When one is even mildly interested in classical music, it is impossible not to come across the name “Kronos Quartet”. Already 40 years old, the ensemble has today firmly established itself as part of 20th century musical history: they have collaborated with composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Harry Partch, John Adams, Arvo Pärt, and Henryk Górecki, with a repertoire of almost 800 works touching all possible musical genres, from early music, classical, jazz, folk, to contemporary. It is therefore a privilege to see such an ensemble live, particularly when joined by the mythical Laurie Anderson, a legend in her own right having contributed to the American music and art scene of the 1970s and 80s.

© Charles d'Hérouville / Philharmonie de Paris
© Charles d'Hérouville / Philharmonie de Paris

A third performer, however, was scheduled for tonight’s performance: the computer program ERST, developed with the digital artist and programmer Liubo Borissov: the result of Anderson’s fascination with the complex relationship between the spoken word and music, Erst is essentially a vessel through which the music played by the instruments is translated into words. As outlined in the concert’s programme notes, by juxtaposing spoken and written word, along with an added musical element, the resulting performance creates a fracture within the narrative and generates a visual and aural polyphony. This was, therefore, to be no ordinary concert; then again, such a thing is never to be expected from either Kronos or Laurie Anderson.

From the very first note, the violin’s amplified violins made for a very surreal effect. Full of sliding pizzicati from cello and heavy vibrato from the upper strings, Laurie Anderson’s opening music displayed a strong influence of middle-eastern and oriental styles. A brief mention must be made of Kronos’ newest cellist, Sunny Yang (appointed in June of 2013): any musician tasked with joining an already long-running and well-oiled machine like the Kronos quartet (and doing this excellently in Yang’s case), certainly deserves recognition.

Before any words were spoken, Anderson’s poetry appeared on-screen, outlining the underlying theme of Landfall: Hurricane Sandy. Though each “story” within Landfall is primarily focused on tempo and rhythms, the work nonetheless opens and closes with references to the great storm beating down upon New York as Anderson worked on her music. Needless to say, the storm’s violence and menace are clearly present in Anderson’s music. Less clear, however, was the true role and on-stage application of Erst, and indeed whether there was one. Armed with an electric viola (by all accounts linked to the Erst programme), Anderson often played alongside the quartet, though her playing did not always bring up words on the screen, thus adding to the confusion as to the software’s true on-stage function.

Confusion aside, the musical communication between Anderson and the ensemble provided great dialogue, with Anderson opening the story and the quartet then taking over. By no means relegated to the background, the Kronos Quartet proved their worth as they elegantly worked their way through Anderson’s challenging but ever so beautiful music: the silently approaching storm felt very real and menacing through the quartet’s interpretation, at times even playing percussively by scraping their bows vertically across the strings of their violins. Anderson’s music is at times chaotic and seemingly almost without structure, though it obviously has one, and this is precisely its strength. It feels natural. There is something very cyclical about her music: one feels both the passing of time and yet the eternal repetitive nature of this passage.

In between the storm’s approach and its ultimate attack, Anderson leads us down a winding rabbit-hole, telling us stories of microphones the size of flies, faulty karaoke equipment in a Dutch bar due to “the bad connection via the Indonesian version of Netflix”, and the already ancient and unfathomable number of extinct animals. Each of the stories has its own mood and character, established by Anderson through the opening story and efficiently conveyed musically by the Kronos Quartet. Though some may describe the overall work as odd or even absurd, it is not necessarily one that asks to be understood intellectually but rather simply emotionally.

Having herself experienced the ravages of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the loss of her husband Lou Reed in 2013, the work is in many ways a musical testament to what Anderson called a “hallucinatory” year. Landfall encapsulates a feeling of dizzying powerlessness as the listener is continuously yanked from one idea to the next before finally coming face to face with the storm, excellently orchestrated and performed. As the hurricane finally passes, a calm washes over us. The chaotic music has gone, and leaves behind memories of previous themes, much like the remnants physical remnants after a storm: “And after the storm / I went down to the basement / and everything was floating […] And I looked at them floating there/ all the things I had carefully saved all my life / And I thought how beautiful how magic / and how catastrophic.”