Album review: Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet – Landfall (Nonesuch)

After the storm

In 2012 hurricane Sandy made landfall in North America and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, on her first release with the Kronos Quartet Laurie Anderson recounts the effect it had on her and New York through 30 spoken word and instrumental pieces. Anderson is best known for her 1981 hit Oh Superman (For Massenet) but her work crosses the performance art divide and much of her music is as much about story telling as it is about composition. Although she used to play a white ‘violin’ with magnetic tape for a bow and a tape head as the strings this is the first time that she has composed for so many of the acoustic variety. The Kronos Quartet consists of David Harrington and John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and Sunny Yang on cello, they have performed with artists across the musical spectrum including Elvis Costello, Natalie Merchant and Rhiannon Giddens and are particularly adept at bridging the divide between classical and contemporary styles.

The many tracks on Landfall sound like a combination of string quartet and synthesiser with the latter adding properly seismic bass as well as percussive elements to many tracks but as with many of Anderson’s projects it’s not that simple. For example much of the sound that doesn’t seem as if it was coming from bowed, sawed or plucked strings is derived from them nonetheless, specifically the viola which Anderson recorded and used unique software to generate specific sounds from. She also used an Optigan, and optical organ sold in the seventies that uses optical discs to store sounds, a bit like a sampler and a precursor to the sampling synthesisers that appeared in the next decade. Which would partly explain the strange nature of the sounds on this album which are softer and far less defined than those of the quartet.

There are a number of stories on Landfall and these make a nice contrast with the instrumental numbers which tend to be short in duration with few breaking the three-minute mark. One track called Nothing Left but Their Names includes references to a book of extinct species with lines like “15 chapters on sloths”, “every last mastodon” and a clear favourite “One whole chapter on the one eared dinosaur”. Anderson’s style is quiet and deliberate with a sense of wry humour that keeps you listening hard for the next observation. This same piece changes subject completely when it turns to “the reason I love the stars is that we can’t hurt them”, but, she concedes “we are reaching for them”, which has a moving pathos to it that few artists achieve.

The Kronos Quartet plays largely simple repeated phrases and motifs, they occasionally stray into the choppy waters of atonality but rarely for long and the overall effect is rather more pleasant than the scenes of flooding and devastation that the song titles suggest. The sound is large scale and enveloping with the aforementioned low bass waiting to reward listeners with proper loudspeakers (e.g. large ones). One line goes “Don’t you hate it when people tell you their dreams” but inevitably Landfall has a distinctly dream like quality and that is a large part of its appeal.

Jason Kennedy
@EditorTheEar

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