LAURIE ANDERSON & KRONOS QUARTET – Landfall (Nonesuch Records 2018)

Laurie Anderson

This is an exciting prospect. Kronos Quartet was always one of those entities that just kept popping up on my radar, not because (at least initially) I went looking for Kronos titles… they just seemed to consistently be there, carving their way through the work of Morton Feldman, George Crumb, Dmitri Shostakovich, Steve Reich, Clint Mansell, Philip Glass and a whole world more that I doubt I’ll catch up on. Which is ok… I generally take the lazy route with Kronos and fully expect that somewhere along the line, their music finds me first. Business as usual.

And then there’s Laurie Anderson – Forever in a renaissance of her own making, to attempt a definition of what she is would be missing the point. Her creative heights (for those who interpret her as a musician) of HOMELAND, BRIGHT RED, THE UGLY ONE WITH THE JEWELS and BIG SCIENCE are remarkable in their uniqueness and instinct for observation. Although her output of new musical product has been sporadic of late, there are always many other things going on elsewhere in Laurie Anderson Land – residencies, exhibitions, compositions for dogs etc. 2010’s HOMELAND album is arguably her recorded masterpiece, and it was the final track of this, FLOW, that David Harrington of Kronos Quartet used as a tool of persuasion to finally drag Laurie Anderson into collaboration – something she had previously resisted.

The LANDFALL cycle of music is structured in such a way that a dissection of all 30 tracks is labouring the finer details to utter pointlessness. This material was developed from loops and sound sketches, and explored through improvisation with Kronos up until its live premier in 2015. Undoubtedly a mood record, the track titles loosely map the story of Hurricane Sandy, and the individual pieces ebb around, over and into each other like salvaged fragments. Where others might have used a record about a storm as an excuse for histrionics and atonal calorie-free noise, the sonic flow here is predominantly a droning melancholy that switches between bittersweet and beauty, calm and curious at the chaos of it all under the lateral direction of Laurie Anderson.

There are several moments throughout where the album really displays its collaborative strength and others when this might simply be a Kronos record written by Laurie Anderson. The problem with the later lies in the sections where Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson are all playing strings. Sometimes, the unique Laurie Anderson ingredient many of us are here for seems muted, and although these are all compelling pieces, the payoff often exists elsewhere with the addition of other elements… electronic loops, samples and Laurie Anderson’s discourses and observations. This is obvious when THE WATER RISES introduces the album’s electronic elements and the first narration appears on OUR STREET IS A BLACK RIVER. Thematically, the Hurricane Sandy is a starting point for Laurie Anderson’s unique storytelling, but this willfully meanders off into tales of dreams, galaxies, sound experiments, an all too brief extinct animal oration on NOTHING LEFT BUT THEIR NAMES, and eventually full circle back to the fallout from the flood on EVERYTHING IS FLOATING. For the trainspotters, certain musical elements have been reused and recycled from elsewhere.

Laurie Anderson’s creative strength has always come from her artistic background as a  skilled generator of ideas. This is the reason why synthesized musical ideas are her strength and very much her personality. Although she has a long legacy with the violin, her very best comes from unconventional treatments of the instrument. On the first few listens LANDFALL seemed a little ordinary, probably because I made the mistake of being otherwise occupied while it was playing. Composing for Kronos Quartet is certainly a brave step, and perhaps the results are cautious in places as a result, but that’s probably indicative of a creative comfort zone being breached. No bad thing really. This is a record that needs an attentive ear and some time investment – the payoff is most generous once the brain registers some familiarity over repeated listens!


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