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Paul Dresher Amps Up the Music

April 19, 2014

Paul Dresher Ensemble

Paul Dresher EnsembleThe Paul Dresher Ensemble presented a program entitled “Memory Gain” last weekend at the ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. For 20 years now, this ensemble has explored the seams between jazz, rock, and the contemporary/academic/concert-music genre, which is based on the classical approach (music notated). On Saturday, its dimly lit stage was a tangle of cables, music stands, foot-operated electronic pedals, newfangled instruments, and traditional instruments. Sometimes it felt like the toys and sound effects were getting in the way of the music — there was a detachment, things seemingly filtered out by all the technology.

The guest duo Oon (the word bassoon with basscancelled out spells the cute-sounding “oon”) opened the program. Ariane Cap plays an eight-string bass with confident facility and speedy double-handed technique, setting an ostinato over which bassoonist Paul Hanson plays impressively agile and long-winded lines. But their heavy use of the “delay” effect brought some of this virtuosity into question. Delay is an electronic process that several times retriggers the sounds played, creating a consistent rhythmic echo. It’s commonly used in rock and electronica to create extra motion and rhythmic vitality. Yet in concert music, playing what appeared on the surface to be a moto-perpetuo, étude-like piece, the delay effect felt disingenuous. Some in the audience were fooled into believing that Hanson was playing all those notes, when it fact it was an electronic algorithm doing a good deal of the work. To be clear, it still takes talent to produce this sound, and the outcome was thrilling, so perhaps ignorance of the delay effect would have been bliss to some listeners.

Artificial Memory (2013), by Sebastian Currier, was next on the program. A multimedia piece, it features lists of words read out loud and projected on the backdrop, each illustrated by a few seconds of music, taking the old “absolute music” versus “program music” debate to its extreme. Usually Currier matched our expected associations of the words — for instance, a gnarly tremolo dissonant tremolo for the word anger, and soft consonant chords for happier words. These associations sound like a neat idea but in practice quickly start to feel cliched. The music was most interesting when the words didn’t exactly match expectations and when the phrases grew longer, allowing for a more in-depth exploration. Words, of course, can have many meanings. The musicians stopped playing as a video by Michele Beck zoomed into images of three-dimensional blueprints of intricate architecture, while a synthesized grumbling filled the sound space. It was a smart choice to alternate the live music with the video so they didn’t have to compete. The flow between the two types of art was seamless and well executed by the light crew.

After intermission, Paul Dresher brought back his first chamber music composition for the electro-acoustic ensemble from two decades ago. His Din of Inequity still feels like a contemporary composition, albeit with a funky ’90s groove. His percussionist, Gene Reffkin, is a talented player whose choice of electronic drums was unfortunate. The MIDI drum set consists of pads played with sticks that trigger prerecorded sound samples.

Ensemble members Jeff Anderle and Bill Kalinkos on clarinets and Karen Bentley on violin provided the most expressive playing of the evening, somehow neutralizing the electronics.

This is cool if you want to produce new synthesized sounds that a real drum would not be able to produce. But when the sample is a recording of a drum, why not just go for the real thing? The sound came from the direction of the speakers on the side of the stage rather than from the center where the drummer was located, and it sounded like a muffled version of the real thing. The same goes for both the electronic mallet percussion and the keyboard synthesizer. The work will probably sound much better on the group’s upcoming CD, after a good deal of mixing and mastering is done.

Ensemble members Jeff Anderle and Bill Kalinkos on clarinets and Karen Bentley on violin provided the most expressive playing of the evening, somehow neutralizing the electronics. With all the advances in technology, the electronic instruments still don’t hold a candle to traditional acoustic instruments in terms of nuance and expression. So making these two worlds blend is a big challenge.

Lisa Bielawa’s Ego Sum featured Amy X Neuburg narrating and singing found-poetry snippets that had been “overheard in transient public spaces.” Mundane expressions like “I’m losing my appetite really quickly” mixed with more existential ones such as “I just talked to God,” in an enticing collage of words and sounds.

James Mobberly, composer of the concert’s final piece, Fusebox, spoke beforehand about the postmodern composer’s typical quandary — to wit, that musical choices can be dizzying at a time when an unprecedented variety of styles are both appealing and readily available. How, I wonder, do composers emerge from this sea of musical worlds with a sound of their own? Do they stick with one style and delve deeply into it? Or do they mix up the genres they like and simply see what comes out? Mobberly chose the latter, resulting in a confusing mish-mash.

Be'eri Moalem ( is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.