Living Earth Show’s quarter-tones and toothbrushes invigorate classical music

The Living Earth Show, a San Francisco-based duo, specializes in avant-garde classical music.

“Here’s your seat and here’s a pair of earplugs in case things get too loud,” said the usher shepherding guests to the tiny tables at Woolfe Street Playhouse for Wednesday night’s performance of “Quarter-Tone Shredding” by the Living Earth Show.

The tiny, neon earplugs hardly seemed necessary when guitarist Travis Andrews lifted his custom microtonal guitar and percussionist Andy Meyerson settled in behind his dual vibraphones to play “Renvoi/Shards,” a piece by composer Brian Ferneyhough that utilized the extra notes provided by the distinctive instruments.

The opening piece was more quarter tones than shredding, but the talent of the duo was immediately apparent. Despite the airy complexity and avant garde nature of the composition, Meyerson and Andrews captivated the audience like rock stars.

Then came the shredding. After assuring the audience that what they played was classical music, Meyerson straddled his drum kit, Andrews dropped his microtonal guitar for a traditional axe and the pair unleashed the soul of rock and roll for “North Pacific Garbage Patch.” Still intricate and technical, the tune offered a greater dynamic range with the performers using a loop machine to accompany themselves. The twisted guitar riffs and throbbing drums were right at home before the backdrop of the fractured, exposed brick of the theater.

Another sharp turn (and change to the program) resulted in “Sooge Sohrab,” a piece written for the Living Earth Show by Iranian composer Sahba Aminikia. A prerecorded voice told the story of a filicide while the microtonal instruments swelled to meet its intensity.

During the program’s intermission, the stage was reset with metal bowls and cymbals now flanking Meyerson’s vibraphone. The duo returned for “Pork Roll, Egg, and Cheese on a Kaiser Bun,” which began as an unassuming tune with each musician showcasing his prowess. The song ended in screams and darkness as Meyerson beat a floor tom, rhythmically shrieking with Andrews as the lights came down. There was a breath of silence before another scream echoed from the back of the theater. Then more from the front of the audience.

The guttural growls continued until, illuminated by only a flashlight carried by Andrews, Meyerson descended the stage and approached a set of chimes and a vibraphone in the middle of the audience.

Meyerson affixed sleigh bells to his wrists and donned a bag full of electric toothbrushes. One at a time, he removed them, turned them on and placed them upon the instruments. Deliberately he walked to stage right, removed another toothbrush and placed it on a snare. He repeated his slow and thoughtful movements, placing a toothbrush on the upturned cymbal hidden under the stairs, a gong in the corner and a bass drum with small shakers on it in the balcony above.

Each instrument buzzed and trilled until the toothbrushes, timed for optimum oral hygiene, shut themselves off. Meyerson, still lit only by Andrews’ flashlight, sleigh bells jangling with every motion, retraced his steps, retrieving each device and returning to the chimes and vibes in the center.

He placed handfuls of the buzzing brushes on the keys of the vibraphone and hung them from the chimes, filling the room with a gentle cacophony of oddly organic sounds. Again he removed each until the buzzing ceased.

“This is a really good retention rate,” joked Andrews as they surveyed the stunned crowd.

Kate Drozynski is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.