Strange adventures in Anderson country


On Tuesday, Paul Weller was at the South Bank Centre, launching his new album with an outdoor gig. I don't suppose he was allowed inside. For this was the first week of the Meltdown Festival, the South Bank's annual fortnight of unusual music and arts, and its line-up this year was picked by Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde, multi-media performance artist (ie, her records don't sell). Known in Britain chiefly for "O Superman", an eight-minute answerphone message which was a hit single in 1981, Anderson translates her fascination with technology and communication at the end of the millennium into grand gestures that can have you nodding and grinning or reaching for your bag of over-ripe fruit and veg, depending on your pretension threshold. So, this year's Meltdown seemed to be one to approach with caution, at best.

Take, for example Laurie Anderson and Friends, her main show last week, and one of the three I saw at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Now, we all come up with banal observations from time to time, slogans that seem momentarily deep, insights that are barely defrosted, let alone half-baked. We inflict them on close friends in the pub and get on with other things. But Anderson offers hers to a paying audience. What's worse, she thinks they're captivating just because she says them in a quizzical, alien voice while outer-space synth music washes around her.

The annoying thing is that she's right. Her performances can be mesmeric, and only become frustrating when you actually listen to her sound-nibbles - "When we die our bodies turn to diamonds, to teacups, not just to chalk and carbon" - and realise that neither they nor her familiar electronic gimmickry add up to a tin of beans. On Thursday, though, Anderson was disarmingly sweet. Despite the pulsing of the relaxation-tape music, she favoured the anecdotal over the pseudo-poetic. It was the "friends" who had the audience stuffing socks in their ears.

Sadly, the concert's title didn't mean that Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston were to make an appearance, nor Anderson's most famous pals, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel or Lou Reed. Instead, it referred to a line-up of musicians and poets (apparently) that, with the charming exception of Ken Nordine and Ivor Cutler, was excruciating . Maybe Anderson fancied the idea of being one of the least pretentious people in a show, for a change.

Last Sunday's 100 Violins, was mercifully enjoyable. Think Laurie Anderson, and think "a mass chorus of 100 violins", as the brochure puts it, and you think you're in for a painful evening of having to applaud every time the orchestra tunes up, just in case you've been hearing her latest composition. But 100 Violins turned out to be a well-organised, educational delight.

First we had Ken Nordine recounting a story, while behind him a stageful of casually dressed young violinists furnished sound effects: they glissandoed, pizzicatoed and toccatoed, strummed their instruments banjo-style, and tapped them with their bows. They did everything, basically, except playing normally.

That was left to others. Gidon Kremer skipped through some jocular variations on a Kreutzer practice piece, the bane of every young violinist's life. BK Chandrashekar played some slithering Indian music, with an ensemble who sat cross-legged on the stage. The musicians then accompanied Nordine and Anderson as they read out extracts from 1921's Encyclopedia of the Violin, savouring the juicy details of why violin strings are called "catgut". Don't worry, apparently feline disembowelment was never part of the process. Sheep intestines were used instead.

The second half of the concert was more avant-garde and reliant on electronics, but it retained its sense of irreverence. The capabilities of Anderson's own invention, the Tape-Bow violin, hardly match those of a conventional one, but on this occasion Anderson deflected pretension by presenting the TBV as a novelty item, rather than as the next step in the instrument's evolution. I don't want to come across as too much of a luddite, but it was the humanity of 100 Violins which made the show so enjoyable, not the technology.

Which brings us to 74-year-old Ivor Cutler, an insufficiently treasured national treasure, who recently signed to Creation Records, home of Oasis (his appearance in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film must have helped him no end at the bargaining table). If you've never encountered Cutler, imagine it if Alan Bennett's Glaswegian uncle had collaborated with John Hegley and Spike Milligan, and had access to Elton John's hat collection. Then wonder why Cutler is not more famous than all of the above.

On Monday, he recited his surreal poetry in a slow, sad, crinkly voice, and reminisced with hilarious precision about his working-class childhood. Most of the characters in his work are children, in fact: Cutler is one of the few writers who genuinely justify the tired accolade of having a child's awareness of the magic and mischief present in everyday life.

When he wasn't reading, he pottered over to a tiny harmonium, and, with a voice clear enough to be heard over the clack of the keys and the squeak of the bellows, he sang some wonderful songs, from a shanty whose only words were "I'm happy, I'm happy, and I'll punch the man who says I'm not", to a thrillingly pointless hymn about the relative merits of elderberry jam and traffic jams. Now that's what I call avant-garde multi-media performance art.

Meltdown: South Bank, SE1 (0171 960 4242), continues to Sat with Spalding Gray, tonight; Laurie Anderson, Mon; Heather Woodbury, Tues-Fri; Lou Reed, Thurs; and a charity gala, Sat.

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