Journey through the waters of destruction
Laurie Anderson, the enigmatic multi-media artist whose avant-garde performance art shifted into major-label recordings after the unexpected mainstream success of “O Superman” in 1981, is no stranger to experimentation within music. Not only has she had 40 years of experience as a performer and artist under her belt, she has also invented instruments of her own, such as the talking-stick, a MIDI controller that plays with the granular synthesis of sounds and samples, and the tape-bow violin, in which Anderson replaced the traditional horse hair on a violin bow with magnetic audio tape to play the tape’s recorded sounds as it glides across the strings. The Kronos Quartet, on the other hand, is a San Francisco-based string quartet with rotating members whose work, since their conception in 1973, spans across many genres. They have worked with jazz, Bollywood music, neo-classical and experimental, just to name a few out of many other instances. Each member’s mastery of his or her own instrument shines through on all of the 900+ pieces of work created for them.
On Landfall, which was released on February 16th, Anderson and the Kronos Quartet join together to delve into the emotional peaks and valleys of 2012s Hurricane Sandy, which directly affected Anderson and her Manhattan home. Though not all of the tracks on Landfall have Anderson’s spoken word on it, these instrumental tracks are far from simplistic. The album opens up with “CNN Predicts a Monster Storm,” which features a shrill lone violin dramatically playing away, joined by deeper, droning strings. Eventually, the main violin moves into a slower and pitch-bent sway, quiet and calm but dismal all the same. It sounds reminiscent of eastern melodies, especially as the notes reach hair-splitting highs. In the background are flat plucked strings, a beautiful contrast between the legato of the violin melody. As the “CNN Predicts a Monster Storm” quiets down into silence, Anderson and the Kronos Quartet make it clear that they are setting the bar high in terms of their mastery of their instruments and of musical theory.
The mood of “CNN Predicts a Monster Storm” extends and morphs throughout all of these tracks; they feel connected yet still novel, with each composition flowing into each other as ominously as Hurricane Sandy’s unstoppable waters. Landfall’s songs are quite short: the majority of the songs are around one or two minutes long, and yet each one is packed with complexity and texture. Within two minutes, “Darkness Falls” has skipping violins that grow more and more abrasive. The rough and furious bowings are paired with soft, outstretched strings that seem to cry out in despair. Anderson and the Kronos Quartet capture feelings of anxiety and depression cramped into whatever refined space it has been forced into. “The Dark Side” has beeping synths paired with angrily insistent but simple harmonized strings, taking their time to be as bold as can be. A low-fidelity voice recording mutters on and on in the background until the track ends dramatically, leaving listeners disoriented yet itching for more. Anderson and the Kronos Quartet show their inventive prowess on “Dawn of the World,” where the screechy cracks of extremely rough bowing are made to sound like creaking wood. Chimes, taps and an array of cacophonous noises rip through empty space, while the string instruments become increasingly tense and reverb-y. It’s claustrophobic and hypnotic, sounding like a bad trip which turns out to be the horrendous reality for natural disaster victims.
Though the instrumental tracks are multifaceted and inventive, the standout tracks on Landfall are the ones with Anderson’s chilling spoken word. As Anderson’s voice emerges on “Our Street Is a Black River,” its soothing tone breathily describes surreal setting around the hurricane. With ambient hums, light piano keys and an ominous bassy strings playing in the background, Anderson’s dreaminess is quite ominous, even as her voice is as soft as a lullaby. By the time “Dreams” starts playing, it is clear that as sweet as it can be, Anderson’s voice and tone can pierce as well. While she only talks about people’s retellings of their dreams, including her own, the imagery is sinister, but only subtly so: she talks, with hinted agony, of taking off her articles of clothing one by one so that the rustling doesn’t get recorded in the studio, for instance. With her perfectly enunciated words joining with the eerie abrasiveness of the strings, thunder, and an ominous ticking noise, Anderson and the Kronos Quartet create a nightmare in the midst of the natural disaster around them.
In the second half of the album, Anderson’s electronic experimentation begins to emerge into the forefront, never overpowering the Kronos Quartet’s acoustic strengths but rather building upon them to create a surprisingly compatible pairing. “We Learn to Speak Yet Another Language” starts off fully acoustic, with languid cellos and seductive violins dancing around each other. Suddenly, it switches into a glitchy plethora of beeps and twangs representative of the “bad connection” from the karaoke bar that Anderson speaks of, eventually joining with the strings and sounding like a hidden level in a retro video game. “Nothing Left but Their Names” towers over all the other songs in length, standing at over nine minutes long. Here, Anderson’s vocals are at their scariest: pitched down and filled with creepy enthusiasm, they are played over abstract rumbling and a synthy piano which alternate between the acoustic strings. She talks about the destructive tendencies of humanity and the inevitability of ceasing to exist before and after our time here on Earth. On “Gongs and Bells Sing,” lo-fi sampled church bells and ascending-descending plucked strings become a trip-hop beat for the elegant acoustic strings to emote on top of. The result is an anachronistic moment where classical European-inspired strings seduce listeners over a modern and inventive beat.
Though Landfall has many strengths, it is not flawless. The tracks are usually quite short, ending before listeners have the opportunity to immerse themselves in their intricacies. It is admittedly difficult to keep up with whichever change in direction that Anderson and the Kronos Quartet decide to head towards next. However, Anderson is too much of an artistic behemoth to put out work just because, and these songs are far from rushed or haphazard. Perhaps the reason that the songs are so short is explained on “Everything Is Floating,” where she highlights how temporary everything is by illustrating how all of her belongings, years of hard work and memories “becom[e] nothing but junk” as the water from the hurricane seeps into her home. She recognizes the beauty and magic within the catastrophe that Hurricane Sandy was, as it became a reminder that human permanence and legacy is but a simplistic and short-sighted illusion compared to the everlasting nature of the universe.