Barbican Centre, London, Fri 28th June
'Landfall: Scenes From My New Novel', to give it's full title, is a new compositon by Laurie Anderson in its European premiere. The programme itself pointed out what an unusual combination this was. For Anderson isn't a composer or even really much of a musician. She's more an artist and performer following her own muse, which at times takes on the form of music. It's even described as a novel in it's own title!
While, for all their commisioning of scores and ceaseless boundary-pushing, the Kronos Quartet are at root a string quartet whose business is to perform recitals from scores. (I previously saw them in this very room, hammering at scraps at metalwhile still diligently referring to those scores.)
Given which, what's perhaps strangest of all is that the majority of this piece is so conventionally harmonic. However, while strident modernists might hear those words and head for the exit door, it was for the most part exquisite and enthralling, the sort of score where you find yourself clinging to every note.
Anderson sometimes joined in with the quartet on her patented violin. At other, often overlapping, points she'd contribute electronic beats, washes and textures. The fuzzy thumps contrasted satisfyingly against the crystal-clear sound of the strings.
Perhaps the only serious musical criticism was that there wasn't enough of it! Themes and sections could pass by on speed dial, too quickly to properly absorb. One chanting piece, with something of the widescreen grandeur of Arabic pop, seemed to suggest at a whole new direction. But this path was abandoned after what felt like a few strides. Nor, at seventy-nine minutes, did the overall length seem too great, especially by Anderson's previous endurance-pushing standards.
Anderson also contributed some of her spoken word pieces. When I'd previously seen her at an old Brighton Festival, the words had worked as the bones of the piece, with the ambient music acting more as interludes. Here things were reversed, which perhaps did not work as well. Anderson's style is not poetic but conversational; her serene voices seduces you into believing you're being told something quite everyday, and everything lives in the lag as your brain catches up with your ear. The New York Times commented her work “suggested logic while defying sense.”
However anti-poetic words do not necessarily lend themselves to music, and I found my brain effectively having to switch gears between the vocal and the instrumental sections. In truth, at times those gears ground. I couldn't help but be reminded of reading a review of Bowie's live re-enactment of 'Low,' commenting how he'd intercut the songs and instrumentals, despite their being separate on record. Though the reviewer thought this an improvement, to me it seemed like cutting chalk with cheese. Ultimately, I found myself wishing 'Landfall' had emulated the recorded version, and kept the spoken word sections together.
The back projections, where software converted the notes of the quartet into words, made for an enjoyable and intriguing extra dimension. Though they also felt a little like an attempt to Polyfilla this separation.
Admittedly, it was clear why Anderson chose to pair the two up in terms of their content. The title 'Landfall' is (at least in part) a refrerence to her studio being flooded when Hurricane Sandy struck New York. At one point she recounts watching her belongings swirling in the water, and you cannot held but keep hold of that image as the strings roll through the final movement.
Though the storm, however mighty, is here no more than the pathetic fallacy. There's no attempt to convey its power through musical drama, or document events as 9/11 pieces have often done. In the genre of 'modernist disaster response composition', it works more metaphorically, more like Bryars' 'Sinking of the Titanic.'
Anderson's world is internal, contemplative, and the flooded studio evokes the anti-linearity of memory. Memories will break the waterline to swirl in your mind, appearing at times to coalesce into clumps, but only ever temporarily. Perhaps the music was supposed to itself represent the swelling water, subsuming the landmass of the words.
But despite caveats this work was highly effective overall. The Guardian review of the premiere in Adelade suggests it divided the audience. From where I sat in the Barbican it won an effusive round of applause from us.