Laurie Anderson’s Landfall: Scenes from my New Novel has just received its European première at the Barbican, following performances in various places in Australia and the US. It was performed by Anderson herself and the Kronos Quartet, and consisted of music, spoken words, and words projected onto a screen. It was ostensibly concerned with Hurricane Sandy. It lasted around an hour and a quarter, with no interval.

Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet perform Landfall at the Barbican © Mark Allan
Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet perform Landfall at the Barbican
© Mark Allan

It’s hard to know what else to say about it, really. Despite the loftiness of its ambitions, and the renown of its creators, it somehow wasn’t very distinctive. The subject of Hurricane Sandy was treated only in quite an oblique way, but that wasn’t the main problem – after all, apparently the hurricane occurred only as she was finishing the piece. The main problem was that overall it didn’t really seem to be about anything whatsoever, and yet the abstract, musical side of the show was also not compelling. I was left trying, and failing, to locate any semblance of meaning.

Lengthy musical sections, often with Anderson joining in with the quartet on her electric violin, alternated with spoken-word skits by Anderson which ranged across various subjects. First up, for instance, was dreams. Don’tcha just hate it when people describe their dreams? Laurie Anderson does, apparently, and she ran us through her thoughts on the topic in the style of a stand-up comic. The Kronos Quartet, meanwhile, played eerie, post-apocalyptic-film-style music as accompaniment. It came across a bit like Jerry Seinfeld guesting as narrator on The Twilight Zone.

Later, Anderson donned her famous voice filter device, which allows her to speak in a low, male register. She refers to this device as “audio drag”, and this was worryingly close to the truth in this instance. Her male persona relayed a story about an attempt to catalogue all the extinct animal species. The subject was fairly interesting, and there were some amusing lines (“approximately 30 weasels”), but again the relentlessly Hollywood-style, pseudo-poignant music both cut awkwardly across the comedy and made the whole thing hard to take seriously.

The projections restricted themselves to words or parts of words, relaying themes related to Anderson’s patter but often doing so at different times within the show. The idea, presumably, was to create a dreamlike tapestry of recurring ideas – but with so little clue as to what was actually going on, the effect was only as dreamlike as it was confusing. Parts of words were frequently written in a Wingdings-style nonsense script of obscure significance. The hall was filled with smoke for much of the evening, but this did little to influence the atmosphere.

The Kronos Quartet were both overused and underused – overused in that they barely stopped all evening, and often crowded out the words; underused in that their material was emotionally shallow and didn’t highlight their strengths. It’s not totally clear from the programme who did most of the musical work: it would be easy to assume it was all Anderson, but while she clearly played a crucial role in it, “music and text” was attributed to Liubo Borrisov. Moreover, “electronics and software design” were by Konrad Kaczmarek, “transcriptions” by Jacob Garchik, and “arrangements” by all of Garchik, Anderson and the Kronos Quartet. For all of its myriad contributors, however, there was simply not enough of interest in the music to sustain the piece. Kronos always excel in performance – they’re too good not to make an impression – but even their legendary enthusiasm for the new couldn’t salvage this.

At the focal point of the evening was Anderson’s description of her descending to her basement after Sandy, to discover that it had been flooded, along with many of her possessions. Her c’est-la-vie shrugging off of this personal setback was a relief – after all, she survived the incident, unlike several hundred. But it was also indicative of the emotional shallowness of the whole show: the actual impact of this tragedy was not even approached. It never became much more than a series of idle, seemingly random observations made by someone who didn’t have a lot to say.

Laurie Anderson is of course a hugely important artist who has accomplished much. But sui generis doesn’t mean good, and this particular project suffered from an apparent lack of focus and an unfortunate emphasis on the music, its least interesting element. On paper, a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet was a match made in heaven – but it takes more than top performers to make a show.