Laurie Anderson — musician, storyteller, venerable pixie of the New York downtown art scene — has long been in love with language.
She doesn’t just tell stories; she draws out every word with a kind of physical pleasure, tasting its flavor as she probes the everyday mysteries of life. Those mysteries — and the nature of language itself — were at the heart of Anderson’s “Landfall: Scenes from My New Novel,” a riveting, gorgeous new multimedia work that she premiered this weekend at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, in collaboration with the equally venerable Kronos Quartet.
“Don’t you hate it when people tell you their dreams?” asked Anderson early in the work, and she was off, telling us her dreams in an unstoppable flood. There were meditations on sonic illusions, on our unrequited yearning for the stars, on the silence of the letter “aleph,” on the tireless extinction of species — all deftly interwoven over a hypnotic drone of repeated gestures from the quartet. Dreamlike, to be sure, and almost ritualistic as well, with spotlights playing through smoke across the dark stage and strings of glyphs scrolling impassively across a gigantic screen.
But a kind of quiet, poignant and very human quality ran through “Landfall” as well. Anderson — a mischievous presence in her electro-shocked hair and red elf boots — plumbs her own life for sly, sideways observations, then weaves them into almost cosmic-scaled ruminations laced with a sense of humor that sets her apart from the more po-faced avant-garde.
“I was in a Dutch karaoke bar, trying to sing a song in Korean,” she offered, and soon was pushing out the edges of language itself, tying together her own vocoder-distorted voice, the quartet’s playing (connected to the text via software) and the strange, urgent hybrid of letters and symbols that flashed on the screen behind her in a still-unknown meta-language of the future.
The effect was stunning — and proof, if any were needed, that Anderson continues to be one of the most engaging and forward-looking artists around.
Brookes is a freelance writer.