Laurie Anderson sings, composes music, paints, sculptures, makes movies, invents new kinds of violins, plays saxophone and synthesizer, and combines all these talents in multimedia ''performance art'' shows.
But at heart, she thinks of herself as just a storyteller. ''All these things are offshoots of words,'' she says. ''Words are the most important part, and if they don't mean a lot, I have a hard time with the rest of it.''
Working in so many areas is a challenge, but Miss Anderson takes it in stride. ''I've always done a lot of different things,'' she says. ''The usual categories don't seem that important to me.'' And there are advantages: ''If I get stuck on a song I'm writing, I can go work on the film awhile. . . .''
Her activities have attracted a growing audience. Her magnum opus, a six-hour show called ''United States,'' had fans lined up for blocks outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music last season. Her record ''O Superman'' became a pop hit in England, and her album ''Big Science'' (Warner Bros. BSK 3674) has won praise from American listeners.
Her latest musical project is ''Long Time No See,'' composed for a dance called ''Set and Reset,'' by the Trisha Brown Company. Its first performances took place recently at the Brooklyn Academy, decked out with a Robert Rauschenberg ''visual presentation'' and Beverly Emmons lighting. Scored for bells, percussion, guitar, and electronic keyboards, the piece is now part of the Brown touring repertoire.
Also happening is an Anderson retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (running through Dec. 4), including works made from 1968 on. A new 45-r.p.m. disc has just been released by Warner Bros., including a ''sort of ghost song'' based on part of her Trisha Brown piece. Another single is due shortly, and she is mixing an LP version of ''United States,'' which she expects will be a six-record album. Her next American tour begins in April.
I interrupted the busy Anderson schedule the other day by showing up at her downtown loft to ask about recent doings, and to get her thoughts on the shape of her career thus far. We repaired to a semi-soundproof enclosure crammed with keyboards, recording equipment, a massive control console, and a computer or two.
''High-tech,'' I remarked. ''Medium-tech,'' she amended, beginning our talk with the bemused modesty that characterizes much of what she says and does.
Although she's an artistic explorer, leaping over boundaries and wriggling out of pigeonholes, Anderson's work is remarkably accessible to audiences. This reflects a conscious effort to reach out and touch as many different people as possible.
''I began by playing for a small, insular community of downtown artists,'' she recalls. ''It was very reassuring, but also very snobbish. We played for each other, and thought nobody else could really penetrate what we were doing.''
A breakthrough came when she agreed to perform at a Houston museum, but she found the place ''acoustically horrible.'' Looking for a different hall, she wound up at ''a kind of old barn'' that usually presented country-and-western music.
''The regular customers were there,'' she says, ''and so was the art world. It was a strange mix of people, but the regulars 'got' what I was doing just fine. Basically, it was fiddling and stories and film, and everyone could relate to it. They thought the way I blended this stuff was odd, but it didn't bother them.''
On subsequent tours, she made a point of ''playing different kinds of places - a civic auditorium, a rock club, an art museum, a self-help group, anything to mix it up.'' Lately her wanderings have brought criticism from the art world, where she has been accused of a facile and superficial approach to the performance art she helped pioneer. ''At first my feelings were hurt,'' she says , ''until I realized this was the same insular attitude I used to share. Other artists may understand best what I do. But the best audience I can imagine is a real mix of people.''
Her affection for a variety of arts and crafts began in childhood. ''As a kid ,'' she recalls, ''I did the usual art and violin lessons. I suppose I really wanted to be a librarian - to be around books all the time, and maybe write some.
''In college I decided I liked making things. But the school I went to - Barnard - thought making things was kind of messy, and it was better to just talk about it. I really liked school, but I also got a studio, and enjoyed being outside the official academic realm. I started doing more sculpture.''
Her first taste of performing came while teaching Egyptian art history and Assyrian sculpture at night for a New York City college. ''I was a horrible teacher,'' she claims, ''because I didn't keep up with the field and I couldn't remember anything. So I improvised. And I found I really enjoyed being in the dark with people, talking to them and showing pictures. . . .''
Her artistic style soon took another big step. ''I was doing a lot of writing - narrative art, it was called at the time - and I decided it was silly just to print it, because you'd be missing half the effect: the tone of voice. I felt if I wanted to use words, I should say them. It's like the difference between getting a letter and a phone call. They may say the same thing, but you get so much more from hearing the words. . . .''
Her first full-scale performances involved films, toys, electronics, and other props. She called them ''film performances,'' but ''they were really about images connected with the stories I told. The films were like big metronomes for the stories.'' Later she brought the violin into her act, but through the back door, using it as ''a sort of ventriloquist's dummy, an excuse for a conversation.'' To this end, she devised her own instruments, including one with built-in speakers that could play duets with her, and another with a tape-recorder mechanism instead of strings.
Some detractors have charged Miss Anderson with shallowness, calling her a jill-of-all-trades who has mastered none. ''I do want to be the best at what I do,'' is her response. ''I've just changed the categories. For one thing, you can be too good at something - so involved in your own discipline you can no longer speak to anyone else. Also, I come from an art world in which many people did different things; it wasn't odd to find someone working with steel and writing poems.''
The secret to her growth seems to be simple: Instead of replacing one interest with another, she keeps the old while adding the new. Through it all, a fascination with language has been her guiding light. ''I've never been a filmmaker or musician in the classic sense,'' she owns. ''I use film and music for rhythmic reasons, and to be a subtext for the stories. The real subject, the real work, is the spoken words. I feel that's what I'm best at.''
Her other touchstone is clarity. ''If it's not clear to me, I don't want to do it,'' she says, adding that she feels a special pleasure when children appreciate her work. ''I really enjoy that,'' she says with a happy smile. ''And I think I know why they like it. I have a feeling it's because they can't believe an adult is being so ridiculous!''