Live review: Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson - "American Style" at Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.5.

7/10

In a year when the phrase “strong and stable” couldn’t throb with irritation any harder, the thrills and themes of improvisation come as a mild relief to those that enjoy a little spontaneity in their life.

In fact, the collaborative production from two wholly different musical powerhouses - avant garde musician, artist and inventor Laurie Anderson and legendary minimalist Philip Glass - created an odd alternative reality, showcasing what could happen if those from both ends of the artistic spectrum met in the middle. Or perhaps communicated from opposite corners of the room. Very loudly.

Despite these differences in approach, Anderson and Glass have worked together a few times, and in the year of Glass’ 80th birthday they presented American Style, an event that promised Glass’ recognisably driven technique would “converse and collide” with Anderson’s. And collide it did.

Instrumentally, the setup was fairly traditional, with Glass at the piano, Anderson largely playing the “tape-bow violin” she created in 1977, and special guest Rubin Kodheli applying the finishing touches on cello. A mixture of Glass’ older works, settings of texts read by famous friends and sardonic prosaic addresses by Anderson were the story of the night.

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Unsurprisingly, leadership was a key factor. Those hoping that Glass’ steam-train quaver-express would halt in the face of a spot of ad-libbing would have been left disappointed. While some pieces he led kept his hypnotic, harmonic sensibilities – like the quintessentially American accompaniment of the poem ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’, accompanying a recording of its creator, Allen Ginsberg -  there was often a feeling that his musical voice limited what was really achievable from such an improvisation as this. The contributions of Anderson and Kodheli faded dramatically during these moments, which were especially overworked without another audio or visual presence. Though rhythmically less driven, there was wonder and anticipation when the string duo took over on a nervous pizzicato, or an electronically altered drone.

The audience were less glassy-eyed, too, when Anderson ventured forward to speak for the first time. With a low lilt, she told stories, including that of a childhood encounter with President Kennedy, and people listened. She told jokes, admitting that she knew very few, and people laughed. She even whispered the ominous slogan “Democracy is coming to the USA”, and I’m sure people sighed in resignation. All this time, Glass and Kodheli slowly built simple soundworlds for each story to live inside. With a framework to cling to, their endeavours suddenly made all the sense in the world, and they grew in confidence with each passing movement.

Anderson’s multi-media mantra was the crucial factor in the creation of something special. The recorded singing of her late husband Lou Reed, for example, was made all the more poignant by a looped close-up video of Reed himself, while the onstage trio ached with remorse in their playing.

While Glass brought the technical, Anderson would often supply the human element. Without the swaying tableaus and changes of lighting, based largely around nature, the performance could have been a great deal drier. Without her utilisation of different spaces of the stage in which to speak from, it could have been uncomfortably static. 

Collaboratively, the duo overcame the odds and pulled off a fascinating evening – however much it may have felt like their styles were fighting it out onstage.