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Cheryl North Interviews Paul Dresher

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for November 12, 2004

What do you do if there's a tune roiling around in your head, but there's no existing instrument capable of reproducing it?

Well, if you are long-time Berkeley resident Paul Dresher, you simply call up your friend Daniel Schmidt and the two of you put your heads and hands together and create a new instrument. You can bet that J.S. Bach would have done the same thing, had he been living and composing in Berkeley in 2004.

The "quadrachord," was the result of Dresher's dilemma. A 15-foot long construction with four fourteen-foot long strings that can either be plucked like a guitar, played with a bow like a cello, or thumped to create percussive sounds, the quadrachord was built by Dresher and Schmidt back in 2002 to provide the sounds Dresher required for his composition In the Name(less). Says Dresher, "With its very low harmonic fundamentals and its great facility with the natural harmonic series, the quadrachord can do what no other existing instrument in the western musical tradition can. It all has something to do with physics."

Bay Area audiences may hear this remarkable instrument and another called the "marimba lumina," along with the whole Electro Acoustic Band, during "Out of Bounds" performances scheduled for 8 p.m. Nov. 17 and 18 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., in San Francisco.

Programmed works are Ingram Marshall's In Deserto -- Black Rock, commissioned by David Rumsey for the Paul Dresher Ensemble; Plays Well With Others by Neil B. Rolnick (described as a rather ironic, political piece); and James Mobberley's Fusebox, a fusion of rock, jazz, and contemporary classical idioms.

The three Dresher compositions programmed are In the Name(less), featuring both quadrachord and marimba lumina; his beautifully lyric Chorale Times Two; and Din of Iniquity.

Last Tuesday morning, even though he was rushing to pack his instruments and personal belongings to catch a flight later in the day taking him to New York City for his Carnegie Hall debut (November 12), Dresher generously made time for a telephone interview.

"We were invited by composer John Adams, who happens to be the curator for New York's 'In Your Ear' Festival," Dresher explained.

According to Dresher, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, founded in 1985, and the Electro Acoustic Band, founded in 1993, both have many facets and functions. The first and foremost of the organizations' purposes, he explained, is to disseminate his and his colleague's own works. But, an equally important task is to commission and perform many works from other contemporary composers.

One of the more interesting criteria for any Dresher performance is that each should utilize both traditional and "expanded" orchestrations by using both traditional acoustic instruments and unique electronic or newly created instruments. In his performances, Dresher also strives to merge many diverse art forms: dance, theater, and visual media.

Aptly, one recent critic attending a Dresher performance, described it as "a cross-pollination of music, visual art and theater, limited only by the imagination."

Since its creation, the Paul Dresher Ensemble and the Electro Acoustic Band have commissioned and continue to commission or premier works by John Adams, Terry Riley, Eve Beglarian, Martin Bresnick, David Lang, Koji Ueno, Rinde Eckert, Mark Applebaum, and an ever-expanding list of major contemporary composers.

Although the Electro Acoustic Band consists of six musicians and two sound engineers, it is often joined by noted soloists, such as pianist-composer Riley, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, violinist David Abel, pianist Lisa Moore, and others.

One of Dresher's most celebrated collaborations has been with writer/performer Rinde Eckert back in 1985 for the American Trilogy project -- a trio of experimental operatic works that address different facets of American culture. The first of these, Slow Fire, was written during the period from 1985 to 1988. Amazing for any new opera, Slow Fire has already received more than 150 performances nationally and three European tours.

The second of the Trilogy, Power Failure, was completed in 1989 and Pioneer, the third, was finished in 1990. Both were extensively performed, thus setting themselves quite apart from other works in the contemporary music scene.

Dresher has also collaborated with noted choreographer Margaret Jenkins in 1994 (The Gates), and with the John Adams/June Jordan/Peter Sellars production, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. More recent collaborations have been with playwright Charles Mee and director Chen Shi-Zheng for the American Repertory Theatre's Snow in June. Other projects include a cello concerto, Unequal Distemperament, for former Kronos Quartet cellist, Jeanrenaud.

Thoroughly a man of our times, Dresher says that, he seeks to "integrate traditional acoustic instruments and the rapidly evolving resources of contemporary music technology." He pointedly added however, that he does NOT explore technology just for its own sake, but rather, for more profound, musical purposes.

Dresher has been insightfully called by one musicologist-writer "both a lightning rod and a seismograph for his colleagues." Yet, Dresher considers himself as having a number of important things in common with composers and musicians of old.

"I, like serious composers of the past (Beethoven and Schoenberg included) have serious considerations of structure in my music," he said. "Like them, I seek to make my music both compelling and entertaining in the moment, but yet sophisticated enough to endure into the future. My hope is that it will still be meaningful and therefore, played, decades from now."

