SARATOGA SPRINGS – Touching upon themes of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, her love of dogs, her disdain for pop culture and a human planetary existence altered in dramatic ways due to a changing climate, artist/composer/musician and film director addressed a large crowd gathered inside the Tang Museum’s Payne Room where she told them, apocalyptic visions aside, her focus is: How Best To Tell The Story.
“The world is made of stories. Our own stories. Other people’s stories, (so) how do you tell a story like that, where, you know, this is going end?” Anderson said. “We’re the first people in the history of the human race who can see our own extinction coming. The first ones. Stories are things that are told to others but in this case, this is a story that’s told to no one. The first story that is: Told. To. No one.”
Anderson’s appearance April 17 was the night two feature of the Tang Museum’s three-day Bardo Now series. George Saunders, author of the 2017 novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” appeared via video chat on night one, in conversation with Donald S. Lopez, Jr., professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and author of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography.”
The series’ closing night featured a concert by guitarist Tashi Dorji and percussionist Susie Ibarra, performing an experimental duet conceived for the event as a musical bardo exploration.
The 90-minute presentation showcasing Anderson, a practicing Buddhist, was staged as an “in conversation” event with Benjamin Bogin, the director of the Asian Studies Program at Skidmore College.
“It’s the living bardo that’s thrilling to me,” said Anderson, when asked to connect Tibetan Buddhist themes with her creativity. “As a musician, I think the way I can most experience what you would call a bardo is in just this moment - because you don’t know what you’re going to play next,” said Anderson, noting that she doesn’t subscribe to the standard narrative form of beginning, middle and end. “That seems artificial to me. The fractured story is what I do. I respond to work where we don’t really quite know what we’re doing and what will happen next. That’s also why I’m also drawn to virtual reality. You’re making it up as you go along.
“When I first began to (improvise), I felt this incredible sense of freedom in not knowing what was going to come next, in responding to another person in a way that was absolutely in that moment - not in some other moment that you thought might be interesting - but right now. That was a big, big thrill to me as a musician.”
Anderson screened an 11-minute segment from “Heart of a Dog,” her 2015 documentary which centers on Anderson's remembrances of her late beloved dog Lolabelle, and concludes with an image of husband Lou Reed, who died in 2013.
“It was a film where my dog died – that was the core of it – but it was really dedicated to my teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche. One of the things I treasure about his teachings is his clarity, things like: it’s really important to practice how to feel sad, without being sad - and that distinction is a very important one because there are many, many sad things in the world and if you try to push them away, or pretend they’re not there, you’re an idiot! They will find you and they will get you,” she explained. “So, (Rinpoche’s) idea is: do not become that yourself.”
Professor Bogin said he was struck by the film’s exploration “visually, sonically and poetically,” of bardo ideas, as Anderson narrated a series of paintings used in the film depicting Lolabelle’s journey through the 49 days of the bardo, “how memory starts flooding through the mind and you’re suddenly every single being that you’ve ever been in your life; the many beings that you are, simultaneously.
“I think for most people who experience death, what an incredible privilege it is that that door opens…you get this chance to really look at it and feel it,” Anderson said. “I think sometimes experiencing time and death and love is sometimes easier when you look at what happens with animals and what the effects have on those creatures. You get that in a more immediate way.”
Anderson became a reluctant musical hit-maker in the early 1980s when her song “O Superman” climbed to no. 2 in the UK Pop charts alongside the likes of Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, and The Police. It was a record she made on a $500 NEA grant in 1980.
“Anytime somebody said, ‘I want a copy of your record,’ I would walk it over to the post office. One day someone called, they spoke with a British accent, and they said: we need some copies of your record. I said, ‘OK, how many?’ They said: 40,000. by Monday. And another 40,000 by Wednesday. I’ll. Get. Right. Back to you,” Anderson recalled.
“So, I called up Warner Bros. Records – they’d been coming to my shows and saying: don’t you want to make a record? I said, no, not really. But, I called them up and said: you know that record you wanted? Can you make a bunch of them really soon? And they said: well, that’s not the way we do things at Warner Bros Records and Tapes. We’ll sign an eight-record deal. What?
“I got a lot of criticism from artists, for ‘selling out.’ A couple of months later, it was called ‘Crossing Over.’ And everyone wanted to do it.”
The song, based on a prayer by French composer Jules Massenet is about the power of technology, and of loss, Anderson said. “Technology doesn’t save you. If you think technology is going to solve your problems, you don’t understand technology - and you don’t understand your problems,” she said.
“It was really about the moment when we were going to go in and rescue the hostages. And America was going to go in and pull them out and American technology was going to shine. Then the helicopters crashed and burned in the desert,” she said, regarding the ill-fated military rescue attempt in April, 1980.
While that international success of the record made it easier for Anderson to create other things, she warns there is also a danger
“Pop Culture,” she says with disdain. “What happened? Corporate America has entered culture. It’s disturbing to me, because it’s Culture Light. It’s America’s Got Talent culture. Nothing wrong with that except when they come into your neighborhood and go: we love the community you built and now we’re going to buy it, we’re going to brand it, and sell it back to you. And we’re going to curate it while we’re at it and say what’s important and what is not.
“We have to think about what we’re making. Now, often you see it’s just about the box office -how many people get through the doors – and it doesn’t really matter what the experience is. I do think that there’s art for everybody – but it’s a tricky thing, to make sure that it’s not just so watered down that it’s just feel-good stuff.”
The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery is located on the campus of Skidmore College On exhibit through May 19: The Second Buddha: Master of Time presents the story of the legendary Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava - widely credited with bringing Buddhism to the Tibetan lands. The exhibit features Tibetan scroll paintings (thangkas), textiles, and manuscripts from the 13th through 19th centuries.