Paul Dresher: Intense Beauty, Visceral Energy, and Sonic Curiosity

Paul Dresher: Intense Beauty, Visceral Energy, and Sonic Curiosity

A conversation in the downtown Brooklyn home of Ned Rothenberg
October 27, 2014 — 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Video recording and photography by Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu

In the era of Twitter and the incredible shrinking attention span, describing a composer such as Los Angeles-born and Berkeley-based Paul Dresher is a tough challenge. For five decades, he has done work in at least three distinct musical streams with equal vigor and equally significant results.

Hearing an LP of Terry Riley’s In C that he bought for a quarter from a sidewalk vendor on Berkeley’s famed Telegraph Avenue back in 1968 was a transformational experience that led to his composing a formidable body of solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces. These works take the basic ingredients of classic minimalism—a strong sense of tonality, catchy melodic hooks, and regular pulsation—but use them in ways that are much less process driven. What came to be known as post-minimalism—a term that has been used since the 1980s to describe composers as diverse as John Adams, Michael Torke, Janice Giteck, Paul Lansky, Mary Ellen Childs, and Daniel Lentz, as well as the late William Duckworth and Elodie Lauten—was already anticipated by Dresher’s 1976 This Same Temple for two pianos, the earliest piece of his that has been commercially recorded. Since that early groundbreaking work—which was championed by Katia and Marielle Labèque, as well as Steve Reich who arranged for its first New York City performance—Dresher has continued to develop and refine this compositional approach. A series of intensely beautiful compositions such as the 1981 cantata Night Songs, the 1982 string quartet Casa Vecchia, Channels Passing (a personal favorite from that same year scored for seven instruments and later expanded for chamber orchestra), the 1989 violin-piano-percussion trio Double Ikat, the 1995 solo piano tour de force Blue Diamonds, the 1998 violin and piano duo Elapsed Time, a 2008 orchestral score for the ballet Thread, and his brand new Family Matters for cello and piano have continued along that path. As he explained it when we met up with him during the final stretch of his East Coast tour:

It was almost as if what I heard on that record [of In C] was music that I sort of had vaguely imagined and sort of dreamed about, but I’d never in any way ever had any idea how it could be manifested. … I took that sense of minimalism and some of those procedures of minimalism, but I always felt like I wanted to go beyond the procedures and use them as the details of the music, to have larger things going on that were not as inevitably the result of some process that I had determined in advance of the composition. Often those things had a more dramatic kind of shape, as opposed to the music being very steady state. … I wanted to sort of increase that sense of drama, by increasing the time, and bringing in some things which at that point, I think, hadn’t typically been used in minimalism, particularly bass motion.

Yet to describe Dresher solely as a post-minimalist is insufficient. Coming of age at the same time as rock music did had a huge impact on Dresher, who abandoned the piano to take up the electric guitar at an early age. While rock ultimately proved to be too limited a playing ground for his musical aspirations, its visceral energy has been a key ingredient in his black box music theater collaborations with singer-playwright-performance artist Rinde Eckert.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Dresher has never been able to work within the aesthetic constraints of what could be commercially viable rock is because of the third musical realm he has steadfastly pursued all these years—highly idiosyncratic, improvisation-based music often involving instruments of his own invention, electronics, and—in recent years—alternate tunings. There is a direct through-line from his earliest guitar-triggered electronic soundscapes—like Liquid and Stellar Music (1981) and Dark Blue Circumstance (1982)—to works like In the Name(less) (2002) and Glimpsed from Afar (2006), both duos for his own quadrachord (something of a giant tabletop sub-bass guitar) and Don Buchla’s marimba lumina (a MIDI controller from which a percussionist can trigger a broad range of samples). While most of these experimental pieces were created expressly as a platform for his own performance, five years ago he fashioned a vast poly-sensory environment for Steven Schick called Schick Machine for which there is no score per se and which is a cross between music, theater, and installation art.

Aside from maintaining these three distinct compositional strands, Dresher also actively performs with his own ensembles, both the Electro-Acoustic Band he formed a decade ago and the smaller Double Duo with which he recently completed a tour that took him to five states. These groups not only play his music, but have actively commissioned and premiered works by John Luther Adams, Eve Beglarian, Martin Bresnick, Bun Ching Lam, David Lang, Steven Mackey, and Roger Reynolds, among others. “I really like being inside another composer’s new work,” Dresher explains. “So when I formed the Electro-Acoustic Band, the idea was I wanted to play other people’s music; I wanted to give a resource to other composers that was similar to what I felt I needed—a band of musicians who could credibly play idioms that were not just in a classical style, who could play rock and roll, … who could improvise.”

Performing the work of others has immersed Dresher in an even broader range of aesthetics than the ones that have shaped the three different paths his own music has continued to take throughout his career. Though those three streams initially seem stylistically incongruous, there’s actually quite a bit of common ground in his work, especially in comparison with all the music by others that he has performed. That’s probably because, according to Dresher, all composers, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are writing for an ideal listener. Whether he’s creating a fully notated piece of post-minimalist chamber music, a poly-stylistic score for an intense musical theater work, or an idiosyncratic experiment for one-of-a kind instruments of his own design, he’s always operating with the same basic assumptions about his audience.

I think that my principal responsibility as a composer is to control the experience of time for the listener. They are following the progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it. That requires a degree of familiarity; you can’t understand something if it’s 90 percent completely new information. I think the neurology of how the human consciousness works and how you can follow ideas is that you have to have a certain amount of familiarity, and then you have to have a certain amount of newness. That ratio is a complex assumption that a composer has to make about how they’re going to keep their listener engaged.


LP cover featuring the back of a shirtless man.

The cover of New Albion’s original all-Paul Dresher LP, issued in 1984, featuring Channels Passing and Night Songs (NA 003; reissued in 1993 on the CD Dark Blue Circumstance NA 053).

Frank J. Oteri: I still remember my initial reaction thirty years ago the first time I had heard Channels Passing and Night Songs, which had just been issued together on a New Albion LP. I couldn’t get over how intensely beautiful your music was. And it’s something I’ve often thought about many of your pieces since then. Hearing Double Ikat and your new cello and piano duo last night at Roulette, I felt much the same way. So I thought a good place to begin would be to talk about beauty, what it means, if that’s a goal for you, and what you do to attain it.

Paul Dresher: Beauty is a complicated subject in all modern art. Culturally I think we had an assumed notion of what beauty was at least through the Romantic and late-Romantic period. Obviously the 20th century in music and in visual art as well really expanded the notion of what was beautiful. And yet I feel that a lot of what I do, and I think the quality that you just spoke of, about beauty, is really almost a 19th-century idea of beauty. I think there are ideas of balance, how ideas flow and transform in a kind of natural way. In many pieces, I use consonance and dissonance in a traditional 19th-century sort of way. The harmonic progressions may not be anything like 19th-century harmonic progressions, but the tension and release issues, the issues of how tension is built, and how that tension is resolved, have many affinities with and connections to Chopin, who happens to be one of my favorite composers. I don’t know if that’s evident in pieces, but it’s some of the music that I constantly turn to and find to be both endlessly new to me and incredibly moving.

FJO: As far as there being an expanded notion of beauty in the 20th century, certainly at the time that you were first formulating your ideas as a composer there was a very different attitude about what music—and art overall—should be and what its purpose ought to be. I think these attitudes were very different than earlier notions about creating art to be beautiful, whatever beautiful may mean, as an aesthetic end in and of itself. I don’t necessarily want to say that beauty was devalued.

