Arriving 30 minutes before the start time for the first night of Andrew W.K. and The Calder Quartet‘s ‘Piano and Strings’ performance, I figured I would be the first one there, and wondered what sort of turnout there would be for this rather bizarre pairing. Clearly I knew nothing about Mr. W.K.’s massive hardcore fan base, as I stood there dumbfounded, taking in the sight of hundreds of people already in line.
I was curious to know what sort of people would attend such an event. The audience was primarily late teens and 20s (I’m guessing a strong MIT presence, due to MIT Alumni Christine Southworth‘s involvement), with a small number of older (and I’d have to say brave and adventurous) folks who had heard of The Calder Quartet, including parents of the group, who possibly wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
To rapt cheers and applause, Andrew W.K. walked slowly onto the stage, zombie-style, holding a mug of something in front of him, like a guiding beacon. The program was an improbable mix of a traditional Bach piece; modern classical composers such as Fred Frith, John Cage, and Philip Glass; and Andrew’s beer-guzzling serenades such as “I Get Wet” and “Party Hard”. Even just written down on the program, it looked like a mistake. And yet Andrew W.K. himself is a man of shifting moods, defying classification. Downright bizarre at times, banging on piano keys and on the wood as well, instrument and performer twisting and contorting into strange, alien shapes, seemingly influencing each other. And then calm and peaceful, pretty enough for a dreamy afternoon recital. Respect and disrespect, attentive reverence and utter disregard – often in the same piece.
The audience’s reaction was as astonishing and wonderfully surprising as the music. While mayhem ensued with a frat party environment during Andrew W.K.’s original selections near the end of the evening, everyone was very respectful and attentive through even the more challenging pieces like Fred Frith and Philip Glass. For John Cage’s 4’33”, which was performed – in delightfully perverse placement – directly after the mass audience-participatory “Dance Party”, the room was eerily quiet, save for a single ‘shout out’ to Andrew W.K. and someone’s cell phone ringtone, which elicited a few giggles.
On this tour with Andrew W.K., and in their collaborations with musicians from a wide range of musical styles, The Calder Quartet’s mission has been to blur boundaries, erase expectations, broaden musical horizons, and give audiences a fresh listen to both traditional works and contemporary composers. They regularly conduct “musical experiments”, such as the one this evening and their (marvelous) performances with The Airborne Toxic Event, which is how I first discovered them.
‘Friendly Gestures #4 and #5’ (Fred Frith) was a hilariously quirky interplay of musical misteps between the piano and members of the quartet. An earnest yet clumsy attempt at trying to find common ground, symmetry, resulting in humorous dissonance. Tension builds, tempers become frayed, and patience finally, in the end, wears thin.
‘Interface’ is a lovely piece of music with an interesting story. Composer Tristan Perich is the inventor of the one-bit synthesizer, a curious minimalist synth housed in a CD case which produces a nice, uncluttered electronic sound. The combination of this with strings proved quite stunning.
Christine Southworth‘s “Honey Flyers” was an intense musical maelstrom, inspiring a sudden vision of riding through a dark forest on a stormy night in a horse-drawn carriage. Dunno; just saying. The violin took human form midway through, screaming like a hysterical woman. Then soft, wistful cries over a terse backbeat of viola and cello. An extraordinary work, beautifully executed. This piece is often performed with a Bot(i)cello, an electric string robot designed by Christine Southworth and others at Ensemble Robot. Although the Bot(i)cello had the evening off, it was still very beautiful.
Small glimmers of Andrew W.K. quirkiness in the first half of the show turned into full-on craziness in the second. After a breathless and exhilarating Philip Glass piece (ahh, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard Philip Glass performed live; wonderful, just amazing), there was a solo piano improvisation that started out pretty and got crazy at the end. From there, a truly weird rap by Mr. W.K. which seemed like a heartfelt appreciation to be in Boston and starting this tour of their ‘Grand Experiment’ and I’m sure it was, yet it was delivered in a strange, vaguely Hispanic accent. Then a long introduction for the crowd favorite “I Get Wet”, and this sounded like a radio signal periodically cutting out, so that you caught every fifth word or so. Strange dude. The thought ‘Victor Borge meets Ozzy Osbourne’ crossed my mind.
“I Get Wet” and “Party Hard” were then unleashed, with the Calder Quartet providing highly unlikely yet subversively marvelous accompaniment, the W.K. fanatics erupting into lyric-chanting madness. “We wanna have fun, and we wanna get wasted” – sophisticated stuff. A vote was taken, and “I Love New York City” was changed to “I Love Boston Mass.” Monitor problems required the audience to provide handclaps to replace drumbeats. I figured this was all ‘staged’, but then again, I thought the guys who ran up to join Andrew at the piano were staged also, until a few dozen others joined them. Not only were there no musical style boundaries tonight, there was clearly no audience/stage boundary either.
The unhinged cacophony of “Dance Party” somehow settled down into the austere, meditative state of John Cage’s 4’33”, a total dimensional mind-shift bordering on something Zen-like.
Andrew W.K. satisfied the enraptured audience’s demand for an encore with a very sweet version of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”.
Benjamin Jacobson, violin
Andrew Bulbrook, violin
Jonathan Moerschel, viola
Eric Byers, cello
~ Program ~
‘Prelude in C major/Ave Maria’ (J.S. Bach) – Andrew W.K. and Calder Quartet
‘Friendly Gestures #4 and #3 (Fred Frith) – Andrew W.K. and Calder Quartet
‘Interface’ (Tristan Perich) – Calder Quartet with four-channel 1-bit music
‘Spontaneous Solo Piano Improvisation’ – Andrew W.K.
‘Honey Flyers’ (Christine Southworth)
~ intermission ~
‘Company’ (Philip Glass) – Calder Quartet
‘Spontaneous Solo Piano Improvisation’ – Andrew W.K.
(Andrew W.K. compositions) – Andrew W.K. and Calder Quartet
‘I Get Wet’
‘I Love (Boston Mass.)’
4’33” (John Cage) – Andrew W.K. and Calder Quartet
Andrew W.K. with The Calder Quartet (and several other people): “Party Hard” – Video from On A Friday
10/1 – Lakeshore Theatre – Chicago, IL
10/2 – Joe’s Pub – New York, NY
10/4 – The Music Gallery – Toronto, Canada
10/5 – Jammin Java – Washington, DC
10/7 – The Swedish America Hall – San Francisco, CA
10/8 – Largo – Los Angeles, CA