Well, it has taken me quite a while to digest The Living Earth Show’s concert from way back on November 9. It was only an hour long and performed by a small ensemble, just two men, who apparently make a living performing contemporary experimental music, much of which they commission themselves. With whatever money they have left over, they also order custom-built instruments like guitars with double the frets and two-of-a-kind vibraphones (the other one is in Norway) that can do things like play extra notes — like quartertones — that usually don’t show up in Western music, built as it is on the rather limited 12-tone scale (in case you like math, sneaking in quarterones makes for a 24-note scale).
So I’ve taken a little time to let the extra notes sink in. Also, I’ve had to do a lot of homework. Besides learning about quarter tones, I had to brush up on my Moby Dick, which I am embarrassed to say I had not read before (okay, I still haven’t read it, but I did google the relevant excerpt). The name of the composition by Luciano Chessa, “Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze!” came from this sentence in Melville’s opus:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me.
The not-so-subtle double entendre proved irresistible to an ensemble that offered, as one of the incentives in a recent Kickstarter campaign, to “play Dangerous Toys’ not-famous-enough 1989 rock and roll anthem “Sport’n A Woody” 50 times in a row at the intersection of Powell Street and Market Street in San Francisco.”
That same campaign features percussionist Andrew Meyerson (above) and guitarist Travis Andrews walking the streets and parks of San Francisco, basically raining on other people’s parades: snatching sandwiches from people’s mouths, knocking over their coffee, disrupting their juggling, and smashing a birthday cake with a huge mallet.
Which gives you a good idea of how The Living Earth Show treats an audience. Just before the show started, Andrews warned: “We like to joke, as difficult as [the piece] is for us, it’s actually more demanding upon the audience.”
But to make it easier on us, Andrews introduced the most brilliant stroke I have ever seen in experimental performance: he turned over an hour glass. Often, during the performance, I glanced at the the lurid, green sands slipping through the glass: we’re a quarter of the way through; it’s half-way done; only a third left to go.
Reassured that in the definite future, the performance would end, I was able to slip in to the hypnotic soundscape of a single motif played on vibraphone, then repeated a quarter tone above or below on the guitar, or vice versa, at faster and slower speeds, up and down the 24-tone scale, on and on.
There were some variations, and diversions, like the introduction of several toothbrushes to replace the mallets on the vibraphone and wedge between the strings on the guitar. Sometimes the toothbrushes simply vibrated on the keys of the vibraphone, sometimes they fell softly to the floor.
At different times, each of the musicians abandoned his instrument to pour a glass or two of Southern Comfort and sit sipping bourbon on one of two red sofas. At what might be described as the climax, Andrews read from Moby Dick: “Let us squeeze ourselves!”
A strange sort of insanity came over me too.