PD: I think it was devalued. But I think maybe a more important goal that includes beauty but not just beauty is for music or art to be powerful. Obviously there are many different ways to be powerful and to make an impact on the person who’s giving themselves over to the experience of the art. Beauty is one of those features. But I think a piece like, say, Glimpsed from Afar—particularly the end, which is very intense and rhythmic—doesn’t partake of beauty in the way I was referring to about Chopin or the connection to the 19th century. It’s very clangorous and very dissonant, but it’s very visceral and that’s a kind of power. That’s also very important to me. I think both exist in my aesthetic world as ways of creating impact and engaging the listener.

FJO: Well, the other thing that happened in the 20th century in terms of expanding notions of beauty is that the doors were opened to different cultures, and beauty means different things in different traditions. You describe Glimpsed from Afar as not being beautiful in a Chopin way, and that’s true for a great deal of music that people now can appreciate as being beautiful. The 20th century eroded the concept of there being a single line from which music evolved. And your music has also not evolved in a linear fashion but has actually operated on several very different streams throughout your career. But before we delve into pieces like Glimpsed from Afar, I’d like to continue talking for a while longer about the pieces that do explore beauty in a Chopin way, pieces that—for lack of a better term—people would identify as coming from classical music. These are pieces that most people, I think, would immediately consider to be beautiful and aesthetically appealing unless, perhaps, their only frame of reference was death metal.

PD: Or if you’re only listening to Brian Ferneyhough. When I go speak at Stanford, and I’m interacting with Brian’s students, they’re trenchantly opposed to everything I represent because to them it’s so lacking in the kind of complexity that they believe is the principal raison d’être for contemporary music: to give new and continually surprising information that can almost not be assimilated. To overload so that anything about periodic motion, harmonic resolutions, or anything like that is so not a part of the vocabulary. And you know, it’s just not what I do. I’m not interested in that. I’ve studied that music. I’ve never written in that idiom, but I find that idiom has very limited expressive means. I’m actually interested in music having an emotional impact, not just a cerebral impact. I find that the more complex that you intentionally require your music to be, you often reduce the net effect of it on a listener, except perhaps the listeners who need that kind of complexity. But that’s not my ideal listener.

I think every composer writes for an ideal listener. They may or may not be conscious of that, but there are all these premises about how the music is going to be perceived and received, and who their potential audience might be. My audience is not the same audience as I think the audience Brian Ferneyhough writes for. My audience is not necessarily just a professional musician or composer, but a person who actively engages with music and who wants to be taken on a journey. That person may need a certain level of familiarity and a certain kind of progression of the dialogue in the music in order to follow the musical thought and the ideas. So sometimes you’re going to have them follow you, and then you’re going to make a right turn and you’re going to surprise them. But unless they’re following you, that won’t have any surprise. You have to present your materials in ways that you believe your listener—whoever that ideal listener might be—can stay with and engage with. I think that my principle responsibility as a composer is to control the experience of time for the listener. They are following the progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it. That requires a degree of familiarity; you can’t understand something if it’s 90 percent completely new information. I think the neurology of how the human consciousness works and how you can follow ideas is that you have to have a certain amount of familiarity, and then you have to have a certain amount of newness. That ratio is a complex assumption that a composer has to make about how they’re going to keep their listener engaged. I have certain assumptions that I operate from, and those are maybe the consistencies that you might be perceiving over the course of looking at 35 years of work. You are seeing maybe a consistent sense of what I’m assuming about what is new and what is changing, what is staying the same and what is progressing.

FJO: The earliest piece of yours that you still acknowledge is a guitar quartet, but I’ve never heard it; I’d love to one day.

PD: It’s very much inspired by In C by Terry Riley.

FJO: So from the very beginning you were working with what had come to be known as minimalism.

PD: My musical DNA is in minimalism. I think I first heard In C in the fall of ’68. When I came to Berkeley, after I graduated from high school, I made my living playing for spare change on Telegraph Avenue, which was sort of a nexus of the counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Haight-Ashbury being the other one. This was the height of the hippie movement. From whatever money I made, I’d take whatever I needed to buy food and stuff like that and with any spare change I had I would buy used records. There was a guy selling some of his records pretty near where I was playing, and I saw a record there I’d never seen before. He only wanted 25 cents for it and said it was terrible. So I bought it, and it was In C. And it changed my life.

It was almost as if what I heard on that record was music that I had vaguely imagined and sort of dreamed about, but I’d never in any way ever had any idea how it could be manifested. There it was, coming through my really crappy little speakers on my probably $15 sound system. So very shortly after that, I found Terry’s A Rainbow in Curved Air which came out in 1969. Both In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air were very formative [listening experiences], giving me an idea of what music could be. And obviously, A Rainbow in Curved Air is modal and it’s a sort of free form kind of improvisation. This was very much where I was at in my own musical development at that point—nowhere near that level technically, but I was developing my own sort of improvisational style that was very much influenced by that and akin to that.

FJO: But the next piece after the Guitar Quartet, the two piano piece This Same Temple that you composed in 1976, is already doing something a little bit different from strict minimalism. It’s already going against some of the formal procedural things to the point that it really is post-minimalist, a term that is often used to describe music that composers had started writing very soon afterwards. John Adams’s China Gates and Phrygian Gates were both from the following year, which is also when William Duckworth began The Time Curve Preludes, pieces that are often described as the beginnings of post-minimalism.

Handwritten musical score for two pianos by Paul Dresher

An excerpt from the manuscript of Paul Dresher’s composition This Same Temple. Copyright © 1976 (revised 1977) by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

PD: I revised it a tiny bit after the premiere, and then it was done again in ’77. When I finally felt that I could actually write music that wasn’t sort of childish, I took that sense of minimalism and some of those procedures of minimalism, but I always felt like I wanted to go beyond the procedures and use them as the details of the music, to have larger things going on that were not as inevitably the result of some process that I had determined in advance of the composition. Often those things had a more dramatic kind of shape, as opposed to the music being very steady state. Something like, say, Drumming has this very slow evolution, and obviously it builds to these ecstatic points but it builds through a very slow accumulation. I wanted to sort of increase that sense of drama, by increasing the time and bringing in some things which at that point, I think, hadn’t typically been used in minimalism, particularly bass motion. In fact, when Steve Reich first heard This Same Temple, he said something like, “I really like those bass things; you have to do something with that.” And he produced the first performance of that piece in New York in 1979.

FJO: Although minimalism is in your DNA, you also studied composition with Robert Erickson, who was very much not a minimalist.

PD: That came a little bit later. I started studying with Erickson in ’77. I wrote This Same Temple before I did any formal study of composition. In my childhood, I studied classical piano for like five years and my teacher taught me music theory, too. So I understood music theory and I was inclined in that way, which is obviously what any composer needs to be—a composer has to have an analytical sense. Actually, that aspect of my classical piano studies was probably the most interesting to me. The piano repertory I was sort of lukewarm about, but I liked the fact that you could analyze the music and break it down into these systems. You could break it down into harmonic structures, and you could transpose them, and you could sort of see how music was assembled. That was fascinating to me. Even though the idea of composing didn’t ever occur to me at that point, I think it showed that I had an inclination towards some of the things that a composer typically needs.

FJO: I’m curious about other formative things that shaped your musical aesthetic, particularly from other genres of music.

PD: When I was allowed to stop taking classical piano lessons when I was about 13, I instantly took up the guitar and started playing folk blues, and listening to people like Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Bukka White. Mississippi John Hurt was a big influence on me. Then pretty quickly I went into the electric blues, both Chicago blues and what was coming from England with the greats like John Mayall, then falling in love with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and all those things.

