Not lately, and certainly not in her new collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall, that had its East Coast premiere over the weekend at Montclair (NJ) State University’s Peak Performance series.
Early on in the piece, the string quartet plays a probing, wandering melody amid vaguely mournful chords gently propelled by an electronic rhythm track. Then, Anderson began to speak – something she hadn’t done so much of in this piece.
Knowing that her personal archive at her downtown Manhattan Canal Street headquarters had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, you still had to be startled by her emotional directness: “I know now that I could never go back to a place where I had been so sad. The river had been rising all day. And the hurricane was coming up from the south….Sandy looked like the galaxy whose names I didn’t even know….”
Then came a list of galaxies with fanciful, even satirical names that normally would’ve been arch, Laurie Anderson humor, but amid the saddest music yet. She was conducting a memorial service for the previous levity of her art. She can still be funny in her offhanded, coolly observant way. Anderson still has that wonderful bedside-manner voice, spinning her fact-based tales of things you might’ve seen yourself had you peered deep enough at the world around you. The voice always stands at a safe, dispassionate distance from the event being described, telling you that there’s basically nothing to fear.
Now, there is something to fear. And though Landfall doesn’t come out and say it, I believe she’s talking about the possibility of human extinction.
The form of the piece was, typical of Anderson, episodic. Musically speaking, it was a suite of adagio movements, not quite background or foreground, that made me think of the Haydn’s Last Seven Words in the string quartet version, a piece that similarly doesn’t come out and say what it means but seems to accompany one’s more personal and vivid sense of inner tragedy. As did her score for Landfall, with some collaborative help from Kronos and arranger Jacob Garchik.
Though the music was never without quietly compelling ideas, they felt more like minimalist physical gestures than sometimes with a strong melodic profile – often heard in conjunction with electronic effects, obvious ones such as thunder but also rhythm tracks. Enigmatic voices that might’ve come from walkie-talkies were embedded in the musical textures, not quite intelligible, sounding almost like chants. At times, electronics were at the fore with eloquent, stabbing commentary from Kronos.
Visuals often consisted of words riffing on what Anderson had just mentioned, such as a list of possible galaxies she knew nothing of. One long section dealt with endangered species, from rare butterflies to hog-nosed skunks, animals I never ever knew existed. Do I remember correctly, that she said 99 percent of all the species that ever roamed the planet are now extinct?
Are we next in line?
Then came numbers, seemingly random numbers, and all moving on the rear screen from the bottom up, as if the viewer were sinking and watching the numbers drift by. Eventually, the numbers were in bank fonts, the sort printed along the bottom of checks. Soon, the square-ish blocks so characteristic of the fonts – the ones that give “8”s a pot belly and make “1”s resemble a potted plant – took over the forms of the numbers themselves. So you just had the blocks – still drifting by as we sank.
Nuclear holocausts that might’ve ended the world in the 1960s supposedly would’ve left only the cockroaches. Will only the numbers of our digital culture survive the environmental holocaust? Several years ago I wrote a comic play about the end of the world, set in Florida (because it seemed to be at the vanguard of decay) in which the populace of grifters and just-plain-folks coped with the daily hurricanes and encroaching sink holes with rampant, serial wedding ceremonies because nobody wanted to die alone. Until people suddenly stopped dying. The title: Stumbling Down the Aisle on Doomsday.
How foolishly optimistic this seems in retrospect. Will anybody have time to get married in the next hurricane? Where would you find the Elvis impersonators to perform the ceremonies? Besides, hurricanes and sink holes are only the beginning. Have you heard about the ice tsunamis in Manitoba and Minneapolis when wind whips across lakes, picking up melting snow and piling it up against beach-front homes? Silently, too, advancing at a casual speed, ambling implacably, benign in manner but mowing things down in its path.
The fact that I have to guess at Anderson’s meaning as another place where Landfall departs from her other pieces. Usually, her intent is crisply articulated. Here, her work still maintains clarity of form – we know what we’re seeing – but she’s letting her audience participate more fully in deciding what it means. Or maybe Landfall is still a work in progress and meaning will be clearer in later versions. Which is something else I love about her work: Every step in their artistic progression, her pieces have plenty to offer.