Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet

This mini-series will cover two 2018 releases that combine words and music in unconventional ways. Both are by veteran artists who have found ways to stay in touch with the flame of inspiration that attracted our attention in the first place.

Landfall - Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet Laurie Anderson is a maverick performer and composer, a wonderful presence on the avant garde scene, and has always been on the side of right. I was also charmed and amazed by her marriage to Lou Reed - the ultimate downtown romance - and will forever feel indebted to her for the way she handled his death on so many levels. However,  since I saw a picture of her in a 1980's Life Magazine playing her violin with a bow made of magnetic tape, I have been more fascinated by the idea of Anderson than by her music. That ends here. From the first searching melody that opens the album, Anderson and the Kronos Quartet drew me into an immersive sound world, a place of sorrow, wit and mystery, that continues almost without pause for the work's 70-minute length. The mood of loss is pervasive, even if you aren't aware that Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath provided the main inspiration for the composition.

Naturally, strings are the main instruments, with Kronos executing Anderson's dark magic seamlessly alongside her violin and electronics. Also as expected, there is a spoken word element, although  less than on her some of her other albums. Anderson is such a master of pitched speech that you can choose whether or not to engage with what she's speaking about depending on your mood. If you do pay attention, you'll find that sometimes she addresses the storm head-on, as in Our Street Is A Black River: "October 2012. The river had been rising all day and the hurricane was coming up slowly from the south. We watched as the sparkling black river crossed the park and then the highway, and then came silently up our street. From above, Sandy was a huge swirl. It looked like a galaxy whose name I didn't know."

Other sections are more oblique, like a brief treatise on why people shouldn't tell you their dreams, which includes a dream-like tale of a naked man recording a flute solo into multiple microphones, which cover his body like flies. There's also We Learn To Speak Yet Another Language, which has a non-sequitur anecdote (or another dream?) about trying sing a song in Korean in a Dutch karaoke bar, "when the software crashed." The way she massages the word "crashed" is a synecdoche of her wondrous approach. The longest track, Nothing Left But Their Names, is also a vocal tour de force, which is remarkable when you consider her voice is processed to sound like a man in witness protection throughout its nine-plus minutes. The subject of this robot soliloquy, among others things, concerns a book "about all the animal species that have disappeared off the face of the earth," including "massive numbers of civets, big subsets of spotted lizards, every last mastodon," even "fifteen whole chapters on sloths."

If this remarkable piece wasn't already haunting, it gets truly spine-tingling near the end when Anderson says, "But you know the reason that I really that we cannot hurt them. We can't burn them, we can't melt them, or make them overflow. We can't flood them or blow them up, or turn them out. But we are reaching for them...we are reaching for them." You may want to pause the track and let this sink in. Then she goes on: "And, ah yes, the moon and the stars are up there, like acquaintances I had always meant to befriend. Yes, I meant to learn their names, but for various reasons having to do with lack of time and lack of ambition I never did do that. So they remained up in the sky, as nameless as if we'd never been here at all." Good lord - it truly has to be heard to be believed. There is a beautiful four-note melody that threads through the song, bare consolation for the feelings of existential dread conjured by Anderson's omniscient narrator.

Anderson and Kronos have been touring Landfall since at least 2015, with the addition of text on projected backgrounds classifying it as a multimedia work. It would be easy to think that some of the unresolved narratives or loose musical threads are due to the lack of any extra-musical elements here, however I prefer to live with the ambiguity or reach out with my own experiences to close the circuit. The only segment that yanks me out of Landfall's dream-state is Never What You Think It Will Be, which seems to be a refugee from the bad side of the 80's, with tinny strings and clumsy drums. But it's only 1:11, so I'll probably just skip it from now on. Aside from that minor stumble, Landfall is a new pinnacle in two careers full of high points and one of the most compelling albums of the year.

Next time: Mind Out Of Matter by Scott Johnson and Alarm Will Sound.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: Classical
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
Record Roundup: Strings And Things
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA

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