That was an incredibly rich time of musical transformation, both personally and, I think, in our whole culture. I was very much a part of that, and at that point I wanted to be a rock star. I played electric guitar and I was in rock and roll bands. But whenever I was in rock and roll bands, I was always wanting to push the boundary into a kind of approach to instrumental music that just, at that point, was not really there. Rock and roll is usually either about dance or courtship, some form of cultural expression that’s not primarily a cerebral listening experience. It’s more of a group collective kind of merging of energy.

Eckert wearing sunglasses and singing into a micropphone, Dresher playing synthesizer keyboard and Reffkin playing drum-kit

Rinde Eckert, Paul Dresher and Gene Reffkin performing Was Are/Will Be in 1985. (Watch and listen to the performance here.)

FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you say that because some of the more rock sounding things in your output, like the one-man opera-musical theater pieces you wrote with and for Rinde Eckert, Was Are/Will Be and Slow Fire, are really not that far away from the music of the 1980s King Crimson or—

PD: —Talking Heads.

FJO: Absolutely. I think anybody that is a fan of that music ought to have loved what you were doing. And similarly anyone who loves your music ought to have loved that music.

PD: A lot of people saw that connection. People would come up to me and ask if Talking Heads influenced us, and King Crimson would often be mentioned, too. I think it was of the time. The musical idiom of Slow Fire was intentionally partaking of American popular music of the time. That was part of how we wanted to tell the story of an everyman American character named Bob and his dad. So it made sense that we would use a musical idiom that was in some way a take on Bob’s musical world, the contemporary world that our character would live in. So we consciously made that musical choice, but a different opera or music theater piece could use an entirely different idiom based on what the narrative needs were for that particular project.

FJO: But there’s also a slightly earlier piece that you also did in collaboration with Rinde, Was Are/Will Be, that also taps into that same sound world.

PD: The character Bob also actually started in Was Are/Will Be, but we made a completely different musical world for him in Slow Fire. I was working with a tape loop system, which is the tool that we used for both those works. It allowed me as a single performer to do multiple layers in live performance. Obviously a tape loop system does repetition. You don’t have to make it be rock and roll, but it is going to be repetitive. That kind of layering on of a bass line, a particular sort of mid-register riff, and then something higher register laid very well in the template for rock and roll structure, and it fits very well with my minimalist inclinations.

FJO: But to look back at what these two separate communities—the minimalists over here and the adventurous rock people over there—were doing at around the exact same time, the music is actually quite similar. And they were approaching the performance of it in similar ways, with synthesizers and tape loops.

Dresher in white suit playing electric guitar surrounded by electronic equipment.

Paul Dresher with his solo performing operatus in the early 1980s. Photo by Debra Heimerdinger, courtesy of Paul Dresher.

PD: Well, Brian Eno got it from Terry and La Monte and he would tell you that. Then Fripp got it from Eno. But I think Fripp forgot that he got it from somebody else. Sometimes when I would use my tape loop system people would say, “Oh, you’re doing Frippertronics.” I would usually bristle about that a little bit, partly because my system is not at all that. You know, the time lag accumulator is a constant feedback, regenerating system and gradually everything decays over time. That’s the beauty of what Brian Eno did with it in all those wonderful ambient music pieces that he did. But mine is an actual recording studio on a loop. You basically record a track and that stays there. It doesn’t decay. It doesn’t change unless I ask it to change. I can do that, but I mostly used my system as a system of multi-track recordings, layering four, five, six parts at once. So in that sense, it’s technically not like Fripp or Eno, but it still was looping. There was still the inherent repetitive element that I think is the connection that people saw.

FJO: I think people made that connection because there isn’t a lot of difference between these allegedly different genres of music. Yet some people get put in this classical music place, and others get put in this popular music place. It seems somewhat pointless to me.

PD: Remain in Light is still one of my all-time favorite records. I just thought it was brilliant. The way David Byrne works with Eno and the whole band, the way they assembled that record, the musical material, and the processes that they used were just brilliant. They really inspired me. Obviously there are great grooves in there that make it popular music and make it rock and roll. And in a certain sense, when we did Slow Fire, I think we were partaking of the same well. There are other parts of Slow Fire that don’t really have anything to do with that, but things like “Sleeping with the Light On” really have an enormous amount of affinity with Talking Heads and other things that were going on. Peter Gabriel is another person who was very important; I thought his work in the ‘80s was just stunning.

FJO: If only it had reached the radio stations that were playing that stuff, “Sleeping with the Light On” could have been a major pop hit.

PD: We had some nibbles from the rock and roll world, but once they listened to it, everyone who was in that world said it was too weird, too operatic. Rinde’s voice is not a pop voice. Rinde’s voice implied the world of opera, and that tended to be something that was difficult for people who were immersed in pop culture aesthetics to think had enough to do with them.

FJO: Yet at that same time, Pat Benatar, who was operatically trained, was a big star, and Laurie Anderson actually had a pop single.

PD: Right.

FJO: But still, I really don’t think opera when I hear Rinde’s voice. He’s really something else. However, I was shocked to discover that he was one of the singers on that New Albion recording of Night Songs. I’ve had that album for three decades and have listened to it constantly over the years, but I never realized that Rinde Eckert was on it. He sounds so different on there than he does in anything else I’ve ever heard him do, certainly very different than the other pieces you did with him which partake of his unique vocal abilities.

PD: That’s when I met Rinde. When I’d just got out of graduate school, I got a commission to write a piece for a group that didn’t exist anymore by the time I completed the work. It was for two tenors and soprano. That was Night Songs. A lot of those people who had been core to the group had been transported up to Seattle, to the Cornish Institute where the leader of that group, John Duykers, had become the chairman of the music department and he was going to be in charge of getting this commission produced. He hired me there. And he also hired [the soprano] Tommy [Tomasa] Eckert, who is Rinde’s older sister. Rinde had just finished graduate school at Yale, and hitchhiked or drove across the country and ended up becoming the janitor at the Cornish Institute. But he also directed the opera theater institute we had there. So John brought in Rinde to be the second tenor. When I was writing it, I knew John and I knew I was writing for Tommy, but I thought I was writing it for a different tenor. I didn’t write it for Rinde because I didn’t even know him.

So we met and we enjoyed each other, but it wasn’t until John Duykers asked Rinde to be a part of a collaboration with [experimental playwright and director] George Coates—I think he sensed that Rinde had some unique talents that went beyond what a traditional tenor does—that Rinde and I really hit it off and realized that we had a special chemistry. Then in the course of working with George Coates, Rinde and I were frequently coming up with ideas which were very exciting to both of us that just didn’t fit in with the aesthetics of [Coates’s] theater company. This was a theater company that was kind of inspired by Robert Wilson; there were many elements that weren’t Robert Wilson, but there was a kind of coolness to everything, not developing characters or narrative in any way. So when we both departed from that company, I had collected a lot of those ideas and mined them, and we started to then actively explore those things that we hadn’t been able to do in the George Coates works. That’s how our own work together evolved. So when you heard him in Night Songs, he was just another tenor at that point. I mean, he himself hadn’t [yet] developed anything like the character or ideas that he developed in the course of doing music theater work. That music theater work really allowed him to develop the artist that he’s become. It was really the first step for him, the same way it was the first step for me understanding what collaboration could do and understanding what working with singers could be, which is something that I never imagined I would have done.

CD cover with abstract drawing.

The CD cover for Opposites Attract, a collaboration between Paul Dresher and Ned Rothenberg released in 1991 (New World Records 80411.

FJO: In terms of other musicians you’ve collaborated with who’ve pushed you in different directions aesthetically, here we are in the apartment of Ned Rothenberg with whom you also collaborated on that wonderful album Opposites Attract, on which you’re really pushing each other.

PD: He’s a close musical and personal friend. And we both loved that about that process and that collaboration.

