Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet Create Beauty From Catastrophe With ‘Landfall’
Multidisciplinary avant-garde icon Laurie Anderson has long been a fixture of the art scene, delving into the worlds of music, poetry, visual art, film, and performance. Her 1981 hit “O Superman” and the electronic devices that she has invented over the years sound modern even today. She has returned with a new album, a career-spanning book, and a virtual reality exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. On her latest musical offering, “Landfall,” she collaborates with San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet, another longstanding force in crossover experimental music. The experience of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, in which Anderson lost her Manhattan home, is the inspiration for this poignant, momentous record.
Song titles, normally mere identification tags, play a critical role in “Landfall,” as each title refers to an event, phenomenon, or reflection at a specific stage in a narrative. It is in this context that the songs assume their proportions, reveal their depth, and realize their meaning. The album begins when, “CNN Predicts a Monster Storm.” The music is vaguely ominous, but not as much as the title might suggest. After all, no one fully anticipated the severity of Hurricane Sandy. Flickering strings, prolonged pauses, and concurrent melodies slightly out of sync convey the uncertainty that looms. Eerie, high-pitched notes swell as if about to pop. The next track sustains this feeling of uncertainty with indecipherable, distorted radio snippets. The melodic motif of the opening track latter reappears in “Built You a Mountain,” as do the radio clips in “The Dark Side,” serving to establish central themes. The thirty tracks of the album ultimately blend into a cohesive whole.
The Kronos Quartet appears in top form. Violins, viola and cello are stretched well beyond their traditional capacities, employed to phenomenal, expressive effect. A few tracks augment the quartet’s instrumentation with electronic elements, as on “The Water Rises,” where a minimal percussive sputter mimics the ripple of waves. The predominantly instrumental nature of the album renders Anderson’s occasional spoken word bits especially incisive.
In “Dreams,” Anderson asks, “Don’t you hate it when people tell you their dreams?” In a particularly vivid image, she describes a man playing a flute, covered by what appear to be swarms of flies, but upon closer look are actually tiny microphones. To restrain the noise picked up by the microphones, the man has to disrobe, one garment at a time, until one by one, everything that might have been recorded has been lost. This segues into an instrumental. “Dreams Translated,” aptly titled, as the entire album is essentially a collection of dreams translated. A catastrophe on the scale of Sandy can be so surreal as to defy comprehension, only surviving in memory as confused, disjointed segments.
The standout track, “Nothing Left But Their Names,” finds Anderson back at her old tricks, employing one of her signature voice filters. She assumes the deep, exaggeratedly masculine “voice of authority,” a character whom she mysteriously named “Fenway Bergamot” on her 2010 album ”Homeland.” In this guise, she now talks of discovering a catalogue listing the myriad animal species that have disappeared throughout the ages. Losing a lifetime’s worth of treasured belongings in Hurricane Sandy has compelled Anderson to reflect upon the ephemeral nature of existence — the impermanence of virtually everything.
This reflection has motivated Anderson to chronicle her prolific oeuvre in a retrospective book, released in tandem with the new record. Titled “All the Things I Lost in the Flood,” it surveys her artistic output over nearly four decades. Drawings, multimedia installations, and performances are all unearthed, reexamined, and documented with Anderson’s own commentary in the first such comprehensive collection of her work. The book provides an intimate look into the artist’s sundry projects and casts new light on them from the author’s perspective.
“Everything Is Floating” features a passage from the accompanying book in which Anderson observes, “All the things I’ve carefully saved all my life becoming nothing, and I thought, ‘How beautiful, how magic, how catastrophic.’” The brilliance here lies in the recognition of a vague beauty in the sheer magnitude of an epic disaster. One is left in awe of nature, and forced to reevaluate one’s priorities. The consequence of such a shift in perspective is articulated in another song, “We Learn to Speak yet Another Language,” when one violin leads as another follows hesitatingly, and at certain moments, the two lock into gorgeous harmonies. In “Dawn of the World,” what begins as a jarring, screeching cacophony ends up with instruments united in concert. In the end, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos quartet leave the listener profoundly moved by demonstrating how beauty and meaning can emerge from chaos and catastrophe.
“Landfall” is available Feb. 16 on Apple Music.