“FUCK IT UP!” Andras Fekete yells, arms flailing upward like he’s trying to raise the dead. He circles around the room, his piercing eyes zeroing in on each guitarist as he passes them. “FUCK. IT. UP.” he intones, like he’s reciting a deranged mantra.
Is he insane? No.
Well, yes, but not in the way you would think.
In fact, Fekete might be the D.C. area’s most innovative and propulsive musician. For the past three years, he’s been the mastermind behind a mass guitar ensemble. A bold, grandiose, and genre-defying musical experiment that’s quickly becoming a kind of annual ritual for a large number of area musicians. On Friday night in Black Cat’s main stage room, 70 guitarists will gather for “Boat Burning: Music For 70 Guitars,” a performance of eight movements written specifically for a mass guitar ensemble.
The idea of 70 guitarists playing simultaneously might sound like a seventh circle of musical hell, but when done right it’s an incredible feat in the vein of avant garde classicists like Glenn Branca, Philip Glass, and John Cage. The simple movements Fekete and his bandmates compose take on a new life produced from a shitload of guitars. Peculiar harmonies and strange sounds evolve from the walls of copious feedback.
“Really, our fascination is minimalism,” Fekete says. “We just take a maximalist approach to minimalism. We take the minimalist concepts and amp them way up so that you can emphasize the overtones a bit more.”
The result of those overtones? A gorgeous symphony of noise that will overwhelm Black Cat Friday in what will surely be the most guitars playing simultaneously that the venue has ever had.
But first: rehearsal.
It’s a recent muggy Tuesday evening at Joe’s Movement Emporium, a community arts space in Mt. Rainier, and eight guitarists and a drummer are circled around Fekete in the basement art room. Fekete stands in the center of the room, surrounded by an oppressive wave of sound. He’s leading everyone in a piece he wrote called “Telephone,” which calls for each guitarist to repeat a simple eight-measure riff faithfully for 16 bars and then completely fuck it up.
It’s a weird composition that starts as a krautrock-y post-punk jam before Fekete leads everyone into frenetic sabotage, transforming the piece into a kind of free-jazz wall of noise.
In a way, it’s a piece that perfectly fits Fekete’s persona. He’s an ever-curious musician raised on classical music, informed by punk, and shaped by disrupting the musical status quo, whatever it may be.
The son of Hungarian immigrants who migrated to the U.S. after World War II, Fekete grew up in Richmond, Virginia, amid a “severe Roman Catholic background.” His parents prized music, but only classical. “Rock music was verboten in our house; you weren’t allowed to have it,” he says. “Later on, they loosened up, but for the longest time we couldn’t even listen to The Beatles.”
Violin was the first instrument Fekete learned to play when he was in grade school, and soon after he switched to guitar and messed around with a little banjo in high school, where most of his friends were into country music. But it wasn’t until he moved up north to attend Boston University in 1975 that he first became entrenched in a music scene. “It was a really formative time because it was the changeover from disco to early punk,” he says, “so I saw the rise of bands like Mission of Burma.”
After about nine years in Boston, where he “kicked around in various bands of no consequence,” Fekete moved around a bit—to New York, San Francisco, then in 1988 to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he got married and had kids, now grown. (His daughter, in fact, is one of the 70 guitarists participating in Friday’s ensemble).
Chapel Hill would turn out to be the place where Fekete would thrive. His first band in the Triangle (the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area) was a Television cover band in 2007. “It was my job to imitate the [Tom] Verlaine parts, which was not half as difficult as imitating the Richard Lloyd parts, which another guy did, an outstanding guitarist named Pete Gamble,” Fekete says. “Out of that, Pete and I formed this improv ensemble called Boat Burning.”
Equally inspired by the improvisational nature of jazz, the Triangle’s significant legacy of indie and punk rock, and its burgeoning underground experimental scene, Fekete and Gamble formed Boat Burning as a kind of bridge between those worlds. “We did just pure improv, there was literally no net and we would step on the stage and we wouldn’t even have a framework or an idea or a chord sequence, we would just start playing,” he says.