FJO: Everybody nowadays talks about all these younger composers and their “bandsembles” blurring the lines between musical genres, but these walls were actually torn down by your generation. In terms of your own music, however, I wonder how much of the blurring of genres was a by-product of all the collaborative work you’ve done in theater and dance. You mentioned at the onset of this conversation that while some of your pieces aim for beauty, others aim for visceral power, and certainly the earliest works of yours that tap into this rock-like raw energy are these early theater pieces.

PD: If I were writing a chamber work, particularly for acoustic instruments, I’m going to acknowledge the tradition of those instruments to some extent. Whereas I think that when working in the collaborative media, whether working with a choreographer or working in experimental music theater like Rinde and I did, I had total freedom to basically partake of anything musically that I had the expertise to handle, and so that often combined popular music and it also frequently brought in world music.

Paul Dresher with the American Gamelan in 1979, photo courtesy Paul Dresher.

Paul Dresher with the American Gamelan in 1979, photo courtesy Paul Dresher.

I spent a lot of time studying North Indian classical, West African music, and Indonesian music through the ‘70s. That’s also part of my musical DNA. So in those collaborative works, I felt that I could draw on anything I wanted—anything that I could credibly make work was material for that piece. We would then decide as a group if it was relevant to the piece.

Slow Fire is a piece that is rooted very much in popular music and in the rock and roll idiom, but that was about the goals of that piece and what our idea was of the musical world of our character. Power Failure, an opera that came after that and, I’ll admit, not a totally successful opera, was very much not in that idiom. It had drums, too, but it really wasn’t a rock and roll piece. It was much more of a classical piece. Again that had to do with the subject matter for the piece and the means by which we wanted to tell our story.

FJO: But another one of your one-person operas, The Tyrant, which you wrote for John Duykers, is also a much more classical piece.

PD: Very much so. I wanted to make a repertory-type piece that could be done by any ambitious and hard-working chamber ensemble and a singer who really wanted to devote himself to the character. It was written for Pierrot plus percussion and was actually designed to be a companion piece for Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. That was the original commission. We wanted to have them be able to be played on the same program.

FJO: But when you write music for a specific person or a specific situation, rather than simply write a piece for a voice or an instrument that could theoretically be done by anyone anywhere, there are many details that might never be translatable to another performer or another situation.

PD: Most of the works that I write now are written for specific performers, like the piece I wrote for Lisa [Moore] and Ashley [Bathgate] and almost everything I’ve done with Rinde and John Duykers. But even though these are very specific performers who lead you and bring certain things that you know they will successfully do, I also think if this is a successful piece, other people will learn how to do this. There’s of course the long tradition in contemporary music of performers pushing the boundary, and what seemed impossible becoming standard. Collaboration with performers is just part of that process. If what you’ve made is powerful and successful, other people will be inspired or required to learn how to do that.

FJO: Certainly it’s much easier for me to imagine other cellists and pianists besides Ashley and Lisa performing Family Matters than, say, another singer besides Rinde performing Slow Fire.

PD: You know, Rinde and I talked about it, and there are a couple of challenges that would really have to be overcome. I think there are performers; Rinde has inspired people and the level of dramatic opera performance and music theater performance has gotten to a point where I think there could be a young performer who will say, “I want to do that; I’m going to do what Rinde did,” or “I’m going to do it better,” or “I’m going to do it differently.” So that may come about. I think that kind of person could exist. The other problem is that the technology that I used in Slow Fire is live looping technology which was impossible for anyone to deal with, but now with software there are an enormous amount of resources that could actually make that possible. The fact is, though, it’s not notated. On occasion, some sections of the piece were notated, but most of it was just in my hands. It would be an intriguing idea to actually transcribe it. It’s totally doable, because the parts were all the same each night. You know the things that I laid down on a loop were very fixed. I just never bothered to write them down.

But I want Family Matters to be a repertory piece in the same way as Elapsed Time, my duo for violin and piano, which I think is a very successful work and hope can become part of repertory. Family Matters has that potential as well. Yes, I wrote it for two incredibly skilled virtuoso players, so it’s not for somebody who doesn’t want to make a real commitment and doesn’t have a very high technical expertise on their instruments, but I do believe that many other people can play those pieces.

Printed Dresher score sample for cello and piano

An excerpt from “Mood Swings,” the third movement of Paul Dresher’s Family Matters for cello and piano. Copyright © 2014 by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: That same level of virtuosity and commitment is necessary to play, say, Brahms, and lots of people play the pieces he wrote. It has now become music for those instruments rather than music for specific musicians. Perhaps the ultimate form of writing for instruments rather than specific musicians is writing for the orchestra, which you’ve done but not so much—though curiously you recently wrote a concerto for one of the instruments you invented.

PD: Well, you know, that’s not my first orchestra piece. That’s probably my fourth. My first orchestra work was a piece called Reaction in 1984, and then I wrote Cornucopia in 1990. There’s also a chamber orchestra piece that’s really a large chamber piece; it’s not an orchestra piece. Then, for the San Francisco Ballet, I wrote a big 30-minute score called Thread. After Thread, I felt that I knew what to do with the orchestra. I understood the orchestra better than I ever had before. Then I was able to think about what I could try that would truly be a challenge to me as a composer. So when the Berkeley Symphony wanted to commission me, I proposed that I would do a concerto for one of my invented instruments and orchestra, and they were very excited about that. Initially I thought I was going to do it for both the hurdy grande and the quadrachord, but partway through the composition, for both practical and musical reasons, I focused just on the quadrachord. Keeping both instruments in tune, and figuring out where they were going to sit on the stage and how to move between them, was just not practical.

FJO: But what’s ironic is that you said you want your chamber pieces to become repertory pieces. The orchestra, by its very nature, is designed primarily to do repertory pieces. But you completely subverted your chance at this piece becoming repertoire by writing for an instrument that only you have.

PD: Yeah. Go figure. I was just curious. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I wanted to see what would be required, because they don’t speak the same language at all. The intonation issues are enormous. I had to come up with two very different strategies for dealing with intonation in the piece; one was very successful and one was moderately successful. Actually the jury’s out on how successful the second one was because I would be very curious to do this piece with a fully professional orchestra. The two orchestras that have done it [so far] were both semi-professional, a mix of community members and professional musicians and I asked things of the brass that may have been beyond this orchestra’s full command, but might not be in the hands of a fully professional orchestra. I don’t know the answer to that question yet.

FJO: It’s also ironic that when you were commissioned you wanted to write a concerto, because you’ve said over the years that the traditional romantic idea of a concerto being a bravado soloist against the orchestra does not really appeal to you as a composer, which is why in the works that you have written that are concerto-like—like Unequal Distemperament for cello and the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and also another work for that ensemble that you actually called Violin Concerto, the piece that evolved from combining Cage Machine and Chorale Times Two—the soloist and small group are not really in opposition to one another.

PD: It’s also team work in this case. We trade roles. I had to solve the problems of integrating the quadrachord with the orchestra. There wasn’t natural common ground. So as the soloist, I had to really expand my technique and, in some ways, make it more conventional in order to make the quadrachord do things that traditional instruments do extremely well, which were very difficult to do on it, like play in equal temperament. So I was constantly in this dialogue of trying to find ways to pull the orchestra towards my world, the quadrachord’s world, and pull the quadrachord towards the orchestra’s world. The first movement is called “Uncommon Ground” because it’s all about trying to resolve these tensions. The second movement is called “A Tale of Two Tunings” because our tunings are radically different, and I had to find ways to modulate in between these two tuning worlds. And the last movement is very much inspired by the end of Glimpsed from Afar. I basically just dispensed with all issues of tuning and just dealt with sound. That movement is called “Louder Faster,” and it’s really about expanding on things that were done in the last five minutes of Glimpsed from Afar and turning it into a ten-minute movement. It’s very intense rhythmically, and very hard driving. Actually, that’s probably the most successful of the movements because I was able to dispense with the difficulties of these two intonational worlds.

