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.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Science Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - South Es...

    NQT Secondary Teachers

    £100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is actively r...

    A Level Chemistry Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: A Level Chemistry Teacher - Humb...

    RE Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering