Laurie Anderson + Geri Allen: 17 July 2012 – New York

Laurie Anderson spoke only once during her performance with Geri Allen at The Stone on Tuesday, July 17th. It was during a rare break between pieces, and the temperature in the cramped Alphabet City performance space seemed to be reaching well into the 90s. “OK, we’re going to try turning the air on,” Anderson suggested, without a microphone, to the staff member by the door. “I don’t think the fan will be too loud.”

In a room barely larger than a high school classroom — yet less well-ventilated — the performer’s concern was valid: the room was eerily silent. At times, so was the music. During quiet parts, you could hear the traffic whir by on Avenue C. Some audience members fanned themselves, fidgeting for cool. But most sat silent, undistracted by the heat — and wholly captured by Anderson’s haunting collaboration with the jazz pianist Geri Allen.

The Stone is not the typical venue for a performance artist of Anderson’s stature, but then what is? An unmarked, dungeon-like space, the room seats about 50, with room for ten more to stand. (On Tuesday, a staff member provided mats for the stragglers to sit on.) It was founded by avant-garde maestro John Zorn as a nonprofit den to highlight experimental and unheard music on a curatorial basis. “Each month a different musician is responsible for curating the programs with 100% of the nightly revenue going directly to the musicians,” boasts the venue on its website (Anderson herself has curated in the past, and Allen took the reigns in July). And by setting aside everything that is peripheral to the music, it fulfills its mission generously: no merchandise, no drinks, no advance ticket sales, and hardly any promotion. On a given night, there are less than 50 people in The Stone — but each of them would rather be nowhere else.

On this night, Anderson alternated between her trademark tape-bow violin and a MIDI keyboard setup, Allen seated at a grand piano across the room. The singer disregarded familiar ‘80s staples like “O Superman” and “From the Air”. The focus was fully on her captivating instrumental chemistry with Geri Allen, a Michigan-based pianist who teaches jazz at the University of Michigan and has worked with everyone from Dave Holland to Ornette Coleman. Together they performed slow, wandering sound pieces — largely ambient and masterfully improvised.

Throughout her career, Anderson has progressed into a wonderfully accomplished violinist — her tones scaled from low, murmuring ambience to piercing, dramatic flairs. Allen, to her complement, carved empty spaces of sound as much as she offered full-bodied accompaniment, with slow, enveloping arpeggios and swelling crescendos. Cinematic and flowing, the pairing could have been soundtrack work (I thought of Jonny Greenwood’s Bodysong), if it weren’t so singular and of the collaborative moment.

Anderson’s keyboard provided occasional pre-programmed accompaniment as well. One piece incorporated strange, stuttering electronic rhythms. Another padded along on a deep, pulsing string pattern that reminded me instantly of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Though sudden, the shifts into minimalist electronic territory seemed natural and weighted — evidence of Anderson’s continued involvement with so many varied strands of American experimental music.

There was a man, curly-haired, graying, photographing Anderson from the front row as she cradled her instrument a few feet away. Shyly, I approached him after the show. I asked if he was planning on publishing his photos anywhere and, if not, would he submit them for this post? His answer was unclear, but he agreed to take my email. I jotted down the address and made my way to the tiny exit, which pours out onto the graffiti-stained corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C.

“Was that Lou Reed?” my friend Amy questioned. She was referring to the man with the camera — as well as the small group of audience members clustering near him, hoping to chat. I hadn’t observed him especially closely. It was dim, and I was preoccupied, or perhaps merely oblivious. But her theory made sense. Reed, of course, married Anderson in 2008. They have collaborated on recordings before, including pieces on Anderson’s Bright Red and Life on a String, and they have co-programmed events at The Stone. So was it indeed Reed that I pestered briefly?

I haven’t received any emails — nor photos — to clarify the mystery. This post, accordingly, remains image-less. But I hold out hope. When Mr. Reed decides, finally, to get in touch, you’ll be the first to know.