Philip Glass & Laurie Anderson, ‘American Style,’ review: minimalism, modernism and Metallica

Composer Philip Glass and artist/musician Laurie Anderson
Composer Philip Glass and artist/musician Laurie Anderson

It’s not every day that you get to hear Philip Glass play Metallica. Hunched behind a grand piano at the Barbican Hall on Wednesday night, the composer gave a tender, if tentative rendition of the metal band’s 2011 track Junior Dad, playing against the ghostly, pre-recorded voice of Lou Reed, and accompanied, live, by the late singer’s wife Laurie Anderson on electric violin.

For a few moments, five words in block capitals flashed across the wall as they played: “THE FUTURE IS BEHIND YOU”. It’s an observation that could apply to those on stage. Glass is arguably America’s greatest living composer, but at 80 his greatest works – such as his Seventies minimalist masterpiece Music in 12 Parts – are long behind him.  Anderson, 69, was once championed by John Peel, but her avant-garde pop hasn’t troubled the charts since her single O Superman in 1981.

And yet, judging by the standing ovation from an audience of young acolytes, it seems that Glass and Anderson’s future is secured. Billed as the British premiere of a new art project called American Style, the show was, in fact, a freewheeling jam session, poignant and raucously entertaining by turns.

Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed in 2011 - Credit: Rex
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed in 2011 Credit: Rex

Together with guest cellist Rubin Kodheli, the pair improvised around each other’s more recent work. The evening began with a haunting piece from Anderson’s 2016 film Heart of a Dog. “When my mother died,” she whispered over her violin’s muted pizzicato, “she was talking to the animals that had gathered on the ceiling”.

Much of the night was spent talking to animals. Glass brought an aptly watery sound to Anderson’s 2001 song One White Whale. Barely grazing the keys with his left hand, he clutched a microphone in his right to recite her address to a creature “slipping through the nets of silence”, leaving its “weird trail of notes in the water”.

Glass first met Anderson in the Seventies, at around the time he was supplementing his income as a New York taxi driver – an experience that came through clearly in a thrilling rendition of his 1995 Etude for Piano No 10, which sounded as if he was steering Gershwin through a rush-hour traffic jam.

It’s not often that you’ll hear the audience convulse with laughter at a Glass concert, but with some help from Anderson, he managed to lighten the mood. “You’ve probably heard about this wall we’re going to build,” the US singer deadpanned, before adding a topical twist to her retelling of Aristophanes’s play The Birds. She stopped short of the 2,000-year-old punchline, without revealing what happened to the birds who tried to build a wall between heaven and earth. After all, she said, we’ll found out what happens to them soon enough. Perhaps the future is behind us after all.

Royal Festival Hall, London, Thurday 18 May;

Theatre Royal, Norwich, Friday 19 May;

A history of classical music in 50 short pieces


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