Laurie Anderson endures as the poster child for performance art, although the wry sprite with spiky hair and an electric violin prefers the term “multimedia artist.”
The writer-composer-filmmaker-performer’s current output attests to her knack for slipping through borders even as she remains an avant-garde brand name. She’ll be at the Kennedy Center from March 4-6 premiering “Letters to Jack,” which draws from her childhood correspondence with John F. Kennedy; cellist Rubin Kodheli will be part of the program. On March 17, Anderson’s documentary film “Heart of a Dog” — a reflection on mortality that includes images of her late husband, the rocker Lou Reed — will be screened as part of the Environmental Film Festival. The soundtrack of songs by Anderson (and one by Reed) is already available.
In October, Anderson’s “Habeas Corpus” installation at the Park Avenue Armory used huge video projections and fuzzy guitar feedback to examine the case of Chadian-born Mohammed el Gharani, one of the youngest detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The New Yorker called it “an echt-New York happening that made you feel as though you had been transported to the mythic seventies” — the era just before Anderson embedded herself in the culture with the 1981 pop hit “O Superman” and the epic two-night, four-part experimental performance piece “United States.”
Last week, Anderson, 68, sounding affable and amused, spoke by phone from an artists’ colony in Brazil.
This new piece is about John F. Kennedy?
I wrote to him as a kid and asked for some advice, and he wrote back some amazing things. It’s an exchange I really treasure. He changed a lot of things about my life.
You say you’re now working on the “systems” for the show?
There is a series of sounds and filters for violin, keyboard and voice, and they basically are responding to what you’re playing and saying. So it’s a very intuitive and analog-based system. It’s not button-pushing. If your ear is right next to an instrument, you hear all these overtones and harmonics and crunches. I love the way that stuff sounds. It’s about bringing those sounds up and making them part of the music.
Is “Letters to Jack” nostalgic? Political? Something else?
I don’t have an answer to that now. Eventually I’ll be able to talk about it that way. My main criteria are that it’s vivid, that it’s beautiful, that it’s somehow true. “Resonant” is a big word for me. Not, “Oh, there’s another odd new shape the world has never seen before.” I’m never trying to do that.
The New York Times called your new film “Heart of a Dog” “altogether lovely.” Is it partly about your late husband?
It’s about my dog, my mother, time, life, death. All of those things.
Tell me about the January concert you did in Times Square for dogs.
That was the coldest and shortest show I’ve ever done. It was 18 degrees. I could hardly play, my hands were so cold.
What did you play?
Dogs have excellent hearing, so you can play any frequency and they’ll get it. I included extremes, very low and very high. But I couldn’t tell from their expressions what they thought because they were just frozen. Everyone was there because they loved their dog. It was a great way to be with people.
Have your preoccupations and approaches changed since you first began performing?
I’ve never had the nerve to do so much improvisation as I am now. In the past, I’ve been a little bit stricter about how things relate to each other, and now I think it’s not so much logic that ties things together as something else that I can’t quite define. Things work or don’t work for much stranger reasons than I understand. I love that about being an artist.
When you first started, who were your models?
Van Cliburn, when I was in music camp. He was incredibly nice to us. That made a huge impression on me, that fame and kindness and talent could be in the same person.
How is the Laurie Anderson of “United States” and “Home of the Brave” different from the Laurie Anderson of “Letters to Jack” and “Heart of a Dog”?
When I look back, I still like some of those stories. Some I think are infantile or cringe-y. I think I have less patience now with indulgent things. My tweedar has been tweaked. Tweedar is a way to detect the “twee” content in things, my own and other people’s — when things are so self-consciously arty that they’re unbearable. Restaurants can be twee: “We feature hand-cracked eggs!” It’s when you get way too involved in your own style, so you don’t even know why you’re doing it any more. Probably as a young artist I wouldn’t have said that, because I was too interested in the esoteric edge. I think I was very puritanical about that. Now I would try to be more direct and less judgmental.
Politics has often been a factor in your performances. Are you monitoring the current campaign?
It’s been really wonderful to get away and just focus on work. But I do miss the carnival fun of U.S. politics. I’m aghast. I didn’t think Trump had a chance.
Language of the Future: Letters to Jack, written and performed by Laurie Anderson. Friday-Sunday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Tickets: $36-$49. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.