The Living Earth Show, a duo of classically trained musicians, questions what classical music should be. Guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson commission composers, then create unusual performances.
“A lot of the folks we work with are blending media because they have been excluded from a variety of classical institutions on purpose,” Meyerson said.
The duo’s collaborative work challenges the status quo of classical music.
“I guess the moral — being, ‘Hey, wouldn't it be cool if the status quo didn't exist?’ — is the overarching theme of a lot of what we do,” he said.
While their work has elements of the absurd, the overarching themes are often serious. Their recent work, “Lordship & Bondage: The Birth of the Negro Superman,” presented [do you know when?] at The MET Cloisters, is the result of a collaboration with composer and vocalist M Lamar.
The work centers on “the idea of activating black transcendence through the lens of M Lamar,” Meyerson said.
Performances by The Living Earth Show are anything but improvised — whether they’re performing on a boat, a stage, in the cloisters or somewhere else. Every moment is meticulously choreographed, planned and practiced.
“It never feels like we get to copy/paste any of the logistics,” Andrews said. “Everything is built from scratch, and it’s kind of nuts. When we tour, we usually have a lot of equipment that comes with us.”
California-based composer Dennis Aman is a collaborator who approached Andrews and Meyerson with the idea to create 24 preludes and fugues, for which he also crafted instruments that deliver quarter-tones and micro-intervals “to an array of 24 ‘equal divisions of the octave’ (EDO),” as explained on his website, 24preludesandfugues.com.
“Fugue 4, from 24 Preludes + Fugues,” features Aman’s Jell-O-Phone. This instrument looks like a child’s handheld Simon game, with four colored panels on a translucent, disc-shaped device.
A standard chromatic scale has 12 tones, Meyerson said. “But that could be divided in an infinite number of ways. The Jell-O-phone is a four-note key octave instrument. I think (Aman) was really excited to solve a problem that was 100 percent his own making.”
Aman has also created an Octave Go-Kart and an instrument constructed from a washing machine. By creating such unusual instruments, he is challenges the status quo of classical music.
“I don’t necessarily think the things we do look particularly different from other people that are playing experimental music, but I’ve found that the spirit of our ensemble is just kind of weird,” Andrews said. “It’s lacking boundaries, and it’s the thing that just felt right to us for 10 years now.”
At this year’s Spoleto Festival, The Living Earth show will perform duo material, not ensemble work.
John Kennedy, the festival’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities, attended a performance by The Living Earth Show in 2012, and recognized the need to share their progressive work.
“They memorize everything they perform, so there’s no music on music stands,” he said. “What they’re doing is a kind of ‘music theater,’ where they’ve put in these thousands of hours to memorize this really difficult music, and then they present it like a show.”
Part of Kennedy’s job is to identify people whose work is exemplary and innovative, bringing them to Charleston in order to share this work.
“I think audiences get their ears opened and they take a lot of pleasure in seeing things that we might expect have different associations within the world, such as an electric guitar or a certain set of percussion instruments,” he said. “They also have a way of (being theatrical) in their work, of using different objects in their performances that just sort of surprise an audience with how they’re being used, and it makes us rethink our relationship with the world.”
Geena Matuson is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse Univeristy.