Paul Dresher – Photo by Andrew Constantini

5 Questions to Paul Dresher (Composer)

At Roulette, on Sunday, October 26, the Paul Dresher Double Duo will perform Double Ikat Part 2, Dresher’s invented instrument duo Glimpsed From Afar, John Cage‘s Six Melodies for Violin & Keyboard Instrument and Martin Bresnick‘s Fantasia on A Theme By Willie Dixon. TwoSense performing the world premiere of Dresher’s three movement duo for cello & piano Family Matters. We asked 5 questions to Dresher.

When you are composing for traditional instruments or those of your own invention, are the processes different? Do you find yourself adapting the language of one onto the other?

A composer always has to be very conscious of the instruments they are writing for and when working with invented instruments, it’s really no different. One has to understand what the instrument and the performer are technically capable of and then one builds one’s work in relationship to that. Of course, because my approach to inventing instruments sometimes results in – when I’ve been successful – musical resources that are not easily produced by conventional instruments, one has to be well aware of how those resources interact well, or not, with conventional instrumental resources. For example, the Quadrachord – because of it’s long string length (140 inches) and low open string fundamental pitches (at the bottom of the piano range) – is able to easily and with complete pitch accuracy play the intervals of harmonic series up to the 24th harmonic and beyond. But it is very limited when it comes to playing accurately in equal temperament. So, when I compose for the Quadrachord in combination with other traditional instruments, I have to be continuously aware of the contrasting intonational resources and thus I’ve had to develop some unique strategies in order to make such instrumental combinations possible.

On the other hand, one does have a certain freedom with invented instruments because there is no convention to refer to, to comment upon or expectations to adhere to or upset. While this provides a form of freedom, it’s a somewhat shallow form, since one is always obliged to make the most compelling music possible, and that doesn’t change if one is composing for conventional or newly invented instruments. The novelty of sound that an invented instrument might offer usually provides only a brief amount of engagement for a listener and after that moment has passed, you have to say something musically meaningful with whatever sound resources you have.

What role has changing technology played in your instrument-building, composing, and performing? Is there any technology you’re particularly excited about using?

My work has always been involved with technology, since I was a teenager playing with my father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and messing about with amplifiers and my first electric guitars. A very important development in my professional life was building my live analog tape loop system back in 1979. The system allowed me as a soloist to compose and perform live a layered polyphonic music that no soloist could do without technology. That was followed by affordable digital sampling in the early 1980’s, digital synthesis keyboards and personal computers, all of which became essential tools for me, both for composing and for live performance.

But my work has NEVER been about the technology itself, but rather it has always been about using new technologies to explore some aspect of sound and composition that I was curious about and which I believe had not been fully explored by others. My work with acoustic and electro-acoustic instrument invention is motivated by precisely the same sense of curiosity.

As to what I’m excited about now, I hear great things coming from people working with Ableton Live, but to be honest, I’ve not had the time to learn the program myself. But one of my closest musical collaborators, percussionist and electronic musician Joel Davel, is an expert with Live and uses it to solve many of the musical problems I present to him in my compositions, particularly those involving invented instruments and live electronics.

In the realm of acoustic or electro-acoustic instrument invention, recently I’ve been learning about integrating motors and motor control into some of my inventions, so that instruments have a means of actually playing themselves. Of course, developments in robotics, miniaturization and motor control of all sorts has led to many new possibilities in this area.

Steven Schick and the Schick Machine, featuring a number of invented instruments by Dresher.

Steven Schick and the Schick Machine, featuring a number of invented instruments by Dresher.

Much of your work is collaborative in both the creative and interpretive part of the process. What about collaboration is appealing to you?

Collaboration is extremely stimulating to me because it gives one the opportunity to learn how one’s music functions in relationship to an entirely different medium, such as movement when working with a choreographer, or theater when working with a director or narrative when working with a writer. Of course, a composer is always collaborating with the musicians who perform their work but when working with another medium, it can teach you something entirely different about your work. You may discover that what’s musically meaningful or significant to you might not have much impact for a choreographer. I’ve also found that both directors and choreographers have often taken music intended to accompany one part of the collaborative work and then used it in a place I would never have considered the music appropriate. And yet, in the collaborative context, it might turn out to remarkably effective.

Your music incorporates a lot of different styles and practices. Who or what do you think is a common thread of influence throughout your music?

It might be much easier for someone else to answer this this question but I’ll give it a try. As I look back over nearly four decades of composing, perhaps the most consistent thread in my music is a curiosity about sound without regard to ideological or stylistic boundaries mixed with belief that a composer’s main responsibility is to shape the experience of time for the listener.

What upcoming projects or performances are you most excited about?

In December, I am premiering a new work for my large ensemble – the Electro-Acoustic Band and the wonderful singer/electronic music composer and performer Amy X Neuburg. The piece involves two photographs, one by my good friend Richard Misrach and another photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. The text was written by a 30 year old inmate at San Quentin prison, incarcerated for life for a murder committed when he was 15 years old. The text was the inmate’s homework assignment for a course he was taking in prison, Contemporary Issues In Photography. It’s a remarkably insightful and candid text, one which reveals an intelligence and compassion in total contrast to our usual assumptions about someone convicted of murder. It was a very difficult work for me, trying to find the right approach to setting the prose text. I’ve used a large library of unique samples I’ve created over the years to establish what I hope are very effective atmospheres for the different aspects of the text. The premiere is on Dec. 5 & 6, 2014 at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley.

For info and tickets about Sunday’s concert, visit Roulette’s website.