Sometimes when audiences hear alternative tunings, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do with it. They sometimes think it’s out of tune even if they understand that there’s an intentional, rational reason with the tunings. That presented a lot of interesting musical challenges, compositionally and then in execution as well. For instance, I basically took three players out of every section of the strings—first, seconds, violas, cellos, and basses—and I had them tune their instruments down 40 cents. Rehearsals started with regular orchestra tuning, and then we’d tune what I called the de-tuned strings down 40 cents. As my melody is moving into harmonic areas that are well beyond equal temperament, they’re picked up by the de-tuned strings. And it worked incredibly well, and those string players, they just had to hear my instrument and they could match my pitch very well. I was so pleased that that part worked.

FJO: I’m curious about what your impetus has been to invent instruments, specifically something like the quadrachord.

A drawing of a bonang design from Dresher's master's thesis, decades before he built the quadrachord. Image reproduced courtesy Paul Dresher.

A drawing of a bonang design from Dresher’s Master’s thesis, decades before he built the quadrachord. Image reproduced courtesy Paul Dresher.

PD: I started inventing musical instruments when I was in high school. It’s about curiosity and about sound. Basically over the years, I’ve learned a lot about which physical material has musical resource potential, so now I can sort of say, “What would happen if we tried this? What would happen if we tried that?” And because I’ve got enough experience, I can ask questions that sometimes have interesting answers.

In the case of the quadrachord, I basically said, “I’m a guitarist and I know what guitar strings do. What if we double that length and see what happens? What happens if a string goes from, say, being three feet long to six or seven feet long?” And so we knocked together this simple way to test that, a slab of wood with some tuning machines and a couple of electric pickups, to see if there was anything there. And there was a lot there. There are some things that you can’t do on a guitar that this thing can do. What if we double that length? So we found a 16-foot 2″ x 6″ and we did the same process. We built some bridges, put some electronic pickups on it, strung some long strings across it, and it was four times what the six-foot long machine did. And I said, “O.K., that’s even more exciting; let’s double that again.” I didn’t have a piece of wood that was 30-feet long, but I had a wall and a staircase that were 30 feet apart in our shop, so I came up with a mechanism that allowed me to put a string from the wall to the staircase and tighten it up and tune it. We put an electric pickup on it to amplify it and it just did one thing. It did one thing that was great. It made this incredible bass sound, and literally a semi-tone was like a whole step away, so it was like walking bass made manifest in physical space, but I couldn’t make it do a lot more. That’s not a real instrument. A real instrument does more than one thing. A real instrument has many possibilities. So I said, “Let’s focus on that 16-foot length.” That’s where the quadrachord came from. I just made something bigger until maybe it became not useful to be bigger, then I found what the useful length was and started to experiment with what it can do musically. I didn’t have an idea what music it would do, I just had a curiosity about the physical phenomena involved. Over the years, I’ve just been mining those potentials and trying to find new ways to bring sound out of it.

FJO: But touring with the quadrachord, as you’ve just done this fall, doesn’t seem all that practical.

PD: Well, it’s more practical than you might realize. It doesn’t travel in those dimensions. It’s 15 and a half feet long, but it breaks down into a thing that’s a little less than three feet long. It fits into a case that is smaller than a keyboard case. And it takes one person about 40 minutes to set up; [the percussionist in my ensemble] Joel [Davel] and I doing it together takes about 25 minutes, a little less than that to break it down. If he had to move all that percussion in, it wouldn’t be any quicker. Sure, it adds a layer. It’s not the same as a string quartet coming in and sitting down and playing. It’s more complicated than that. But we built that particular version that we have on the tour to be reliable and stay in tune, as well as to be quick and easy to set up.

Paul Dresher & Joel Davel performing on the quardachord (with the marimba lumina in front of them) Photo by John Elliot, courtesy Sue Bernstein/Bernstein Artists.

Paul Dresher & Joel Davel performing on the quardachord (with the marimba lumina in front of them) Photo by John Elliot, courtesy Sue Bernstein/Bernstein Artists.

FJO: But if somebody wanted to perform this music, they’d have to acquire a quadrachord, and you’ve got the only ones.

PD: I never even think about that. I never once think or want somebody else to play this. This is my personal playground to experiment with sound. Sometimes I sample the instrument, and samples of the instrument are in some of my chamber music compositions. There they exist in a fixed form that’s duplicable by anybody with sample playback programs. But the physical playing of the instrument is where I get to experiment and where I get to share with the audience the results of those experiments that I think are successful.

FJO: So in terms of the compositions for these instruments—we talked about how some of the music you’ve written could be transcribed for other instruments but other pieces can’t be—could you imagine the pieces for these invented instruments being re-arranged for other kinds of instruments, or is it all idiomatic?

PD: I can’t imagine the reason for that. I could imagine all kinds of enormous practical difficulties. For instance, in Glimpsed from Afar, there’s a section where I create some loops with plucking where I’m playing the harmonic series. That harmonic series is not in equal temperament. I’m using between the sixth and the tenth harmonics; the seventh is very flat and the tenth is somewhat flat. I guess you could tune a harp to those specific things, and maybe get some sort of representation of that, but I don’t know why I’d want to do that. That music comes out of this instrument. I don’t think that music exists as abstract musical ideas. It really exists in the medium of this instrument alone. And when you get to the last section of the piece—where I do this weird thing with foam, a half capo at a very odd spot dividing the strings in half, and then we drum on the instrument—I don’t know how you’d ever even come close to duplicating what is interesting in that sound. I chose that sound to be a major part of that piece, and it’s something that I honestly can’t imagine getting any other way.

FJO: Now the most extreme example of this is Schick Machine, which of course was for someone else to perform—Steve Schick.

PD: That is true. Maybe somebody else could perform on that set, but it would become a different piece because Steve brings specific, astonishing skills. Another performer would bring a different set of skills. But those instruments, that set, is the piece. That is the score in a certain sense. Almost none of that is notated. There’s notation about how we built those instruments, because we’ve kept track of that and we did drawings and measurements and tests. But the invention of those instruments is far more what the score of the piece is than what notes are played.

FJO: And Schick Machine is extremely visual as well as aural. That’s true to some extent with the music you do on the quadrachord, but less so. You could hear a recording of the quadrachord and just experience it as sound, and you have released some of your music for quadrachord on CD. But interestingly you put out a private DVD of Schick Machine rather than a CD; you made sure the video was there. Experiencing it that way already is very different from the immersive environment that it is live, but at least you can see what it is. I think it would be hard to process if you only heard it.

PD: I’ve absolutely refused to ever even play that music on the radio. Schick Machine almost has nothing to do with music by itself, or sound by itself. It is sound in interaction with image and understanding how the sound is made; even if you see how it’s made, it’s still enormously mysterious. How is that mechanism working? How is this physical thing that I see Steve doing turning into what I’m hearing? You’re still mystified; that’s the power of that piece, the wonder at the combination of Steve’s physical reality, the instrument’s physical reality, and the visual and physical interaction resulting in sound. If you just hear the sound, it’s not the piece.

FJO: But considering all the new sounds that are in Schick Machine and the new ways in which those sounds are produced, it seems like those Ferneyhough students at Stanford would at least appreciate that. When you were at Stanford, did you share anything from this piece?

PD: We premiered the piece at Stanford, but it had little to do with the music department.

FJO: I imagine that there’s a lot more to explore with the particular instruments and timbres that you used in that piece.

