The musician and experimental performer Laurie Anderson. (Ebru Yildiz)
Tomorrow night, the halls of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine will vibrate with the sounds of drones humming and sawing. These drones, though, are "not to be confused with the little surveillance camera" types, as the multi-disciplinary performer and musician Laurie Anderson tells Gothamist. Instead, Anderson and a host of other avant-garde luminaries, including avant-garde composer John Zorn, will improvise a performance rooted in experimental, unpredictable drone sounds—all of them playing off of the feedback that Lou Reed's openly-tuned old guitars emit when placed against amplifiers.
Anderson, who was married to Reed, tells Gothamist that she began taking this sound installation around the world after the musician passed away in 2013. Throttling drones cropped up throughout Reed's work, including in The Velvet Underground, his seminal 1975 noise album Metal Machine Music, and particularly in his free improvisation band later on, Metal Machine Trio. As audiences were filing into venues to see them perform, Reed would place guitars against amplifiers, which resulted in "ear-bleedingly loud harmonics and overtones," as Anderson puts it, "so their ears are starting to hear all of these wild and beautiful and symphonic things."
Alongside Reed's old guitar technician Stewart Hurwood, Anderson put together the installation from the collection of guitars he kept over the years. But how those trusty guitars might sound, especially within that particular space, is impossible to know—and it changes dramatically depending on where you're standing in the space. "It’s kind of...able to recreate some of his music with his instruments without him," Anderson says. "So it’s very, in a way, a ghostly thing for me. I think for other people it has different associations."
A handful of Reed's friends and collaborators will be participating in the St. John the Divine show, which is tied to the late musician's 77th birthday earlier this month. Zorn will kick off the performance by playing the organ, and Anderson herself will be playing the viola and electronics. Reed's old Metal Machine Trio bandmate Sarth Calhoun will be bringing "crazy electronics" along as well, as Hurwood helms the guitar and amplifiers. The performers will set up shop in different parts of the Cathedral, and listeners are invited to move around the space however they see fit, as the musicians are in conversation with each other and the drones.
At past shows, Anderson says she was stunned to see the various reactions people had to the drone sounds. "I’ve noticed that at first, people stick their heads in and go, 'Oh my god, I cannot go into that room, that’s horrible,'" she says, noting others have felt compelled to do ballet amidst the pummeling sounds. "And then [they] walk in and then they lean against the wall, soon they’re sliding down the wall and soon they’re just lying there. And five hours later they get up. It’s wild!" Anderson compares it to virtual reality, in the sense that the experience is not unlike walking into another world.
The show, which takes place tomorrow night from 6:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m., is tied to an exhibit currently on view at the Cathedral called The Value of Sanctuary: Building a House Without Walls. Some people find the drones comforting, even meditative. Others, like Anderson, say it instead opens up possibilities during a frightening time. "It doesn’t make me feel safe, it makes me feel free," she says. "I think safe in this world is not possible, unless you’re deluded. That’s not what’s happening these days."