Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Laurie Anderson played a requiem for New York, possibly titled Delirium. The nocturnal atmosphere settled in from the first few notes of Rob Burger’s accordion, the highly processed quality of the music giving it an air-conditioned chill. Throughout the suite, which went on for over an hour, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing, Anderson’s trio or a machine, but that was the point. All these machines we rely on so much distance us from a reality we can’t bring ourselves to face. This piece was all about denial – denial of reality, denial of impending doom, and in that doom, the death of a beloved city, by gentrification, by greed, and especially by denial. “This is the real New York,” was the mantra early on, spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, giving away nothing, Anderson letting her narrative’s fragmentary images speak for themselves against the lushly icy backdrop. She got it all – global warming (a recurrent allusion); mindless “if you see something, say something” paranoia; Fukushima; Wall Street swindlers getting rich on worthless paper (and then shredding it) while the rest of the world riots. Familiar city sights – fire escapes in midsummer; the San Gennaro Festival and its “onions marinara;” Madison Square Garden, a three-way oxymoron; crowds swiping their way into the subway on the way home from work – grounded the piece in an indelible New York milieu. Behind the narrative, sheets of strings, real and synthesized, rose and fell, sometimes with mechanical electronic percussion behind them, often with astringent, vividly wary lines by violinist Eyvind Kang and Anderson herself while Burger shifted from accordion, to simple piano lines, to more nebulous atmospherics. Creepy, occasionally sleepy, it reached with an elegant menace toward a fever dream, especially when a police siren wailed for close to a minute a block further west, slowly making its way uptown.
“‘Hard times,’ says the maid, as she begins her lawsuit against the next President of France, now known worldwide as a chimpanzee in rutting mode, his DNA in her spit on the carpet,” Anderson deadpanned. In this netherworld, technology nerds produce nothing more than speeches full of hot air and time-wasting gadgets; hotel rooms are indistinguishable from offices open 24/7; and, in one blackly funny vignette set to faux boudoir sonics, advertising makes us miss places we’ve never been. And while Anderson never said it directly, this is what our world has come to. How do we deal with it? Midway through, Anderson alluded to suicide, once. She didn’t go near it again.
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The funniest moment of many was when Anderson mocked the pseudo-sophistication of the usual Lincoln Center crowd driving down from Westchester, by reciting a litany of google map directions, straight to the parking garage on 62nd St. Clearly, Anderson is still downtown. She closed the suite by returning to a theme that had arisen earlier, that we tend to reinvent people we’ve lost by cutting them down to size, right or wrong, because once we’ve shed that emotional baggage, we can “travel lite.” By implication, this is how a generation of New Yorkers, maybe more than a generation, deal with the loss of the city where thirty years ago an opportunity existed for Anderson to springboard avant-garde ideas into a successful global career. An entire city park felt that, and was transfixed. The show ended with a coda where Anderson brought out her husband, Lou Reed to play fluidly atonal, biting yet graceful noiserock guitar as the overture swelled and then gently faded down.
Ex-Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds opened the show, first entertaining the crowd by building the animated title track to his new album Outerborough all by himself with a series of loops, from a simple beat to heated, virtuosic lead lines. He was joined a bit later by Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey – playing percussion on innumerable found objects – and a string section including Caleb Burhans, Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris, Yuki Numata, Courtney Orlando, and Ben Russell. Together they made their way gently and hypnotically through a warmly thoughtful, somewhat minimalist Philip Glass-inflected piece by a composer friend from Michigan, as well as a couple of rousing songs straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog that were equal parts Balkan and blues. But where Anderson used the chill of technology to make a point, any point that Reynolds might have made with it was lost, especially when he brought out a “human beatboxer.” For decades, real hip-hop has pilfered rhythms from every other style of music ever invented, from jazz to funk to classical, so as to sidestep the mechanical monotony of a drum machine. The cold, unwavering beat managed only to sabotage the liveliness and goodnatured energy of Reynolds and his fellow musicians.
A fearlessly iconoclastic, mostly successful attempt to reinterpret the cutting edge of three hundred years ago via the cutting edge of now. Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s formidable chops are matched by a laserlike emotional intelligence – for her, playing Bach seems to be a treasure hunt. Last night at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Dinnerstein drew a gemlike, detailed map of the intimacies and intricacies within a selection of segments from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Art of the Fugue as well as the D Minor and F Minor Concertos (BMV 1052 and 1056), accompanied by the estimable American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).
Among the joys of playing Bach is the challenge of bringing to life the incredible range of emotion in the compositions without jumping the rails, without falling back on the tricks of the Romantic trade, i.e. dynamics that weren’t typically utilized in the classical music of Bach’s era. Dinnerstein has famously topped the classical music charts with her warmly legato interpretations of Bach – this time out, she put more of an individual stamp on the music than she usually does, adding an impressive forcefulness to that legato and taking some judicious liberties with the time signature. Most of that was limited to intros and outros, but there were moments where Dinnerstein would add or pull back for a microsecond when a particularly poignant phrase or emotionally charged chord would resonate more strongly. It worked like a charm, notably in the Well-Tempered Clavier pieces: the plaintive midsection of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C Sharp (BWV 872) and the glimmering, shadowy whisper-and-response of Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E (BWV 878). That even such subtle dynamics would be so impactful speaks equally to the quality of the performer and the material. Hubristic? Maybe, but not compared to, say, Yngwie Malmsteen.
New music titans ACME didn’t run up against any resistance that wouldn’t disappear with more rehearsal and familiarity with the material (although it’s impossible to get through Juilliard without being on relatively comfortable terms with Bach). The quartet of Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata on violins, Nadia Sirota on viola and ensemble leader Clarice Jensen on cello squared off as something of a string section backing Dinnerstein’s tersely and exquisitely voiced rock band on the D Minor Concerto. As the night went on, they loosened up – within an Art of the Fugue segment, the procession of textures from Kelli Kathman’s flute, to Alicia Lee’s bass clarinet, to Eric Huebner’s harmonium and then back to Dinnerstein were a rigorous yet joyously athletic game of hot potato. And the vibraphone, played with smart understatement by Chris Thompson, made a worthy out-of-the-box addition to the textural feast. At the end, on the F Minor Concerto, the string quartet cut loose with Dinnerstein from the first few bars, discovering a vivid tango melody, then in the third movement employing a playful and tremendously effective recurrent pianissimo accent at the end of a series of sprightly phrases to add considerable depth.