Laurie Anderson: Landfall
When two long-time tirelessly adventurous musical forces such as Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet finally decide to get to work on a long overdue collaborative effort, it is hard not to be curious about the end result. That's why yesterday evening I found myself crossing the East River to appropriately oh so cool Brooklyn and its beautifully restored historic BAM Harvey Theater, whose main focus is, incidentally, contemporary performances.
The inspiration for the intermission-free, 70-minute composition for electric string quartet, amplified voice and electronics was partly Hurricane Sandy, which in its ruthless path of destruction also happened to flood Laurie Anderson's basement, sending all her mementos floating on the water and prompting her to link the loss of some of her work to the stories she had been working on with the quartet. From the look of it, the program could not but resonate with New Yorkers, certainly enough to have a five-day run in the sizable venue, but it unquestionably had a universal appeal as well.
The evening ended up being musically satisfying, albeit sometimes unnecessarily repetitive and slightly puzzling. In the steadily unfolding score one could easily notice some classically lyrical moments, a few deeply grating sounds, plenty of eerie computerized utterances and the occasional pop-up surprise, such as a short and infectious Middle-Eastern dance tune. A lot of it though, was imbued by confusion and melancholy, with an unmistakable hint of futurism thrown in, not the least because everybody's instrument was plugged in.
The visual element of the performance, a blank background screen on which from time to time appeared fragments of text and icons, added to the feeling of chaos and randomness. I am not sure its presence was always necessary, but on the other hand, I have to admit that, for example, the series of words being generated on it at the breakneck speed created by violinist John Sherba's erratic playing had an intriguing otherworldly quality to it.
The irrepressible Ms. Anderson, who was unperturbedly presiding over the happenings, also fulfilled the double duty of electric viola player and mesmerizing, unpredictable speaking voice. She took full advantage of the latter to deliver casual anecdotes about, among other things, the irrelevance of other people's dreams, her attempt to sing in Korean in a Dutch karaoke bar, the project of cataloging all the extinct species - with the actual list unfolding on the screen - and the fascinating letter Aleph, with her trademark dead-pan humor.
The fearless musicians of the Kronos Quartet were constantly busy all evening too, although they did not get much of an opportunity to display their remarkable chops. The music did not sound particularly challenging for such seasoned pros, and it did not have enough of a truly emotional impact to register deeply. It was, however, extremely efficient at creating a very atmospheric performance, which made the sporadic highlights stand out even more.
The capacity crowd gave the performers an enthusiastic ovation, although it was unclear if they were saluting the commendable effort or the overall enjoyable, sometimes riveting, but not undisputedly flawless, result.