Name: The Living Earth Show
Founders: Travis Andrews, Andy Meyerson
Occupation: Guitarist (Travis Andrews), percussionist (Andy Meyerson). As The Living Earth Show, Travis and Andy aim to "push the boundaries of technical and artistic possibility while amplifying voices, perspectives, and bodies that the classical music tradition has often excluded."
Current release: “Music for Hard Times”, the first release of The Living Earth Show's new label, is due for release in January. A second one, Sam Adams’ “Lyra” will follow soon after.
Recommendations: Andy: For me, "Back Of The Truck" by Michete has been probably the most influential piece of music to have been released during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Travis: A friend recommended Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather to me a few years ago, and it took me a while to get around to reading it. After reading, it really stuck with me. The author seems to genuinely like her protagonist. But she also did a good job showcasing his disgust and shortcomings in a critical way that allowed the reader to comfortably take it all in. The book has a very gentle hand. I also came to love Back Of The Truck.
If you enjoyed this interview with The Living Earth Show, visit their official website for more information. They are also on Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Andy: Howdy! We, um, don’t write or produce music, at least not as a part of The Living Earth Show.
We serve as interpreters, in the tradition of ‘classical’ music. We play music written for us by composers, and our job is to execute THEIR musical visions as comprehensively as possible.
We do indeed serve in perhaps more of a compositional capacity in COMMANDO, though the music crafted in that project is built with a very specific framework, as it is designed to interrogate a very specific musical vocabulary of the ubiquitous nü metal of 1999.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Again, it’s a bit weird to use the term our “own voice” in regards to the sort of music we perform. Our responsibility as chamber musicians, and my responsibility as artistic director / curator, is to amplify the voices of the artists and composers we commission and whose works we perform.
We think unlike a lot of other ensembles in the field, having “our” musical voice is somewhat antithetical to our mission as an organization. In the process of amplifying our collaborators’ voices, we sound radically different in every project we present. I think it would be difficult for a listener, without context, to discern that our pieces with Raven Chacon, Samuel Adams, and Ellen Fullman were performed by the same musicians, let alone utilizing the same instrumental toolbox.
[Read our Ellen Fullman interview]
That said, we started The Living Earth Show in the model of traditional contemporary classical chamber music ensembles: we commissioned composers we knew to compose pieces for our instrumentation, which we then memorized and performed on recital-esque concerts in the way chamber music has been presented more or less since the medium’s inception.
Relatively early into our career, the honeymoon fun of performing in front of audiences--for money, no less!!--was overshadowed by omnipresent structural deficiencies of the field. In so many ways, the field disincentives the creation and presentation of composers’ most ambitious, uncompromising, and innovative works. In addition to the systemic inequalities perpetuated by classical music as an institution, the field itself just isn’t built to facilitate the creation of new and ambitious works.
We worked to reframe the fundamental question of the field: rather than ask composers how they can write the next chapter of classical music history, we started with the question: how can the tools of the tradition (along with others) be used to allow composers to realize their most ambitious musical vision?
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Andy: I am not sure the world needs more meditations on “white men reckoning with their whiteness and masculinity.” Be that as it may, as classical musicians, we’ve been trained to be invisible vessels for, like, Bach or whatever. We’ve never really been taught to engage with the space we take up on stage, and, importantly, in administrative capacities.
As white cis men, we have spent our lives enjoying access to rooms and stages in which others are not made to feel welcome. It is our responsibility to use this privilege in the service of allowing others access to the tools of the tradition and the gravitas it affords while not compromising their artistic visions.
For a long time, I found my own queerness to be spectacularly uninteresting, to the point where I thought even mentioning or engaging with it detracted from the narratives of our collaborators. However, it’s not only impossible to ignore, but it refracts the works I present in the same way my whiteness and male-ness does. I think the important thing is being honest and open with our collaborators about who we are, and on some level, allow them into our lives in whatever way is creatively engaging to them, as we will be the ones tasked with performing their work on stage.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Andy: I think the majority of the creative challenges we have faced have been the result of the ways in which the paradigm of classical music limits artistic expression and creative freedom while disincentivizing creative exploration and ambitious work. The manners in which this occurs are plentiful, but I’ll give a few quick examples:
We left school performing with the vocabulary of notated western classical music. Access to these tools is both severely limited and severely limiting for our collaborators. The limits of western classical notation are immediately apparent to percussionists--there are so many parameters inherent in how one can approach percussion instruments that can’t be expressed with traditional notation.
Further, many of our composing collaborators, who we think are some of the most important composers alive, don’t work with classical notation at all. Incorporating other types of music into our work necessitates oftentimes abandoning “traditional” notation and making a collaborative musical language from scratch.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Travis: The recording process and the percussion battery is different for every collaboration. We threw it completely out the window very early on. Andy might be playing a vibraphone or he might be playing an enameled cast iron sink with a stick. One certainty we have is that we’re always happier with the outcome of a recorded work when we track together. Whatever it is that we’re working on, it usually benefits from a joint performance in the studio. It isn’t always possible or appropriate, but we do it when we can.
