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Laurie Anderson’s Electrified String Trio Defies Categories

January 23, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Laurie Anderson — performance artist, sculptor, violinist, composer, instrument inventor, filmmaker, provocateur, raconteur, and whatever else I’ve left out — has popped up on our stages over the decades in solo concerts and ambitious, meticulously planned productions. But her appearance as one-third of an electrified string trio on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Tuesday night cast her in another light — as improviser.

Brandishing an electric violin and digital electronics, Anderson joined forces with a heavyweight from the jazz world, bassist Christian McBride, and a free-thinking, Albanian-born cellist, Rubin Kodheli. Their surprising collaboration started about three years ago as part of the Improvisations series in New York’s Town Hall — and from the sound of things, they were often winging it, letting the music go wherever it wished to roam.

The opening jam started with McBride plunking out the powerful sound he always gets on the double bass, with Kodheli waxing either lyrically or abrasively, and Anderson applying spare comments on her electrified fiddle. Later on, the band would play on the electronic loops and sequences from Anderson’s laptop, creating bagatelles, fantasias, and dances that bloomed with rich symphonic textures that developed into overwhelming soundscapes full of repeated notes and some warping of pitch.

I wouldn’t want to slap a stylistic label on the music they made. Yet underneath all of this apparent freedom to explore the possibilities of improv and tech were the recognizable characteristics and attitudes of a Laurie Anderson concert. The atmosphere of much of the music was typical of this performer — brooding, at times intimate or grandiose.

Of course, Anderson spoke of many things — hologram concerts, the melting of the Arctic, the destruction of the Amazon, and a brief mention of the impeachment trial going on at the same time as the concert. Her inimitable cadences, rhythms, and pauses haven’t changed much since her sprawling opus United States emerged onto the scene some 40 years or so ago. Always, there was the wry sense of humor, bemused composure, and personal connection with her audience that set Anderson apart from most of the rest of the avant garde in yonder times.

The singing voice of Anderson’s late husband Lou Reed made a disembodied appearance, and she followed it up by reciting the words to his song “Guardian Angel.” Her voice-filtered, basso profondo alter ego Fenway Bergamot also made a cameo appearance, musing on various topics.

The most memorable Anderson moment of all came just before her Fenway bit. As McBride set down his double bass and strapped on an electric model, Anderson brought up climate change again and the desperation of these times. She wondered aloud; What would some of her heroes do? Phil Glass would make music. John Cage would listen. Mahatma Gandhi would resist. And James Brown? He would “get on up” — and suddenly the turbocharged funk of JB’s recording of “Get on the Good Foot” grooved over the P.A., setting off an ecstatic jam that coagulated into a thunderous, cloudy, yet wonderful din. You could imagine a larger-than-life hologram of James Brown doing the splits to that.

Laurie Anderson checks in next as resident artistic director at SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco for a four-night run Jan. 23–26, each show different from the previous one. First, the Anderson/McBride/Kodheli trio performs Thursday, then on Friday, the band is pared down to just Anderson and Kodheli. On Saturday, Anderson collaborates with singer/composer Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More), focusing on the text of “Quanjing Jieyao Pian,” the final chapter of Jixiao Xinshu, a 16th century Chinese military manual. Finally, on Sunday, she performs alone.

 

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.