PD: In the process of working on Schick Machine, I fell so in love with an instrument we call the hurdy grande that we built a new version of it. What’s on the stage of Schick Machine is what we call the prototype. The second version of it is a much more elegant instrument with a really good sound body. Just everything about it is improved. We got together with Steve after we’d finished it and discussed whether we should replace the prototype with this much more refined instrument, but we all said no.

We had no question about it. We realized that Schick Machine is about the process of experimentation and about discovery. It’s not about refinement. It’s about demonstrating to an audience what we really do in the workshop. As Steve says in his little program note, it’s about the id of a percussionist. They have all this stuff in their studio. They have all this junk. They’re constantly trying to find what sound can be eked out of this combination of a Coke bottle, a spoon, and a feather. In the hands of someone like Steve, magic happens. He can get it out of the simplest little bell, and he can get it out of a complex machine like a pipe organ. And that’s what we wanted. It wasn’t about perfection. It was always about the process of experimentation. A different performer would discover different things out of those resources on the stage, and so it would inevitably have to become a different piece. We’ve not actually approached that idea. The piece still tours and I want it to always be with Steve because he’s such an astonishing performer. But it’s an interesting question to think about what another person would do, like what if we let Joel loose on the stage here? It would become a very different piece because he’s got a completely different musical personality. So he would find different sounds than Steve has found, or that I ever found out of it.

FJO: You said that you were initially going to include the hurdy grande in the concerto you wrote for the Berkeley Symphony but abandoned it. So what kinds of pieces, if any, have you done with the new version of it that you built?

PD: Well, Joel and I perform on it. We’ve been doing some duo performances recently where we do two works on quadrachord—Glimpsed from Afar and In the Name(less), which is on the Cage Machine CD—then we do this work called Moving Parts on the hurdy grande. That’s still very much in evolution right now. We’ve only had that instrument for about two years, so we’re still discovering many things about it. It’s actually quite an astonishing set of sounds that I never really heard before.

FJO: But will that music eventually become a fixed-form thing that theoretically other people could do?

PD: I guess. Again, it’s going to be one of those highly personal things like the quadrachord is. The quadrachord could be made by other people, and it wouldn’t be that hard to actually make another quadrachord. The quadrachord is an amazingly simple instrument. It’s just a giant slab, basically. It’s like a giant electric bass. There are a few things you have to do carefully, but not much. But the hurdy grande is a much more mechanically challenging bit of construction requiring much higher level shop skills to get it to work. It’s a much more sophisticated and difficult machine to build, so I think to duplicate it would be much harder.

FJO: In terms of other performers replicating some of your more idiosyncratic music, I wonder about your early guitar-triggered works like Dark Blue Circumstance or Liquid and Stellar Music. How much of it was actually notated, and could you ever imagine anyone else performing those pieces?

Dresher in white suit playing electric guitar and operating a variety of foot pedals.

Another view of Paul Dresher performing solo in the early 1980s showing his extensive foot pedals. Photo by Debra Heimerdinger, courtesy of Paul Dresher.

PD: Dark Blue could be easily done. In fact, I just remounted it. I was the composer-in-residence at the Bowling Green New Music Festival, and the gentleman who runs it, Kurt Doles, said, “Is there any way you could do Dark Blue Circumstance?” I hadn’t done the piece for 15 years, and it was not in my technology. But I thought about it and in my spare time while finishing this other composition that we’re premiering in December, when I wanted a break, I started to work on Dark Blue and it actually came together very easily. I realized that it could easily be done by somebody else at this point. Liquid and Stellar is a little bit more complicated, but Dark Blue would be totally doable. I could probably notate it in an hour and a half and make it possible for anyone to do it.

FJO: But, for now, neither of these pieces are notated?

PD: No. It totally worked just in the process of playing into my tape loop system and listening and thinking about the next layer that was needed, just operating very intuitively. What would go with this? How would I make a transition from here to there? But even when I’m doing it intuitively, I’m doing analysis as I go along, that kind of composition is always a back and forth between an intuitive approach and then analyzing what I’ve decided is worth doing. Why is that interesting? What are the salient things there? What does that suggest about what you might do next?

FJO: You played both of those pieces for a number of years, and according to your notes for the recordings, they were eventually in a final fixed form about five years after they were initially composed. But in a way it isn’t a final fixed form because if Dark Blue could be done again, I imagine it would be somewhat different.

PD: I think you won’t have any trouble recognizing it as the same piece. I just did it twice, at the Detroit Institute of Art and at Bowling Green, and I think it was very much the same piece. It’s true that a couple of transitions I made differently just because I could do it differently on this technology, which I couldn’t have done before. I did things in certain ways that I couldn’t do on the old original technology so I let them go that direction, but it’s very much the same piece.

FJO: It’s ironic that when you write for really old technology, like your new cello and piano duet, you don’t have to worry about it becoming obsolete in ten years, but if you write for any piece of electronic equipment, more than likely by next year something will no longer work or no longer be available.

PD: Well, first off, while I’ve always been in a dialogue with technology in my work, it’s almost never about the technology. In my work which uses technology—not all the time, but many of my works do and obviously the big theater works are often very much made possible through technology—the technology is just another tool; it’s just the means by which I can develop a particular idea. It’s not the same as, say, my friends at Mills College who are experimenters and who are pushing the boundaries of technology—they’re interested in putting that actual process in the foreground; they don’t have another musical goal. The actual pushing of the boundary of experimentation is what they want their work to be about. And for me, I might run ten experiments and say nine of them are not interesting because my goal is to do something else with the music, to use the technology to do something that I haven’t heard before but not to put the technology into the foreground; it’s to put that new thing into the foreground that I haven’t heard before.

FJO: In a way, you approach technology the same way you approach minimalism.

PD: Yeah. It’s part of a tool box, but you still have to have something else to say. The technical procedures and the processes of classic minimalism weren’t wonderful in and of themselves, it was because in the hands of someone like Terry Riley or Steve Reich they made something transcendent out of it. Yes, you could break it apart and say Steve took this motif and then fleshed it out into a giant two-hour-long piece, but that’s not what made it powerful. He brought so much more to those procedures that made it have the impact that it has, same with Terry.

FJO: I guess one could argue that all the great pieces of minimalism are in some ways post-minimalist.

PD: Well, would you say In C is post-minimalist? I’d say In C is the perfect minimalist piece. The form is so astonishingly simple and so flexible. Every manifestation of it is unique, yet every manifestation is clearly In C. And it’s something magical about that piece, that the simplicity of it yields such rich results. I think that’s the idea of classic minimalism: a simple procedure yielding magnificent flexibility. It’s like evolution or the way DNA works. You take the DNA of a creature and you look at the incredible diversity of forms that come out of a simple recombination. A recombination of simple elements, if done right, can yield astonishing, almost infinite results. I think that’s what minimalism was capable of and that certain works did that. But I think the pieces that adhere to just procedure as their primary motivation rarely have that kind of impact. You can say, well, the procedure is there, and it’s evident, and it’s elegant, maybe, but it doesn’t make anything greater than itself.

FJO: And ditto for technology.

PD: Exactly the same. Yeah.

FJO: But with pieces using technology, there’s this added layer of needing to adapt older works and of finding new technologies in order to make them work if you want to keep playing them or have other people play them. It has now been 20 years since you established the Electro-Acoustic Band. But that ensemble very quickly became about a lot more than just your music, which brings in all sorts of other questions about notation and other composers’ comfort levels with the various and ever-evolving technologies used in that ensemble.

The Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band

The Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band (pictured left to right): Joel Davel, Karen Bentley, John Schott, Paul Dresher, Jeff Anderle, Gene Reffkin, and Marja Mutru. (Photo courtesy Paul Dresher.)

