City Paper is not for tourists
Leo Svirsky, the 17-year-old piano prodigy behind D.C. band Baby Killer Estelle, has just had a brainstorm. “How awesome would our show be,” he wonders, “with a monkey on stage?”
Awesome, maybe; special, definitely. Yet Svirsky, who has a genetic condition that renders him legally blind, has resigned himself to primate-free performances. Helper monkeys, he reports, “are only for quadriplegics.”
Fortunately, Baby Killer already has a pretty good stage show. Svirsky’s keyboard wizardry and Rollinsesque vocals fuse with 16-year-old drummer Sam Shahin’s crack blastbeats to make the prog/klezmer/hardcore/cabaret duo quite the spectacle. Lady Macbeth’s Hands, the band’s first proper album, will be released around Halloween by local indie Kill All the Grownups.
“I’ve had an innate hatred of bureaucracy” for a while, says Svirsky, who on the album plays like he’s exorcising some demons. His family, for instance, had to battle schools unwilling to accommodate his disability. “He grew up with everything being difficult,” says his mother, Janet Svirsky. “[H]e lives very much in his head.” That’s not a particularly bad place to live, considering Svirsky’s savantlike aptitude. “He was sight-reading Chopin études at 9 or 10…and was composing at 8,” reports Janet.
Svirsky, however, avows that the classical community sometimes can be a bore. His desire to make overtly political music propelled him in 2004 to pair up with fellow Levine School of Music student Shahin to experiment with punk and free jazz. “The environment of classical music is nowhere near as supportive or interesting as the environment of the hardcore scene,” Svirsky says, describing a stifling, competitive recital circuit that lacks DIY’s egalitarianism.
Baby Killer’s first show was at a 2004 Levine recital, an unlikely venue for a band trying to follow in the footsteps of Washington’s hardcore wunderkinds Mass Movement of the Moth. Shahin was surrounded by Mission of Burma–style soundproofing so his drumset wouldn’t bury Svirsky’s unamplified screams during their performance of John Zorn’s Masada, a free-jazz suite grounded in the radical Jewish musical tradition.
“The performers after us changed the schedule so we went last,” says Shahin. “They were like, ‘Oh, we have to follow you guys?’”
Baby Killer’s now working with original, more bookish material. The bandmates have bonded over Svirsky’s eye condition—Shahin helps the pianist order from menus and gently guides him around threatening trash cans—but there’s also an intellectual connection. A conversation with either musician will give any political scientist or theologian a run for his money. The duo’s arguably catchiest number is an indictment of postmodern capitalist culture called “Guy Debord Is Dead.”
Still, the band’s familiarity with Situationistic philosophy isn’t quite as impressive as its instrumental talent. “I’d like to consider [Mass Movement of the] Moth original, but what Baby Killer—” says Moth drummer Joey Dubek, trailing off as he searches for the right words to describe his former classmate. “What Leo is trying to do is so much more, just because he is a virtuoso and a prodigy in every sense.”
“Sam is like a sponge and Leo is pretty much a genius,” says Tom Teasley, Levine School’s percussion chair, who’s helped Baby Killer prepare for recitals. “I think it is highly unusual to find young musicians who are so creative.”
The band’s going to need to use that creativity to last. Late-summer practice was out of the question, as Svirsky was in Austria performing works by 12-tone composer Anton Webern with the Bratislava Chamber Orchestra. Now he’s adjusting to freshman year at the University of Maryland, and Shahin faces an equally demanding school schedule.
“Junior year…that’s a bitch,” Shahin says.—Justin Moyer