The Living Earth Show may be the most unique chamber music ensemble to emerge from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It is a duo of guitarist Travis Andrews (performing on electronic instruments) and percussionist Andy Meyerson (performing on just about anything he can hit). This instrumentation may lead one to believe that the group consists of the strike force leading an invasion of the chamber music repertoire by heavy metal, but this would be seriously misleading. While they are not shy of performing pieces that get very loud, Andrews and Meyerson definitely appreciate composers who express themselves in subtleties of detail that can only emerge through soft dynamics.
Tomorrow the innova label will release High Art Living Earth’s debut album, currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. The five tracks on the album represent the work of four contemporary composers, each with his own unique approach. (Yes, all of the composers on this particular album are male.) I have to confess that I took great pleasure in receiving this recording, since four of the tracks were of pieces performed at the first Living Earth concert I attended, a concert that made such a deep positive impression that I had no trouble making it the April entry for the “memorable concerts of 2012” article on my San Francisco site.
The new album provides an excellent introduction to the duo, since it balances two high-intensity “assaults” against three far more subtle pieces. The most memorable of that latter class would have to be the first of Samuel Carl Adams’ two “Tension Study” pieces, where, as far as I can tell, “tension” refers to that state required for an object to become a sound-producing object. The performance thus involves Andrews changing the tension of the strings on his guitar, rather than just tuning the instrument and playing it. Even more remarkable, however, was Meyerson’s approach to tension control on the bars of his vibraphone in order to produce microtonal pitches. This made a deep impression when I saw it, but the attentive listener should be able to appreciate it just as much on this recording. I should also note that the only track on the album that was unfamiliar to me was the second of Adams’ studies, and I found it equally absorbing. The two studies are the opening and closing tracks, serving as “bookends” for the remaining selections.
The other soft composition is Timo Andres’ “You Broke It, You Bought It.” In this case Andrews’ guitar work almost establishes a landscape, which Meyerson then navigates in the pursuit of his own thematic material. This involves stroking the vibraphone bars with a bow to create reverberant qualities similar to those of Andrews’ strings; but Meyerson then punctuates these relatively “clean” harmonic spectra with the “colored noise” of his cymbal strokes. The results is an absorbing “journey through sonorities” that covers a generous amount of time in a relatively modest (seven minutes) duration.
On the more aggressive side Meyerson told the audience that they might want to hold their ears before Living Earth began the performance of Adrian Knight’s “Family Man” that I attended. I actually did not feel a need to follow that advice. Compared to the unrelenting hard-driving intensity I had encountered in recordings of Glenn Branca, I found this piece strong, but not painfully so. This may have been due to the fact that it was structured as five “scenes” for the duo separated by relatively innocuous electronic interludes. While there was a high-stress climax to this “narrative arc,” it was judiciously limited to avoid the threshold of aggravation.
Jon Russell’s “Repetitive Stress,” on the other hand, could be called “music with repetitive structures,” to use the phrase the Philip Glass prefers to “minimalism.” In this case the repetitions are enhanced through the use of sampling software, resulting in some rich melodic textures. Those textures, again, serve somewhat as a landscape for Meyerson, who performs on a richly-supplied drum set. This is the piece that comes closest to heavy metal rhetoric. Ironically, it has the same seven-minute duration as Andres’ more introspective “You Broke It, You Bought It.” One might say that “Repetitive Stress” is the joker in this five-card hand; but the full hand is strong enough to claim the pot in most poker games without any excess of bluffing.