This hope might well be realized. Dresher is thoroughly trained in the classical music tradition. Born in Los Angeles in 1951, he received his undergraduate degree in music from the University of California, Berkeley and his graduate training from the University of California in San Diego under the tutelage of the important late composer, Robert Erickson.

Also noting that his coming of age happened in the mid-1960s, Dresher stressed, "This meant that I had access to world music traditions from Africa, China, and Japan, as well as to American Rock and Roll, and Blues. And, as a guitarist, I was deeply influenced by Jimi Hendrix."

All that said, the genial Dresher added that beauty and esthetics play an important role in his music. He then rather proudly quoted one critic as having written that his music had a "rhapsodic quality to it."

Classical Music Column in ANG Newspapers Preview Section, March 9, 2007:

BERKELEY-BASED composer Paul Dresher is about to have one of his fondest dreams realized. During a 2004 interview, he said, "My hope is that my music will still be meaningful, and therefore played, decades from now."

Just last week, Dresher's music reaped high praise in the New York Times' review of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Virginia Woolf's play To the Lighthouse. Wrote critic Charles Isherwood, "Dresher's haunting score for string quartet is the most rewarding element of the new stage adaptation of the book."

And now, two decades after its premiere, Slow Fire, one of the three segments in Dresher's highly acclaimed American Trilogy, will be repeated Wednesday through March 18 at Project Artaud Theater in San Francisco.

In 1988, immediately after its Artaud premiere, Slow Fire was hailed by critics and public alike. And, amazingly for any new opera-theater piece, it has since received more than 150 performances nationally and been showcased on a number of European tours.

While the music for Slow Fire, is Dresher's creation, the libretto is by Rinde Eckert, a polymath of a fellow who lives in Mill Valley. Not only does Eckert write prodigiously, he also acts, sings and composes music. He has collaborated extensively with Dresher on theater, music and dance productions since 1980. One of his most recent honors was the 2005 Marc Blitzstein Award, which is given to a lyricist/librettist once every five years by the New York Academy of Arts and Letters.

Eckert will act and sing in the upcoming performances of Slow Fire, just as he did in its initial performances 20 years ago.

Dresher has long been noted for his ability to write and perform in diverse musical styles. His experimental, sometimes groundbreaking works include operas, compositions for chamber and orchestral ensembles, and scores for theater, dance and film. He has collaborated with some of the greatest names in American and international performing arts, including Margaret Jenkins, John Adams, June Jordan, Peter Sellars, playwright Charles Mee and director Chen Shi-Zheng.

Even though much of his music is experimental and sometimes contains strong, rock'n' roll-style rhythms, Dresher was thoroughly trained in the classical music tradition. Born in Los Angeles in 1951, he received his undergraduate degree in music from UC Berkeley, and his graduate training from UC San Diego, under the tutelage of the important late composer, Robert Erickson.

Dresher says that his "coming of age" happened in the mid-1960s, and resulted in the strong influences in his own music of the traditions of Africa, China and Japan, as well as of American rock'n' roll and blues.

"As a guitarist, I was also deeply influenced by Jimi Hendrix," he said.

During a telephone chat last Sunday, Dresher reiterated that one of his primary aims is to integrate traditional acoustic instruments with the rapidly evolving resources of contemporary music technology. Slow Fire contains some fascinating examples of this effort; he employs a live digital "looping" system of his own invention to create a densely layered and richly evocative score, infused with the propulsive rhythms of rock'n' roll.

Playing electric guitar and synthesizers, he and percussionist Gene Reffkin perform at the sides of the spare stage on which Eckert gives his solo performance in song, spoken word and dance — in what Dresher called "an extraordinary physical performance."

When I asked what he meant by "looping," he explained it as being a bit like an "instant replay" technique that can be repeated and added to right on the spot by the musicians.

"At times it sounds like five different guitar parts playing at once and a number of percussive effects as well," he said.

The libretto itself, according to Eckert, offers a glimpse "of a man caught between the American dream of success and consumerism and the alienating psychoses of contemporary urban living."

He says that the story unfolds through memories and fragmented thoughts that often involve the protagonist's "Dad" and the "fractured wisdom" he attempts to impart to the son. Only at the end are the play's secrets finally revealed.

Nevertheless, Dresher assured me that the work had a great deal of humor. "In fact," he said, "this time around we have some of the same 'kids' who first saw it 20 years ago returning to see it again with their own kids."

With its comic aspects and rhythmic qualities, kids seem to love it, and much to everyone's surprise, a lot of them have actually memorized it."

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