March 10, 2020
The Living Earth Show (TLES), guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson, are on a mission to shake things up in the classical music world by foregrounding artists and music that challenge prevailing ideas about what classical is. In fact, it’s a natural space for new music nerds to occupy, given that much of the 20th- and now the 21st-century’s art has exploded the idea of a central controlling narrative story in music. Genre is important to the Grammy Awards committee, but seemingly to no one in new music these days.
So when TLES put on their first festival last weekend at ODC Theater, in honor of the duo’s 10th anniversary, they could only choose among works that shove boundaries out of the way rather than test them. One of these, The Birth of the Negro Superman, created in partnership with composer and multimedia artist M Lamar (brother of Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black, for fans of that show), truly was mystifying to SFCV’s reviewer when it was premiered, but as Andy Meyerson wrote me, “mystifying is what we aim for.”
I was unable to make it to last weekend’s more fully realized version of that piece, so on Saturday I attended an encore performance of 2017’s Echoes, a “collaborative spoken-word chamber opera” that has the real benefit of not being mystifying at all. Echoes is a spoken word performance with a musical score woven through it. The poems are by the writers of the Youth Speaks organization, which focuses on arts in education, literacy in underserved communities, as well as on theater performances. It was directed and edited by longtime writer/ performer Sean San José, now the Artistic Director of Youth Speaks’ New Performance Program.
Echoes is about San Francisco, as the poets remember it and as it is now. It’s about the segregated city and gentrification. It’s about the experience of communities of color within San Francisco and the specific, violent traumas that leave their mark. Most of all, it’s about memorializing a city in the throes of a transition, a change that is threatening to hollow out the city.
The entire piece begins in voiceover, with lines from a poem, eventually spoken in its entirety, about the War Memorial and the dead from America’s wars: It’s up to the living to give those deaths meaning. (And whether there’s an implied criticism in that or not is left to the audience.) Aimee Suzara, one of the writer/performers, talks about how the city allowed, even welcomed her protest march in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, but she was left wondering who heard, who she was talking to. It must be a strange time to live in the city’s non-elite spaces.
For all that, the speaking performers share the stage with the Kronos Quartet, one of the work’s commissioners, and Echoes composer Danny Clay was charged with bringing all the elements together. He is perhaps uniquely qualified for the job. Clay’s special talent is in using play — games, puzzles, invented notation, improvisation, even the “happy accidents” of painter Bob Ross fame. His is a truly collaborative approach that can work with nonspecialists as well as other professional musicians.
The musical score included shards of songs and dances, but also pure chordal accompaniment from the Kronos Quartet, grooves but also moments of stasis. It’s very much a theater score. But there were moments when Tassiana Willis added her voice, subtly, improvising over or under the score and making the connection between speaking and singing. It didn’t happen much, but it was perhaps the most noticeable, important aspect of the music.
While the music seemed to recede into the background many times (as happens in a good theater or movie score), that is the aspect of collaboration that makes everything else possible. In order to bring other voices forward, it was necessary for The Living Earth Show to recede in this performance. Positioned in the back, they “threw focus,” to use the old theater term. That they’re willing to do that in a festival they created is the strongest evidence of the sincerity of their ideals and their commitment to actualizing them.