Anderson, first in the U.K., and helped launch her career outside of Manhattan's art circles. She's since made albums, films, multi-media pieces and written books. She married Lou Reed in 2008. She continues to collaborate with Glass on projects and in concert.

Anderson says she's continually inspired by Glass' generosity, open mind and fresh ideas — even when those ideas sometime push her to uncomfortable places.

In the interview, which you can listen to as an All Songs +1 podcast, she recalls a time after Reed's death in 2013 when she was rehearsing with Glass and he asked her to find some tape of Reed's voice to work into a new piece. She felt it wasn't the right time. But after Glass insisted, she realized how powerful the music became and they have performed it in concert several times.

Listen to a wide-ranging discussion about Glass's music, the SoHo artistic community and why we are "collapsing under the weight of our own stories" at the listening link above, and read edited highlights below.


Anderson on the calm center in Glass' music:

"It's looping around on itself in ways that my own mind does. I began to listen to Phil's music at the same time I began to meditate, so they're forever bound together for me. Also, I found I could listen to Phil's music in a way I'd never listened before, which was in a kind of meditative state. Not expecting it to do giant crescendos and then loop back to the theme, but to be persistently there."

On the marathon rehearsals at Glass' loft:

"I found it completely fascinating and I'd never heard anything like it before, and I went to many, many of those rehearsals in the early '70s and, as many artists did, we would go and listen to eight Farfisas at ear-bleeding levels. And we would lie on the floor and look at the ceilings of these lofts, and after eight hours later, we would just leave. I remember the sculptor Sol LeWitt saying, 'I do my best work at Phil's rehearsals.'"

On music that drives without taking you anywhere:

"If I'm working late at night on my own music, now and especially in the past, I'd be working late until I almost started hearing in a different way and became less interested in rules and more in just the pure sound. And that comes from duration, I think. I feel that with Pauline Oliveros' music and with much of Brian Eno's music. I feel it with Phil's music — it's very immersive. And of course, of those three, Phil is the more driving one. He's got a propulsive thing. In a way, it's really just keeping you in place and awake. When I say driving, you're not going anywhere."

On the SoHo's artist community of the early '70s:

"OK, this is SoHo when it was completely dark. No street lights and no stores. We were all doing our lofts, so we were driving pickup trucks, wearing work clothes. At that time none of us thought we would ever be professional artists or that anyone would ever pay us for doing any of this. So it was this really crazy innocent moment.

"We also believed that we were about to change the world. So we had this megalomaniacal idea about what we were doing in this so-called crazy downtown scene, which involved sculpture, dance, music, writing — all kinds of things. And maybe at that time, you could say there were 300 artists in SOHO. Probably not more were living and working there. It was a really tiny group. We all knew each other, and we all helped each other.

"So for Phil's rehearsals, if people needed help carrying amps upstairs, I would do that. It was a very egalitarian time. And it's easy to forget this, but it wasn't that far from the '60s. There was a complete counterculture that didn't really need the official culture. It was very isolated from it. We had our own drugs, our own food, our own music, our own dances, our own clothes — our own everything."

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