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07.30.08

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Phaedra

Theater of the Absurd: Something about dueling pianos makes people who should never crawl across one do exactly that.

88 Sins

Dueling pianos take audiences to the wild side

By John Gentile


PIANOS. Sing-a-longs. Genitalia descriptions. Somehow, those three things have been woven together and have captivated audiences pretty much since the piano was invented. From the early jazz of Willie "The Lion" Smith to the pornographic lyrics of the original version of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," right up to improvisations of pop darling Ben Folds, dirty ditties seem to fit perfectly between the white and black keys. Now, thanks to Mark Andert, a gang of pianists is bringing this brand of raunchiness to the Silicon Valley with the show "Dueling Pianos."

"The audience becomes the music," says Andert, implying that at Dueling Pianos, the audience—not the songs—bring out the lasciviousness in all of us. The show features two piano players who make it a point to interact with the audience, which of course makes the shows unpredictable, and even the pianists usually have no idea what will happen during the course of the evening. Maybe the room is split in two and each side tries to out-sing the other. Maybe audience members are invited on stage to do questionable renditions of modern hits. Maybe one of the pianists just goes berserk on the eighty-eights.

Dueling Pianos makes a point to destroy any notions of shyness to get the audience to work together. Andert says, "It is amazing how many people really love to sing along really loudly when there is a whole group doing it." So, maybe people are sheep, and follow the crowd, but sometimes the show becomes almost a scientific study in human behavior. Andert recalls one instance where even he didn't see what was coming next, "When three married couples of all different ages suddenly on their own accord decided to swap partners during a 'sexy skit.' It really brought the house down!"

But most interestingly, since audience participation in Dueling Pianos shows is a regular occurrence, the invisible barrier that usually separates the performer from the audience is obliterated. This means that the pianists usually have to go for spontaneity rather than perfection. Andert says that this too, smashes another rock star attribute. "What is gained in spontaneity is the comfort an audience member feels from the 'honesty of the moment.' The only thing lost would be ... egos."

Although Andert created Dueling Pianos, the actual performers rotate in and out on a weekly basis to keep the show fresh. Since the pianists rotate, the audience gets to see the ability—or disability—of the performer on hand. This changing of the guard allows each pianist to project different forms of art upon the keys.

"All forms of art—including this one—are subjective," he says. "What is impressive to one person for its technical perfection might not impress the next guy nearly as much as something that has extreme energy."

Since each performer brings his own style to the bench, it begs the question, just how should the piano be played? Do Dueling Pianos players treat the ivories like sad portraits, a la Mozart? Do they use them to create grandiose Wagnerian visions? Perhaps they tickle the keys like Elton did in "Tiny Dancer"? Or do they just beat them to hell like Jerry Lee Lewis in front of an gymnasium of teenyboppers?

"Beat the keys to hell!" says Andert, but then he adds, "But, once in a while, tickle them, too."

So even though it's been established that the piano was meant to be abused, why do the lyrics have to be so ... base? Dueling Piano players insist on corrupting modern pop singles to their own nefarious use and force the audience to sing along in ranks of ne'er-do-wellers. Andert explains that Dueling Piano's isn't necessarily an attack on contemporary music. Rather, it's the outside look at the peculiar taste that humans have. "Dueling Pianos is the absurdist theatre of all music," says Andert, "and it's also definitely something entirely different."

As for why these Dueling Piano players feel the need to mix carnal implications into the current thumb snapper of the week, Andert says, "Maybe many of us 'piano player types' are possibly just a little less uptight about sexual content. Plus, let's face it, the sound of a piano can be just downright sexy!"

Fair enough. But between all these references to absurdist theatre and what the piano can and cannot do, it seems one simple thing has been forgotten. Isn't the word "pianist" down right funny? Andert smirks, "That would depend on whose mouth it is slipping out of."


  DUELING PIANOS debuts Friday–Saturday (Aug. 1–2) at 9pm at Peacock Lounge, 102 E. Fremont Ave., Sunnyvale. Admission is free. (408.962.6690)


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