Some notable instruments we’ve had occasion to perform and record include amplified Jell-O, a microtonal go-kart, guitar and washing machine duo, recording dripping water from a turkey baster, rubbing an albatross feather and a microphonically-reversed telephone on a quartertonal guitar, Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument, and Terry Berlier’s pan lid gamelan.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Travis: Yes, every project profoundly changes the group! When we started playing on quartertonal instruments (vibraphones and guitars with double the usual amount of notes, situated between each of the twelve equal temperament scale degrees) we had to spend a couple years figuring out how to play them competently. Not necessarily a technology, but around that time we began memorizing all of the hyper specific music that we played. Learning how to memorize things quickly and efficiently--together!--not only changed our music making, but probably our daily patterns of thought.
The percussion setup we use changes for every single show, and we have to wrap our minds around all of the changing setup and demands of those instruments. There is also some signal processing that goes into all of our recordings and productions, and that involves daily musical ponderings. It might be sorting out the i/o of a new Max patch or something, but it can also be incorporating a half-broken, forty-year-old synth into a piece that doesn’t want to play the way that you think that it should. And it is our responsibility to make it compelling to listen to, and we take that charge seriously.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Andy: We start every project by asking our collaborators a simple question: what’s the work you’ve always wanted to make? It then becomes our job to bring their answer to life.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Andy: Our schedules are dictated by our projects, concerts, recording sessions, grant calendars, and administrative tasks. Each one of those things requires a very different workflow and work practice. Since our work can often feel all-encompassing, we try to compartmentalize our lives as much as we can.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Andy: In 2015, when we headlined the first New Music Gathering, we built a pretty challenging program of microtonal music (Ferneyhough! Ueno! Chessa!), replete with multiple costume changes, choreography, projection, flashlight-wielding backup “dancers,” and an onstage fishmonger. That was the biggest and perhaps least traditional concert we had played up to that point, and also represented a sea change in how we conceptualized building concert productions.
It was the first time we worked with our collaborators to truly double click on every aspect of how work was consumed. From costumes to staging to choreography to lighting, we gave our collaborators access to as many parameters as possible. Embarrassingly, it was something of an ‘a ha!’ moment: of COURSE our collaborators would have opinions about how their work was staged and costumed and lit and choreographed.
Ever since, we’ve done everything we could to allow composers access to all facets of how their work is consumed, and the opportunity to work with these aspects of performance have been built into the works from their inception.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Andy: I think it’d be harder for me to focus on practicing if my job was to, like, be on stage drummin’ my feelings every night or something. The fact that we’re tasked with realizing someone else’s creative vision--the work that has been the focal point of their lives for years, and oftentimes the culmination of their careers to this point--provides motivation to practice.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Andy: One example of music hurting me was in middle school I got kicked in the head by a crowdsurfer at a Godsmack concert.
When it comes to healing, in our field, functional music is generally considered to be a lesser form of musicmaking than art for art’s sake. We engaged with that directly in our upcoming record with Danny Clay called Music for Hard Times. The genesis of that project was to ask Danny the question: can the tools of the classical tradition be used to make people physically feel better? Engaging with that question led to Danny composing what I consider to be some of the most beautiful music I have had the fortune to perform, and I’m really honored and excited to put it into the world.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Andy: Hmf. I don’t think the line is very fine at all!
“Cultural exchange” implies reciprocity. In all of the more notable kerfluffles in our field in the past decade re: appropriation, it’s always been “did [white person] change this artistic thing enough to make it their own and not appropriative” rather than “what did [white person] give in exchange for the ownership and use of these artistic things?”
That said, I don’t think there should necessarily be more space devoted to white dudes answering this question! Seems like a conversation that should be led by folks whose cultural signs and symbols have been co-opted/used, and those folks should be paid for the labor of leading this conversation.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Travis: This pertains more to our performance practice than it does our individual sensorial experiences when we’re listening, but we manufacture or attempt to trigger a fake synesthesia in order to memorize some of the music that we play. We might be having a discussion about a few seconds of music and decide that it sounds “goopy.” Then we’ll go a step further and describe those few seconds of music that we’re memorizing as “grandma in a full garbage can of refried beans.” This description comes with constituent sights, smells, feels, sounds, and god help us--tastes. It’s much easier to recall music that we’ve learned if we can trigger all five senses.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Andy: I think it’s really important to recognize that it is impossible to make art without a social and political statement: accepting the status quo, utilizing traditional tools and spaces, and building with work from “traditional” arts funding sources is a profound social and political statement in and of itself.
I think the real question is: how does one engages with the reality that it is impossible to ignore the cultural, political, social, and cultural implications of their work?
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Andy: I mean, isn't the point of this question that it can’t be answered with words?