A tiny change in pitch, only a quarter of a note up or down the scale, has Andy Meyerson lunging across the expanse of his custom-built double vibraphone set.
The simple action of striking a note becomes twice as complicated when double the notes are involved.
“It’s actually a little bizarre because the notes that are closest together are the ones that are physically farthest away,” said Meyerson, percussionist for the Living Earth Show. “It’s weird mental gymnastics to make a large physical gesture to make a sound that’s very close.”
The Living Earth Show, a San Francisco-based percussion-and-guitar duo, is ditching the diatonic scale and incorporating microtones into “Quarter-Tone Shredding,” the first of two shows at the Woolfe Street Playhouse as part of Spoleto Festival’s Music In Time series.
Quarter tones, notes that fall between the regular notes on a traditional 12-tone scale, creep a fourth of a step higher or lower on the scale, doubling those 12 common notes to 24 and giving the musician exponentially more opportunities for chords and combinations.
“It’s a really fun and liberating listening experience because everything’s fair game and everything’s equal,” Meyerson said. “It just makes you rethink what it means for a chord to have harmony or dissonance or consonance.”
To play these microtones, Meyerson and guitarist Travis Andrews need custom instruments.
“It basically just means we have double the notes of regular instruments,” Meyerson said. “Usually an octave is 12 notes, but these instruments just have notes between those notes. We can do the weirdest, most abrasive chords and dissonant harmonies. It’s fun!”
For Meyerson, a set of vibraphones were conjoined. The keyboard closest to him is tuned traditionally, but the vibes mounted behind those are tuned to quarter tones.
Andrews brought the electric guitar he’s had since the seventh grade to Gary Brawer, a San Francisco guitar maker, who, like a musical mad scientist, reconstructed the fret board and expanded the instrument’s range of sound.
The new fret board, which is standard length but divided into twice as many individual frets, presented Andrews with challenges.
“It makes everything a lot smaller and more subdivided,” Andrews said. “It turned what was formerly houses with yards on the fret board into duplexes.”
To distinguish the quarter tones from the typical temperaments, Andrews painted the sides of some of his frets brown. He color coordinates his music, which he says works wonderfully to make the connection when he’s learning a new piece.
“I can’t even figure out how many hours that’s saved me on the back end,” Andrews said.
Aside from the challenge of new and unique instruments, Andrews and Meyerson had to learn how to hear quarter tones and play a scale heard more often in the music of the Middle East and Ancient Greece than the modern West. With the introduction of so many new pitches, it can be hard to tell what’s intentionally dissonant and what’s just a wrong note.
“There’s this moment that we each had, and it might have been at different points, when we realized we could hear that is was wrong,” Andrews said. “The sounds were no longer foreign.”
Once they mastered the art of quarter-tone shredding, the Living Earth Show began commissioning pieces. The duo’s performance Wednesday will include four commissioned pieces as well as “Renvoi/Shards” by Brian Ferneyhough, a pivotal composer of what’s called the New Complexity movement. Meyerson credits “Renvoi/Shards” as the catalyst for the bands’ interest in quarter tones.
The duo is performing another set on Thursday night called “Double Happiness” that features pieces commissioned entirely from young composers such as Anna Meredith and Christopher Cerrone, as well as new works from Nicole Lizee and Samuel Carl Adams.
“Basically, we become almost like a museum curator or a radio station DJ in that we get to find people we think are doing the most interesting work or work that really resonates with us,” Meyerson said. “We just completely become the conduit for their ideas. Each piece is just a completely different world and we kind of give what we do over to these people we trust.”
Kate Drozynski is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.