A Remarkable Evening with Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass


American Style: Laurie Anderson (voice/electric guitar); Philip Glass (piano); Rubin Kodheli (cello). Barbican Hall, London, 17.5.2017. (CC)

Various pieces, including: Her Last WordsFaçade No. 2Wichita Vortex Sutra (Gainsberg)Etude No. 10Whales & DolphinsJunior DadJackAnother DayDemocracyWhat are days for?

The presence of dry ice at the outset spoke of an event sitting at the opposite pole of the previous night’s Ariodante at the Barbican Hall (review). Yet while the vibe was very different, it remains true that deep human emotions remain constant throughout the centuries, and in fact both events spoke to our hearts of the nature of love, and of the story of being human.

Laurie Anderson has referred to her shoes as “shaggy dog stories” with “lots of jump cuts” and often with “loop-like films going behind them” (see interview here). Those loops link immediately, of course to the kaleidoscopic “repetitions” of the music of Philip Glass. Here, the two were memorably joined by cellist Rubin Kodheli. Much of what happened in this evening was improvised, and the musicians clearly know each other’s mode of utterance so intimately that it all had a wondrous sense of communication, of inevitability, almost. Improvisations between pieces seemed reminiscent of concerts of traditional Indian music in their invocation of vast atemporal plains of sound.

The intent of the show – to dig deep into who we are and where, today, in the World we find ourselves – was viscerally stated in the opening number, Her Last Words, wherein vocals by Anderson gave us a study on mortality itself (“What are the last things you say before you die?”). Glass’s music seems to echo this journey to the heart, its very objectivity stripping away layers of sentimentality to present us with unadulterated, if sometimes unstated, truths. So it was that in his Façade No. 2, stark juxtapositions (a conga line of figures on a blackboard) and a string of projected phrases (poignantly, “the future is behind you”) seemed perfectly in sync. The warm strings of Kodheli’s cello and Anderson’s electric violin seemed only to underline the poignant loneliness of the music.

Glass’s take on Allen Ginsberg, Wichita Vortex Sutra, found Ginsberg’s voice emanating from speakers (along with some atmospheric hiss). The music underpins Ginsberg’s text on war and prayer (sutra), the references juxtaposing the mundane (“getting laid in a car”), bombs, fear and characters such as Shivananda (who touches the breast and says “OM”), Satyananda (who raises two thumbs in tranquillity) and “visionary” William Blake. The music rises in intensity as Ginsberg’s voice gets ever more impassioned.

Adding a violin and cello to Glass’s Etude No. 10 only reinforces the idea of Glass’s music being ever fluid – perhaps there is a parallel to be made with Pierre Boulez’s output in this sense? Glass’s own idiosyncratic pianism is instantly recognisable in its hard touch, here augmented with occasional remarkably approximate ornamentation. In high contrast came the whale imitations from the strings against electronic background with Glass’s recitations (“One white whale in all these oceans, one white whale”) and his one-handed, hyper-delicate slow traceries. The ultra-high cello solo, too, spoke of a liminal space between musical expression and natural sound.

So, time to root the plethora of questions on the nature of what it is to be human. The task fell to Laurie Anderson, who brought the Trump administration into the mix (“we’re all glued to our phones waiting for the next really weird update”). The voice of music bringing us back to who we are at this time is, it would appear, vital. This occurred via music from the extraordinarily ruminative take on Lou Reed and Metallica’s Junior Dad to the more openly modernistic Letters to Jack (Senator Jack Kennedy campaigning in the Wisconsin primaries and a letter written to him by Laurie regarding her own student political activities). The messages were taking shape: we are “drowning in our own stories” and fake news. The whole event is a lament, nowhere more tellingly told than in Laurie Anderson’s Another Day in America (“Here we are in a whole new era, a brand new world. How do we start? How do we begin again?”). In this piece, the music pointed towards Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, not only in its chordal progressions but also in the linguistic re-segmenting of phrases. But the killer blow, perhaps, came with Laurie Anderson seated in a chair narrating the story of Aristophanes’ play The Birds and its story of a wall between Earth and Heaven – a clear reference, of course, to Trump’s infamous wall. Underpinned by typical Glass patterns (the image of starlings in “Mobius Strip patterns” seemed to be an image remarkably linked to Glass’s mode of expression), the clear connection between the two artists never seemed clearer.

A remarkable evening. There was no interval, and quite rightly so – to interrupt the flow would have been nothing short of criminal.

Colin Clarke

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