Dresher in Your Ear

Pioneering composer of the ‘West Coast’ sound takes his innovations to Carnegie


If John Adams has his way, the fusion of Eastern and Western music that distinguishes the Paul Dresher Ensemble’s “West Coast” sound is about to shake New York’s musical landscape.

Adams holds the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall and is curator of Zankel Hall’s genre-bending Nov. 11-14 “In Your Ear” Festival. For that weekend, the composer has created a thrilling line-up of artists whose music challenges national and cultural boundaries.

Adams’ friend Paul Dresher, 54, marks the 20th anniversary of his ensemble with an all-Dresher program on November 12 that features soloists David Abel and Julie Steinberg. Dresher’s music can initially impress as jarring, its raucous combination of electric guitars, percussion and original instruments influenced as much by rock as by the music of John Cage and the Far East. But then, unexpectedly, it can slow down and soften, exuding a neo-Romantic passion and angst that brings tears to the heart before jarring it anew into beating faster.

Dresher’s music may sound quintessentially “West Coast,” but its drive and rapid transitions could easily pass for the sonic equivalent of a walk through Manhattan at mid-day.

“Paul Dresher exemplifies the spirit of West Coast music both in the richness of his sound world as well as the inventiveness of his mind,” Adams explained. “In the tradition of Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig, Paul has invented new instruments, both mechanical and electronic, each of which has expanded his musical thinking. To that he adds a background in North Indian and Balinese traditions, all of which results in a music of exceptional individuality and beauty… He’s a maverick in the very best sense of the word.”

Dresher has been composing since the 1970s. Raised in Los Angeles, his mathematics professor father was an avid music consumer and concertgoer. As a result, Dresher’s childhood training in classical piano was complemented by attendance at contemporary music concerts and healthy doses of pop music. He simultaneously fell “in love” with Elvis Presley and totally immersed himself in the folk and blues revivals of the ‘60s.

“As a teenager,” Dresher told Gay City News, “I began messing around with tape recorders, discovering what happens if you turn the tape backwards or try to overdub or play at different speeds. And after hearing Jimi Hendrix, I started to experiment with feedback.

“In 1968, I dropped my high school math classes and instead took woodshop and built psychedelic guitars and psychedelic sitars. I’m still building instruments, but I’m now more inspired by the music of Harry Partch and Lou Harrison as well as world music.”

As soon as he graduated from high school, Dresher moved to Berkeley to be with his girlfriend and immerse himself in hippie culture. He became obsessed with the music of gay composer John Cage after reading “Silence,” Cage’s first published collection of writing from that late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

“Cage posed a lot of intellectual challenges to intentional choices and harmonic preferences,” Dresher explained. “It took me several years to overcome his biases and find my own relationship to the issues he brought up.”

Dresher also began studies with Nikhil Banerjee, a classical Hindustani musician from northeastern India who had studied with the same teacher as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. He first heard Banerjee’s music when he bought a used recording at Telegraph Avenue’s fabled Moe’s Books with money earned playing for spare change on the five-block strip then known for its dope-smoking dropouts and underage runaways.

“I’d gotten sick of Indian music,” Dresher confessed. “I listened to all these Ravi Shankar records while I was in high school, and it stopped moving me after awhile. Then I heard Nikhil Banerjee and said ‘Oh my God, this music is so much deeper than I ever imagined.’

“When I first heard Asian music, something about it reached inside me and said ‘This music is part of you. It feels like something you already understand and know.’ That’s how I’ve come to a lot of music. It reaches inside me and I have this epiphany where I can hear how the music works.”

Dresher later became interested in opera and music theater. A main reason he’s been able to enjoy a professional composing career outside academia is that early on he got involved in the music theater of Rinde Eckert.

The Paul Dresher Ensemble’s New York concert mainly features repertoire heard on Dresher’s just-released, beautifully recorded “Cage Machine” CD (New Albion). “The Concerto for Violin & Electro-Acoustic Band” (1996-1997), which combines acoustic instruments with the unique timbres of electronic instruments, was written for Dresher’s favorite musician and “muse,” Oakland violinist David Abel, whose “expressiveness and depth inspire me to write my best.”

The intervals heard in the “Violin Concerto” derive from the set-up Abel’s partner Julie Steinberg created when she performed John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano” at Oakland’s Mills College shortly after Cage died. Dresher sampled Steinberg’s sounds, altered them in computers, combined and manipulated them in various ways and created fictional instruments that could be played by MIDI keyboard and percussion instruments. The music is easy to follow, but its extreme rhythmic complexity serves as a litmus test for a fiddler’s technique.

“In the first movement,” Dresher explained, “my ensemble model is a rock and roll band that includes a soloist and a very intense rhythmic section. The movement’s title, “Cage Machine,” refers both to its driving, machine-like energy and the origins of its electronic samples in the prepared piano music of John Cage.

“The second movement—big, lyrical and romantic—is modeled on an orchestral relationship between soloist and ensemble. The electronic sound is that of strings. Although the percussion is a prepared piano, it is rhythmically very languid, lyrical and flexible—the opposite of a machine.”

“Racer,” another work on the program, is the last and longest movement from Dresher’s gorgeous three-movement “Elapsed Time” (1998), an acoustic duet written for Abel and Steinberg.

The second movement from “Double Ikat” (1990), written for the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio,is the oldest work on the program. (“Double Ikat” can be heard on Dresher’s first New Albion CD, “Dark Blue Circumstance.”) Steinberg calls the movement “tender and wrenchingly heartbreaking.” Because percussionist William Winant is currently on tour with Cage’s surviving partner/collaborator Merce Cunningham, Joel Davel of the Dresher Ensemble joins Steinberg and Abel.

Probably the most unusual sounds heard in Zankel will come from “In the Name(less).” Performed on Dresher’s electronic marimba lumina and the 14-foot long strings of the quadrachord, the 22-minute work combines improvisational passages—elaborated differently in each performance—with fully composed and determined sections.

The stunning “Din of Iniquity”(1994), Dresher’s first piece for an electro-acoustic ensemble, closes the program. It was composed at a time Dresher was strongly influenced by the studio wall of sound produced by Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, two very hard and intense industrial rock and roll bands. The piece includes jump cuts, radical slamming together of juxtaposing elements, overlaying and different, illogical ways of making transitions. Dresher notes its “radical contrasts of texture and dynamics, including contrasts of tenderness vs. intensity and lyricism vs. driving rhythms.”

Asked what to make of his music, Dresher spoke without a trace of pretense.

“In creating a style, a spark, an argument, a flow—I don’t know which word is right because they’re all wrong in a certain sense—I hope to give the listener an experience that, when they come to its end, feels like they’ve been on a journey to places that they’ve never been before, places that are both new and familiar,” he said. “It’s almost like discovering parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed.

“One of my important goals is to say, ‘We can experience all sound in the world as music. There’s no such thing as alien music, music we cannot understand.’”

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