PD: The conception of the Electro-Acoustic band was always that it would do other people’s music. It was never to be just my music. That came out of a couple of things. My professional life was really launched by the success of those early pieces with Rinde and George Coates, investigating things that had never been done with the combination of theater, music, and projection technology. Then I did a series of music theater works up through about 1992 when Rinde and I did a piece called Awed Behavior, which was not a successful work in my estimation. Some of the music was great and other elements of it were great, but it was not a successful dramatic work. Anyway, at that point I felt like I had spent a little over ten years principally doing work and developing a musical language that was very effective to solve and expand on ideas in the realm of theater and collaboration. But I actually felt that my music as a concert music was stagnating. I had not had the opportunity to ask purely musical questions. So I wanted to return to that and just focus on my own performance and selecting musicians to perform contemporary concert music, but to use things that I learned from music theater—using lighting, very good sound, and also using electronics. And I wanted to make this available to other composers, too.

Back in the ‘70s, I was always in new music ensembles and we played other people’s work. I was in the East Bay New Music Ensemble and I think we may have even done the first performance of American Standard by John Adams in 1975. My Guitar Quartet also premiered on this concert. That’s where John and I met. John came to the concert—he was teaching at the conservatory at the time—and he became a fan of my work and I became a fan of his work. So I had a long history of playing other people’s music. I really like being inside another composer’s new work, the experience of getting to know how another composer is thinking about making new music. So when I formed the Electro-Acoustic Band, the idea was I wanted to play other people’s music, I wanted to give a resource to other composer’s that was similar to what I felt I needed—a band of musicians who could credibly play idioms that were not just in a classical style, who could play rock and roll, who understood other kinds of musical idioms, people who had studied African music or Bulgarian music, or who had played music in black gospel churches—like the great pianist Phil Aaberg, who was the original pianist in that band. And it also involved electronics. The idea of that band was that it would play my music, but would also commission and perform works by other composers who needed either electro-acoustic means or performers who could improvise, if that was what the composer wanted. That was really the goal. We’ve continued now for 20 years and at most a third of the music is mine usually; it’s often less than that nowadays.

FJO: Sometimes you’ll do a whole evening devoted to someone else’s music.

PD: Yeah. It’s been a wonderful 20 years, but it’s been a tough 20 years. Partly because the band is big, and partly because not all composers really understand what the band does well, so we sometimes get pieces that really are not a good match. But we always play them and our goal is to rehearse so that there’s no way that the composer won’t know they heard their piece. Often with contemporary music you get a first performance, and you don’t really know if you’ve heard your piece because it’s played badly or it’s not understood by the musicians. And so my goal was to have it be a little bit like a rock and roll band. When they go on stage, they’ve been down in the basement and in the garage, they’ve played those songs over and over and over, and they usually know how to put that song across. I wanted to perform new music with that same level of confidence, with that same level of commitment to being sure that the music was being played right.

FJO: So what are some of the compositional details of a right fit or a wrong fit?

PD: Because we have electric guitar in the band and drum set, some people think that they need to write a rock and roll kind of piece. And not very many composers can really authentically tap into the essence of what’s powerful in rock and roll. But oftentimes, because they see these instruments in the instrumentation of the band, they think that’s what they should do. But if they don’t really have the musical understanding of what rock and roll can and can’t do, that’s going to come across as a simulacra of what rock and roll is. So we’ve gotten pieces that don’t really work, because they’re referring to things that they don’t really understand. It would be like if I tried to write Bollywood music. I might be even somewhat equipped because I’ve studied Indian classical music, but there are aesthetics involved there that will elude me. So I might effectively steal the surface of the music, but nothing below that.

FJO: In terms of how it appears on the page, is it about having a more open score or a more precise score?

PD: I don’t think it makes a difference. What’s in the composer’s mind makes a difference—what they think is going to work, understanding the implications of the materials that they’ve chosen to work with. If you choose to work with materials that you’re never going to understand because you don’t really have an affinity for rock and roll, or whatever the idiom is, you’re unlikely to make a meaningful statement. There probably are exceptions to that. I’m not sure Stravinsky understood jazz, and I think he probably misinterpreted jazz in lots of ways, but he made fascinating music as a result. That may just be the result of the fact that he was so brilliant and so musical that anything he touched was going to become interesting, but there aren’t that many Stravinskys out there. So I think sometimes we get pieces that a composer undertakes to address certain idioms or materials that they don’t necessarily have enough depth with.

FJO: I’d still like to get a better sense of how this plays out in terms of how pieces are notated for the Electro-Acoustic Band, especially after hearing about how the details in everything from your solo guitar-triggered electronics pieces to Slow Fire were pretty much fixed but not in a way that would be readily replicated by people who had not worked closely with you. Take for instance your own Din of Iniquity, the first piece you wrote for the Electro-Acoustic Band. How much of that is precise? How much of that is worked out in performance?

PD: It’s pretty much all notated, except at the very end I take a guitar solo that I improvise and I do it differently every time. But everything other than that, until we get to the last minute and a half of the piece, is completely notated and is done precisely the same way.

Printed scvore excerpt for electro-acoustic band including written instructions in addition to music notation

Excerpt from the score of Paul Dresher’s Din of Iniquity. Copyright © 1994 by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Now another complexity with any electro-acoustic piece is that the electronic element, as you were mentioning earlier, is a moving target because technology’s constantly evolving. What you used to make a sound 20 years ago may not be available any more and you may not be able to make it any other way. Sometimes a particular sound is an idiomatic result of the programming of a particular piece of hardware, or nowadays software that makes a certain sound. If that’s a sound that your piece depends on, often times the piece has a very hard time having a life beyond the existence of that hardware or software.

FJO: But aside from these issues about equipment, how much is notated in scores for this ensemble?

When other composers write for the ensemble, how specific do they get, or should they get? What’s the ideal?

PD: It varies. When we worked with Eve Beglarian, whom we commissioned a piece from, she has such technical expertise that she knew exactly how to deal with every element of our band. And even I shared a lot of technology. We had some of the same gear in our racks, so she was able to just give me patches that dropped right into some of our devices and sample sets that were easily translatable to our technology. We just did a big project with Sebastian Currier. Sebastian came out and we spent several days just going through sounds. He would describe what he wanted, and I would get out the keyboard and say, “Is it this that you want?” And he’d say, “I need a little bit more this.” Sebastian’s very knowledgeable about electronics, so he would say, “We need to put a filter on that and we need the filter cut off to be around 2.5k,” or something like that. He didn’t give us a library of sounds to start with. We got together and we worked on the sounds. Though he gave us whole libraries of sounds for the percussion; they had very specific sounds that they were triggering from sample files that Sebastian himself had created. And he created a very multi-layered, very complex work that pushed our resources in some fascinating ways. My percussionist Joel Davel is probably the most adept person in the band with implementing complicated electronic media. We worked together for weeks and then in dialogue with Sebastian on how to get all of Sebastian’s needs met in performance reliably so there wouldn’t be glitches.

FJO: But what happens to the piece five years from now?

PD: I think Sebastian’s piece actually could be done pretty easily. Nowadays sample technology has broad currency. The operas that John Adams wrote in the 1980s used various Yamaha FM synthesis machines. Those machines became obsolete, and they went through a process. I know this because John’s a friend, and also his engineer Mark Grey is a good friend. Anyway, they went through and sampled every note in every one of the timbres, and sometimes there were hundreds of timbres that John used in those pieces. It was an incredibly laborious process that Mark went through to sample and then write programs so that now, on a computer or on a laptop, whatever, you can get those same sounds. That’s an incredibly labor-intensive and expensive process, because you have to have real professional expertise. But now those sample sets exist, and I think they can be transferred and moved downstream in time and are not likely to become obsolete because they’re recordings. It’s different than using software to make a sound that is constantly modulating and changing. Those kinds of things are very hard to duplicate on a different device or a different piece of software. When you have an actual recording of it, and it’s a fixed thing for a certain period of time, it’s transferrable. Where it’s about this transformation over time, or where there are random things involved, it’s very hard to give it a life past the actual hardware or software that created that sound.

