An evening in the presence of a master of minimalism and an avant-garde multimedia artists might lead you to assume a hefty side order of pretension. But any fears that Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson’s American Style might be an impenetrably obscure are soon allayed by the open warmth of both performers. Glass chats away to the audience, introducing each piece as if he’s about to run through a few numbers for friends in his living room, and Anderson elicits her fair share of laughs through droll commentary and a stand up comedy skit that includes a genuinely funny joke. These longtime collaborators have created a performance that is somewhat formless, but which throws up moments of emotion and joy.
They open with Tell All the Animals from Anderson’s Heart Of A Dog, which is accompanied by her visuals. Abstract images and random slogans fill the screen but add little to Anderson’s dulcet tones that riff on death. Largely though, the images do partner well with the music. One of the more simple but effective of these shows tree tops whizzing by as they recreate Wichita Vortex Sutra, originally a collaboration between Glass and beat poet and counter-cultural icon, Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s frantic and excitable reading is complemented by Glass’s nimble piano work that hits on an exhilarating buzz. His continued litheness belies his 80 years, and it’s a marvel to watch this matchless composer perform his own Etude 10 and Metamorphosis Four and conjure those watery lines so effortlessly.
Anderson adds splashes of violin and keyboard to what were once solo piano pieces, and they are both joined by Rubin Kodhei whose cello fleshes out both artists compositions. His contributions are largely conventional, but he also adds some fringe techniques that punctuate the work and justify his presence. The three players flitted between the two artists’ work, and whilst the result could be a little directionless, amongst the sometimes listless pace there were moments that were acutely touching.
One of the big surprises was a performance of Junior Dad from Lou Reed’s much maligned collaborative album with Metallica. David Bowie reportedly hailed Lulu a masterpiece, but nevertheless critics saw fit to ravage it. Who knows, maybe time will reveal its value given how well it works in American Style. Admittedly, it’s almost unrecognisable from the original version. Reed’s visage appears behind Anderson, whose form looks so tiny in comparison. His face is only in semi-focus, and rain splashed glass further mask his already opaque features, but those features are too recognisable to be indistinguishable. His isolated vocal booms out from the stage, the words are spoken rather than sang, and Anderson accompanies him on her electric violin. It’s haunting and unsurprisingly touching, and as he intones, “Would you come to me/If I was drowning/An arm above the last wave/Would you come to me/would you pull me up” it’s impossible not to be moved as you watch his widow play along.
Another fallen icon is also resurrected via a cover version. Anderson’s spoken take on Leonard Cohen’s Democracy follows her amusing skit on Donald Trump’s infamous, and currently still theoretical, wall. Her vocal can plumb surprising depths, and the smooth transitions between low notes and higher ones lend her voice a soothing and knowing tone.
All in all, it’s quite a strange evening to witness, and one that highlights the passing of an era that gave rise to so many extraordinary artists. The difficulties of the present are dealt a zen-like treatment, rather than an energised artful protest. But can you blame them? They fought their own battles and pushed their own envelopes. Now they are passive, knowing witnesses who are surely hoping for a new generation to bash down a few walls of their own. Despite the evening’s mixed successes they receive a rapturous response from the audience, who repay them with an excited and sustained standing ovation. Given the evening started with a rumination on mortality and included posthumous performances, perhaps everyone is simply painfully aware that we may not see their kind again.