The Barefoot Boy at 50

Paul Dresher turns 50 on January 8 and plans to celebrate in his favorite way, surrounded by other musicians on a stage. Specifically, he will join the California EAR Unit at LACMA, in the last of the museum‘s “Focus on California” concerts, to take part in his Chorale Times Two on a program that also includes music by composers Steve Hoey, Michael Fink, Nick Chase, Rand Steiger and Amy Knoles.

Fifty! It seems like only yesterday -- but obviously wasn’t -- that the lanky kid from the Palisades sat in the cockpit of an electronic console of his own devising, working the keyboards, taking an occasional whack at an electric guitar and wandering barefoot over the pedals. Liquid and Stellar Music was his big solo piece in 1981, and he took it around the world: passionate great globs of sound, wonderful to hear and to watch. The minimalists were riding high in those days: Glass, Reich and Adams. Was Dresher part of that scene?

“Think of me more as a pre-maximalist,” he says.

A few wrinkles and a few pounds later, Dresher escorts me with pride through his last few years and through his studio-workshop in a made-over West Oakland warehouse, near where the grass now grows on the site of the 1989 freeway collapse. His piece for LACMA is actually the second part of a longer work for solo violin and “electro-acoustic band”; the EAR Unit‘s Robin Lorentz will be soloist. Dresher will also participate, not on one of his famous electronic inventions, but on a good old down-to-earth electric guitar.

Dresher’s best-known music has been involved with theater, in one way or another, starting with his multimedia collaborations with George Coates (seeHear and areare, with their fabulous light-show effects) and moving on to his work with the unique performance artist Rinde Eckert. Slow Fire, the best-known of the Eckert pieces (available on video), maintains its energy, a chilling pageant of post-Vietnam Middle American values and the mindless terrorists they can produce. So do the later theatrical pieces, most of them produced here at Royce Hall over the years, e.g., Power Failure, a bitter satire, and Pioneer, which, says Dresher, “contains something here and there to offend almost everyone.”

Chorale Times Two represents something of a new direction for Dresher. “Most of my music up to now has been contrapuntal, in one way or another,” he says. “But recently I‘ve been re-studying Bach’s chorale harmonizations, which produce marvelous harmonic progressions while the inner voices move contrapuntally. This new piece doesn‘t sound like Bach, of course, but its big melodic arches take shape over a continuous unfolding harmony, and that’s something new for me. I‘ve been thinking a lot about the human voice and how to use its real singing power, something you don’t find much in my old theater pieces.

”From there I‘ve also been thinking about music for solo instruments. [San Francisco violinist] David Abel has had a big influence on me, the way his instrument sings and the meticulousness with which he prepares everything. He warned me against composing real concertos for a soloist and orchestra, because symphony orchestras never get the time to rehearse new music, so I wrote this new piece for violinist and my own Paul Dresher Ensemble. Now I’m working on a cello concerto for Joan Jeanrenaud, who‘s had a busy life since she left the Kronos Quartet. But that’ll also be with the Ensemble; we‘ll do it at Stanford in February.“

The workshop is a vast room permeated with the spirit of invention. Dresher directs me first to a flat strung instrument resting on sawhorses. In elementary physics you learn about the monochord, a single stretched string perhaps 2 feet long and mounted on a frame, which can be divided in exact ratios to demonstrate the overtone series. Dresher’s ”quadrachord“ is 14 feet long, and there are four strings instead of one: two of steel, two of phosphor bronze. A bass pickup sits next to both bridges, to feed their sound into amplification. ”With strings this long,“ says Dresher, ”I can divide them so exactly that I can produce up to the 24th overtone, instead of the seventh or eighth.“ He goes at the strings with a bass-viol bow; the whole room resonates. We are in the realm of ”pure“ intonation, not the set of compromises that form the normal tuning of familiar Western music. The effect is weird and unsettling, but more and more composers are devising ways of using these sounds. ”What I can do with this,“ says Dresher, ”is allow composers to come here, sample these harmonies and work with them at home, without having to lug 14-foot instruments around.“

He has another trick. He inserts two lengths of threaded half-inch steel rod across the strings and strikes them with a small steel rod. Wow! The sound is overpowering, huge and rich. Dresher walks over to the opposite wall, where other strings are stretched over 55 feet. Again, it‘s not the sort of instrument you’d carry to a gig; once again, however, the sounds themselves are portable via sampling, and they‘ll shake your spine. They end up in a tube amplifier that Dresher picked up at a yard sale for $10. The controls are dirty, and the static roars until the tubes warm up, but, as Dresher or any other sound aficionado will tell you, the tones are pure.

At one end of the room looms a giant A-shaped structure, 18 feet high, with a platform about halfway up as the crossbar of the ”A.“ A frame is attached to the lower end of the ”A,“ with several strings running vertically from tuning pegs. In front of all this hangs a 17-foot pendulum, a metal tube in several sections, attached to a pivot on top and with a weight at the bottom. Dresher pulls up the pendulum and releases it; there’s a plectrum on the back of it that strums across the strings. For the next 10 minutes or so, the pendulum‘s arc ever so gradually lessens, with the ostinato of plucked-string tone also slowing imperceptibly. Even in that messed-up workroom the effect is spellbinding; in a performance space it would surely be even more so.

”The beauty of this whatever-you-want-to-call-it,“ says Dresher, ”is the way it becomes its own kind of theater. There’s the pendulum, for starters. Then there are these platforms. You could, for instance, have a bass clarinetist standing halfway up -- that, by the way, has become my favorite acoustic instrument, for its amazing variety of tone -- or a dancer; they could work with the rhythm of the pendulum, or against it. Also, this whole thing breaks down, so you can get it onto a truck with no problem. I‘ll be taking it to Minneapolis for the premiere of a new piece, Soundstage, in June.

“When I was studying at UC San Diego in the 1970s, Harry Partch’s instruments were still around, and Harry too, in spirit anyhow. I was amazed by the audacity of this man, building the instruments that freed him from all the harmonic traditions of Western music. Then I worked with Bob Erickson, who was also always inventing. Those stroked steel rods that he used, for example; are they still around? People should be composing for them all the time.

”For me, music and theater have always been the same. All my life, I‘ve been dreaming up instruments and then building them. I build the instruments first, and then I find the music that’s in them and help it escape.“


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