"Landfall," the new collaboration between Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, is 70 minutes of sensuous futurism: music amid dream time musings, an intergalactic lamentation.
Saturday at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall, with the performers eerily spot-lit on the darkened stage in the elliptical venue -- its towering acoustic sails doubling as projection screens, lit up by muted neon purples, reds and blues, with cryptic words and codes flitting across their surfaces -- this viewer/listener felt as if he had entered some cult temple designed by film director Stanley Kubrick. It was gorgeous and strange, like sitting inside a 26th-century head-womb, the hall operating as an extension of one's senses.
It was the first of two performances by Anderson -- writer, director, violinist, vocalist, visual artist -- who composed and wrote the piece for Kronos, completing it in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy was arriving in New York City. Allusions to the storm are woven through Anderson's icy whisperings in "Landfall," which is receiving its West Coast premiere here. Predictably, the performance seemed to divide Saturday's audience between those who were transfixed and those who were baffled. With Anderson, you either go for the ride, or you write it off. It's been the case across her long career.
The music of "Landfall" is alluring stuff, lush and sad, grippingly played by Kronos with assistance from Anderson on violin and keyboard. The musical themes move episodically, evoking a late Beethoven string quartet, then the slow-pulsing, elegiac lyricism of Philip Glass or the dip-and-sway of a Middle Eastern street band. There are brief interludes where hip-hop and the Shirelles seem to rear their heads, all of it ripe with melancholy and set against pre-recorded backdrops: gritty electronic washes, deejay scratch rhythms, NASA space voices floating through the void.
What is Anderson up to? Creating a parallel world? Exploring consciousness? Simply evoking image and mood? Some of each, I think. But "Landfall" has comic moments, too, as when Anderson suddenly asks, "Don't you hate it when people tell you your dreams?" Then, naturally, she starts chattering about her dreams, one involving her father, or -- "wait, no, no, no," she says in a rush -- maybe it was her uncle. And later, free associating, she confides, "You know, I was in a Dutch karaoke bar trying to sing a song in Korean. I was just getting the hang of things when the software crashed."
It feels both detached and touching, as if random bits of life -- our memories, our dreams -- are floating through the long arc of history, which is the bigger theme here: Sandy's rising waters, the sorrows of war, the extinction of animal species. The names of galaxies float overhead, across those acoustic sails: We're lost in space and time, mere bits in a universal process, moving from the Big Bang to nothingness. Hence, the melancholy.
Co-commissioned by Stanford Live, "Landfall" finds Anderson and Kronos using a software known as "erst," which allows for the musical triggering of the projected bits of language and code. Interesting concept, I suppose. More interesting was the fact that $112 million Bing Concert Hall -- acoustically a disappointment in a number of past programs, especially for chamber music -- successfully functioned here as a giant, multimedia instrument. The sound quality was terrific, involving serious amplification and a variety of digital enrichments. The hall became the vessel for Anderson's dream-poem.