Laurie Anderson: Landfall, Kronos Quartet. Laurie Anderson, violin, vocals, keyboards, samples, percussion, filters. Nonesuch CD 564164-2. Total time: 69:50
By Joe Banno
DIGITAL REVIEW – When Laurie Anderson’s speaking voice is first heard on Landfall, her new, Hurricane Sandy-inspired collaborative album with the Kronos Quartet, it’s like encountering an old friend. Not that Anderson has taken much of a break since her performance-art heyday in the 1980s; indeed, she’s got to be the hardest working polymath on the new-music scene.
But projects like Landfall are not as thick on the ground now as they were during those heady days, when she regularly enthralled audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with her mix of self-written spoken and sung texts, live violin playing to her own recorded scores, improvised electronica, theatrical stagecraft, and projections of her visual artwork. Landfall is heavier than usual on purely instrumental content, but the handful of tracks where Anderson uses music to atmospherically underpin her monologues sound at once fresh and reassuringly familiar.
At age 70, that unmistakable voice of hers hasn’t changed a jot. It’s still the masterful, ageless storytelling instrument it’s always been – whether served straight-up in her signature purring, singsong, slow-jamming style or electronically altered into a deep, male alter-ego that might best be described as sounding like John Huston, if he were re-imagined as a cartoon bear. And if a few of the tales she tells on this album (of storm-ravaged streets turning into rivers, or of watching a lifetime’s worth of possessions “becoming nothing but junk” in the floodwaters) seem initially out of sync with the wry detachment of her delivery, the wistfulness that creeps into her voice at the conclusion of those monologues packs an even greater punch by contrast.
The emotional heart of the album is its longest track (at nearly ten minutes), titled “Nothing Left but their Names,” where the gentle minimalism that informs the accompaniment to other spoken tracks gives way to an aura of cosmic, synthesizer-enhanced wonder, and her electronically altered “male” voice philosophizes on extinct species, silent Hebrew letters, yogic states, and the unalterable fates of the stars. As with the best of Anderson’s past material, this movement offers sly wit and a melding of mundane imagery and metaphysics that ultimately proves quite moving.
The liner notes provide an interesting perspective on the process of creating Landfall‘s musical content, from the viewpoints of Anderson, critic Steve Smith, and Kronos leader David Harrington. As a composer, Anderson crafted her score electronically, then performed it (as credited on the CD jacket) with “violins, vocals, keyboards, samples, percussion, and filters.” To retrofit her electronic creations onto the Kronos she relied on composer Jacob Garchik to write string transcriptions, then spent a year overseeing engineer Scott Fraser’s edit and mix of the final recording. There were live performances of Landfall with Anderson and the Kronos shortly after the work’s genesis, but Fraser’s studio mix is very much geared to creating a highly evocative audio-only experience. [Listen to Track 3, below]
It was striking to read that this project, a companion piece of sorts to her recent book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, started as a less specifically programmatic commissioned work for the Kronos, which only later coalesced into a focused statement after Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of the New York City area. As with so many programmatic works, many of the instrumental movements here could easily have been repurposed for other musico-dramatic uses, rather than being interpreted strictly as an artistic response to a super-storm. But given the context, the elements of yearning in the string writing, and the increasingly fitful and skittering motifs (and eventual elegiac tone) that creep into the score conjure an apt sense of unease throughout. Anderson freely marries minimalist tropes, trance music, Latin rhythms, Middle-Eastern color, free atonality, vinyl crackle, and, in moments of more literal tone-painting, layers of wind, rushing waves, helicopter blades, and snatches of cryptic TV announcements.
That it all feels as cohesive as it does is a credit both to Anderson and to the hand-in-glove sensibilities she shares with the Kronos, who play here with fervent dedication. A fine and engaging late-career addition to this engaging composer’s catalog, Landfall should please Anderson and Kronos fans alike. For those seeking Anderson’s work at its early, groundbreaking best, a deep-dive into the four-disc United States Live should prove compulsively listenable and, likely, addictive. [Listen to the opening track, below]
Joe Banno is a freelance classical music critic and an award-winning theater, opera, and film director, based in Los Angeles, CA.