FJO: From an aesthetic standpoint, adapting electronic pieces using older technologies in order to make them playable now is not much different from transcribing a piece for one instrumentation to another in order to be able to perform it with the musicians you’re playing with. This was a very common practice in the Baroque period, but has become somewhat anathema in the post-Romantic and Modern eras. As a practical musician, you’ve adapted Channels Passing—which was originally scored for violin, cello, and five winds—for violin, clarinet, two electronic percussionists, and two electronic keyboards so that it could be performed by the Electro-Acoustic Band. And in the concert last night, the percussion part for Double Ikat was performed on a mallet-triggered sampler, the marimba lumina.

PD: Well, I think some pieces do exist only in the instrumentation that they were conceived for. And I would actually put Double Ikat in that category. Although I admit that doing it with a marimba lumina—where he’s playing samples of those acoustic instruments that are what its real orchestration is—is a kind of transformation. But to me that’s a practical solution for what we need to do to take a piece that we love on tour, not to have to deal with trying to bring in a large percussion array of marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, two gongs, Chinese tom toms, and cymbals. We would get such widely varying quality and we would be spending all our time just trying to solve the problems of the percussion set up instead of the more interesting musical issues of expression. It was a very convenient and practical solution. I also believe in this technology. I believe that this is a viable thing to do. I know some people really disagree with me here, but I really believe that it’s not wrong to use a digital sample of an acoustic instrument. I think that some things can’t be digitally sampled, like a violin. You could never do that violin part on a keyboard playing a violin sample. It’s never going to happen. It’s going to always sound robotic, or awful. Maybe that would be an interesting thing to hear, but that’s not my musical goal, whereas with the percussion it is very possible to make really good quality samples and then to use the sound system in a way to make it sound plausible. You’re not pretending this is something else. And, as you said, it’s clearly still that piece.

FJO: But what about Channels Passing? I haven’t heard the Electro-Acoustic Band version of it and a lot of what I love about that piece is the way those seven instruments act together in the original version. It’s only a small group, yet it sounds like a full orchestra at times. So for me that piece is very much about how you combined those particular timbres.

Handwritten musical score for chamber ensemble by Paul Dresher

An excerpt from the manuscript of the original seven-piece chamber ensemble score of Paul Dresher’s Channels Passing. Copyright © 1982 by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

PD: When we do Channels Passing, some of those instruments we can cheat with, you know with samples, but I would never do the violin. Partly because the writing for it is in some ways classically minimalist, I’m willing to do that with a clarinet or a flute. A different kind of line on clarinet or flute might be totally impossible to do with electronic simulacra. But in that piece, it was possible to do the trombone and flute without serious compromise. The cello is more problematic, but again it varies. In another musical context, I would say that’s not possible. You know, my string quartet, Casa Vecchia, could be done by a string orchestra, but it could never be done by synthesizers.

FJO: Well it’s interesting that you bring up Casa Vecchia, because although you composed it for string quartet, the only commercial recording ever released of it is a version for string nonet.

PD: Yuki Morimoto, the conductor who led that group, Ensemble Nine, fell in love with the piece and he sent me a [demo] recording they made of it. I loved it and gave it to Tom Steenland from Starkland, and he was happy to have that be on his label. So I went to Vienna, and we recorded it there. But I would love to get an actual quartet version of it out there, and I think it would be played probably better now than it was played originally because I think we understand what the material does better now than we might have in 1982 when I wrote it.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Paul Dresher: Intense Beauty, Visceral Energy, and Sonic Curiosity

  1. Pingback: Paul Dresher: Intense Beauty, Visceral Energy, and Sonic Curiosity | New Music USA

  2. Michael Robinson

    “I think that my principle responsibility as a composer is to control
    the experience of time for the listener. They are following the
    progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it”

    Thank you for this provocative thought, Paul (and Frank). It inspired
    the following comments:

    Just recently, I was reading about how jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers
    described hearing Charlie Parker for the first time. He could only
    compare the overwhelming and exhilarating shock to the Bible: first
    there was Darkness, and then there was Light. He also said that he
    actually felt like he was being forced through the wall behind where
    he was sitting, and volume had little to do with it! My personal
    epiphany comprehending the unbelievable profundity of Bird for the
    first time came in tenth grade after I had learned the music and
    lyrics to How High the Moon, allowing me to experience the ingenious
    expansions Parker spontaneously constructed upon the foundation
    composed by Morgan Lewis, with lyrics by Nancy Hamilton, in a live

    What musicians and composers hope for with their sound (sic) efforts
    is a sensation of time being suspended, or at least forgotten about
    when someone is listening, whether it is live or on a recording. If
    listeners are thinking about time they are not truly engaged. In other
    words, music aspires to be worthy of a region that is unique unto
    itself, dwelling in-between the physical (you can hear it) and
    metaphysical worlds (it is invisible) where the passing of time is

    Thus, a music composition designs to exist at once in its full form or
    duration, so that a listener may reach out perceptually in the manner
    of an immense giant who has the capability of touching any location on
    earth with one’s finger at will, removing the need to travel to those
    locations. The analogy holds because music that reaches the desired
    domain has its unique “DNA” in any particular phrase or passage, just
    as the entire film, Chinatown, is intuitively impressed upon the
    viewer from the opening images and sounds.

    This is why, when I was a guest student attended his conducting class
    at Tanglewood, Leonard Bernstein spent well over one hour explaining
    the correct way to give the opening downbeat for the First Movement of
    the Brahms First Symphony. At once, Bernstein was filtering the
    cumulative episodes and nuances of the entire work through the initial
    release of the gathered and gathering forces, something that required
    a precise, if elusive to convey, calibration expressed through
    physical gesture, including the eyes. From his very first spoken
    sentences at the class, it was shockingly evident that the conductor’s
    extreme physicality was completely in the service of a previously
    unimaginable intellect that rendered everyone mute in stunned and
    intimidated silence, much to the maestro’s baffled frustration,
    pleading for questions to be asked by the students. (I had a great
    question, but was too insecure to state it at the time. Fortunately, I
    did have an opportunity to converse briefly with Bernstein at a party
    following a student orchestra concert.)

    While it was not my intention to include both Charlie Parker and
    Leonard Bernstein when I began these comments, I am reminded about how
    Lee Konitz once told me that Bird was easily the most brilliant person
    he ever met in his entire life. Konitz, who lived for a period of time
    in the same Manhattan building as Bernstein, was friends with the
    composer of West Side Story, who told the alto saxophonist how the
    song Cool from his famous score was directly inspired by Lee’s
    playing. In fact, the rather vague jazz influence commonly attributed
    to West Side Story in general is actually closest to the music of Lee
    Konitz by far.

  3. Peter Homans

    What a knowledgeable composer. But let’s be sure that in the future the copy editor recognizes that “principle responsibility” and “principle raison d’etre” are spelling errors and that “principle” should be changed to “principal” in both cases. “Principal” is an adjective, and “principle” is a noun with a different meaning. Thanks.

    Thank you, Peter. Some typos (especially when they are missed by spell check) inevitably slip through the cracks no matter how many times we read these things, especially in a 12,810 word piece like this. But luckily such mistakes can be fixed online as I have just done.—FJO


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