Laurie Anderson spoke with Director of Performing Arts Chuck Helm this summer about her collaboration with Kronos Quartet. Here is the full interview to whet your appetite for the performance of Landfall on October 11.
Chuck Helm: Well Laurie, thanks for taking time to do this. We’re presenting Landfall as one of the highlights of our 25th Anniversary Season. Last winter I was out in the Bay Area and I was at a dinner with David Harrington and the members of Kronos Quartet, who I’ve known for a long time. I was chatting with David about our plans to bring Landfall to the Wex and he said to me—I was sort of astonished—“You know, I first met Laurie Anderson backstage at the Wexner Center, and that was at the dedication event at the center in the fall of 1989.”
Laurie Anderson: That’s hilarious! Yep, that’s true.
CH: He said “We met backstage. I even said to her then, we need to collaborate on something.”
LA: We finally got down to it for your anniversary.
CH: Were you aware of Kronos at that time?
LA: Of course. It’s hard to remember when the art and music worlds were smaller than they are now. But they used to be quite tiny, and you kind of knew everybody in them. Now it’s just a corporate industry. It’s wild.
CH: When did you reconnect with Kronos and decide to do Landfall?
LA: It must have been about three years ago when the idea first came up, and because their schedule was so crazy and they’re so busy all the time, we had very little time to get together and even talk about it. But when we did, it was very fast, and I thought, this is great! These guys are really together. So what we did were a lot of…I would say, workshops. I wrote a lot of material for processed viola, and then we’d play a few phrases, and they would immediately take all of the processing and break it up into quartet parts. I didn’t really have to do that much for this work. Although I worked a lot with Jacob [Garchik, an arranger/transcriber for Kronos since 2006], who’s really a wonderful collaborator as well, and who helped me figure out how to write scores for them, because there’s a special way that they like to see things.
CH: I was curious about that because you often work with other musicians. Were there particular challenges in arranging this for string quartet?
LA: It was definitely a challenge for both of us. I didn’t realize this until we played Landfall for the first time in public and David said, “you know, we’ve never been in a situation where we didn’t have the score until like three days before.” I was like, really? He said, “but it was so easy to play.” I said, well, that’s because these are all things that you played, and I just recorded them and arranged them in different ways. I think that made it a lot easier, because—and it was really true—it was stuff that had come from them, essentially. There’s a lot of improvisation in this work, even in the written parts. I would ask them to play these things, and they would come up with ideas that got incorporated into the work. So it was a very free process, and I really really enjoyed working with them, so much. We recorded last spring and I’ve just been listening over the last couple of days to the recording, which is really beautiful. I’m so happy with it.
CH: That record is slated to come out on Nonesuch later this year. When can we expect to see that?
LA: The quartet is weighing in about which takes they want to use, and I’m going to be mixing, I think, in Iceland. We’ll see what happens with that part of it. I’m very very proud of that recording. Working with them is beyond fun; it’s just like, a crazy amount of fun.
CH: Storytelling has always been a very central part of your work and certainly is in Landfall. What themes are you exploring in this work?
LA: A series of short stories about loss and disappearance, sort of inspired by Hurricane Sandy, which happened when I was just finishing and choosing which stories to use. I lost pretty much all of my stuff in storage in my basement with Sandy. At first it felt so devastating, and then I realized, wait a second, when is the time I’m going to bring up 30 slide projectors connected by MIDI, set them up, and have them do something—and the answer is absolutely never. And, so, in a way, it began a whole series of things for me during which I just began to throw stuff away. I just realized: I don’t need this, I don’t need that, and this is not something I’m ever going to care about again, and it was very, very freeing. So it’s also a work about trying to be free.
CH: You’ve long been known for your embrace of technology, both in terms of integrating visuals with sound as well as expanding the range of your voice and your instruments, and Kronos has also always been quick to work with technology. Are there particular technological ideas or tools that you are using for Landfall?
LA: Well, I’m always adding to the rig that I’m using. For Landfall I’ve used a bunch of sampling and processing devices, and those are speedier than they used to be, so that’s really fun. I’m kind of the fifth wheel, over there with my piles of electronics and electronic viola and a different series of sounds. The things I’ll be using on stage will sound fairly similar to what I originally used in developing the piece, but they’ll be faster. So the sounds are developing while we’re playing the piece as well. They’re always kind of changing.
CH: Are you also controlling the digital processing for Kronos’s sound, or do they do that?
LA: Yes, I’m using it for them as well.
CH: You first premiered the work several years ago. Has Landfall evolved since then, or has it remained pretty much a set piece?
LA: Well, because there’s improv in it, it’s really evolving. Each time we play it, we play it differently, which is exciting to me. That’s what I hoped for, that they wouldn’t drag out the score and just play it. It’s very dynamic that way. It also has a big visual component, which is a kind of code that I wrote. Originally one of the things that they said was, “We’d like to tell stories with our instruments.” I was like, “Well, OK, good; I’m not sure how to do that!” But I figured out a very high-speed way for John [Sherba, Kronos violinist] to play the solo and generate text that is kind of frightening because it’s so one-on-one. Generally subtitles lag behind or sometimes even precede the sung or spoken text, and this is, like, dead on. You realize it’s in a whole different time frame. And to me that’s really exciting—but I’m a geek, so what can I say? But I think it’s very perceptible to people and unusual that there is this completely new relationship between sound and pictures.
There are also some really creaky sounds in Landfall. I worked with an Optigan, which is an old 1970s sampling [playback] keyboard, so there are lots of things that sound like ancient ice skating music from the 1930s, or maybe the 50s, let’s say, that it samples. So Landfall has these beautiful shabby sounds as well as glistening digital stuff—I love the combination of those kinds of elements. Kronos, of course, can enter either of those worlds—the creaky one or the glossy one—very quickly and naturally, so that’s been an incredible pleasure.
CH: Well, I’m sure that the recording will be fantastic, and it will be really great to have both you and Kronos back at the Wexner Center where you first met and…
LA: Yeah, that’s going to be a blast…
CH: …so we can see it with the visuals and experience it in full with our audience for our 25th anniversary. Thank you so much Laurie.
LA: Exactly. It’s the kind of thing you can’t put on a record. So, I’m looking forward to it too.