They were soon joined by cellist Josh Starmer and percussionist Ken Friedman to round out Boat Burning’s first incarnation. “That kind of formed the core of this idea that we’re going to have improvisation with balls,” he says. “We love formless improvisation. We don’t necessarily want to have a wall of noise, we want to have something where it feels like a composed piece. So the idea is that, as soon as we start playing, we are thinking and communicating how we are shaping the piece, and bringing in elements of classical music.”
For a few years, Boat Burning kicked around the Triangle’s experimental scene with a few personnel changes; Starmer left and the band was joined by cellist Deborah Aronin. Then, in 2011, Fekete moved up to D.C., but not before he executed an long-gestating idea, and one that would surely leave his mark on the music scene: a mass guitar performance.
Boat Burning’s first mass guitar ensemble, which Fekete created with then-bandmate Matt Guess, took place at the Nightlight in Chapel Hill, a self-described “tiny art-land vortex” that served as a kind of home base for much of the area’s experimental music scene. “That was about 25 people, and they had cello, drums, and all guitars,” Fekete says. It went over so well that they did again in 2012 with about 30 guitarists, and then moved it to the much larger Motorco Music Hall in Durham in 2013 with 55 guitarists, three vocalists, two drummers, and two cellists.
But by this time, Fekete had been living in D.C. and was ready to reignite Boat Burning with a fresh lineup.
Jonathan Matis, a musician who plays with the D.C. Improvisers Collective and in Boat Burning, met Fekete years before he moved to D.C. When Fekete invited him to participate in the first mass guitar ensemble in D.C. (this one featured about 20 guitarists, a cellist, a violinist, and a drummer), at Union Arts in 2014, he was awestruck by what happened.
“That first show we did, I was like, ‘Oh, all this weird stuff starts happening in the room,’” Matis says. “After doing that show, I sent him an email and was like, ‘You know, I have a couple of pieces I kind of would love to try with the big group.’ Of course, it’s unwieldy to keep the big group together, so the question I wanted to solve was, what’s the minimum number we need to still create a mass guitar sound. Turns out, six.”
And with that, it didn’t take long for Fekete to get a new iteration of Boat Burning off the ground, with a core group comprised of longtime D.C. music vets: Matis; Norm Veenstra of the long-running post-rock ensemble Tone; Geordie Grindle of Dischord Records pioneers Teen Idles; experimental musician Phong Tran, who fronts the band Halo Valley; Robin Diamond of The Probes, and drummer Mark Sherman.
Since then, Boat Burning has been performing regularly with the core ensemble, playing a combination of high-profile shows, such as opening for Mission of Burma and proto-punk legends Rocket From the Tombs, and unconventional ones too, like outdoor performances in Adams Morgan and in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.
But its annual mass guitar ensemble performance remains at the center of Boat Burning’s mission.
“I think Boat Burning the combo is very similar to Boat Burning the mass guitar ensemble in the sense that we take the same pieces … and do it with six guitarists,” Fekete says. “It gives you a different feel, and it’s much more compact. There’s much more definition.”
And with the mass guitar ensemble, it gives Fekete, Matis, and the rest of the group’s core members—each member writes and contributes pieces for the band and the ensemble—the chance to explore new sonic possibilities and uncharted territories.
When you’re writing music for 70-plus musicians, there’s a lot of room for error. What if someone messes up? What if they can’t play the piece right? That’s not really a concern for Fekete, who knows his musical limitations and uses it as a strength.
Back in Boat Burning’s Chapel Hill days, Fekete says the band was kind of scoffed at by the area’s “rock guitar cognoscenti.” The criticism was that they hadn’t paid their dues. “I got to saying to these people, ‘I do not care. I do not care for that argument.’ I use my amateurism as a weapon. I wear it proudly. I’m not stuck in how things need to be done.”
And that’s where Fekete’s musical aptitude lies.
Boat Burning is comprised of skilled, accomplished musicians who’ve been playing for most of their lives, but the movements they compose are strikingly simple, allowing the tone of their instruments and the stark simplicity of what they’re playing to give life to something new.
There are inevitably mistakes—sometimes intentional, like what Fekete has written into “Telephone,” and sometimes organic. But it’s in that unpredictability that Boat Burning’s music comes to life.
“Where we get it right is in this attempt to not totally get it right,” Fekete says. “I don’t want to get too polished. Luckily I have not gotten that way.”