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Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson: American Style review – avant-garde pioneers going nowhere

Philip Glass, left, cellist Rubin Kodheli and and Laurie Anderson, right, at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
Retrospective of sorts … Philip Glass, left, cellist Rubin Kodheli and and Laurie Anderson, right, at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson go back a long way, to the heyday of New York minimalism in the 1970s, when Glass was one of the pioneers of that new musical language, and Anderson was just starting out on her boundary-crossing career with its mixture of wryly humorous narratives and multimedia performance art. Their creative paths have crossed occasionally since, and American Style, their latest collaboration which they have been touring since last year, is a retrospective of sorts. In fact it conjures up the laid-back atmosphere of a meeting between two old friends, who get down to reminiscing and worrying over the direction their country is taking at the moment.

It’s all rather low-key (more or less always the same one, in fact, as far as the music is concerned), one-paced, and lacks any real sense of shape. Even the state of the US today seems to arouse more disappointment and sorrow than anger, and the fact that the two are sitting down in front of an audience of a couple of thousand seems almost irrelevant – it’s more a private collection of memories than a performance. Glass sticks to his piano, Anderson commutes between her trademark electric violin and a sampling keyboard, but there’s a cellist too, Rubin Kodheli, whose main role seems to be to flesh out musical textures or add swooning melodic lines, usually to counterproductive effect.

Laurie Anderson on electric violin.
Laurie Anderson on electric violin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Glass, if anything, takes the subsidiary role. He does play one of his piano studies, though even that has to be embellished by Kodheli, and provides a live, rather Randy Newman-like accompaniment to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his anti-war poem Wichita Vortex Sutra, and does the same to a tape of Anderson’s late husband Lou Reed. But it’s left to Anderson to give the evening what substance there is. Her strength has always been the lingering power of her words, which she cocoons in electronica; here Glass’s gently nurdling piano effortlessly merges into the ambient soundscapes that surround the anecdotes, which are sometimes charming but occasionally insistently important.

There’s always the sense, though, that the whole evening has turned out to be significantly less than the sum of its illustrious parts.

This article titled "Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson: American Style review – avant-garde pioneers going nowhere" was written by Andrew Clements, for The Guardian on Friday 19 May 2017 01.14pm

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