San Francisco: Are We Not Men? We Are Po-Min

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

I caught the Paul Dresher Ensemble in their second night of performances on April 1 at Theater Artaud in the SOMA district of San Francisco. The space is fantastic and the sound engineering was highly precise; much care was taken in presenting the electro-acoustic ensemble’s particular sound with clarity to the audience. This was a welcome change, as much electronic music is presented in spaces which seem to have sound systems designed for death metal bands. Not that there is anything wrong with death metal, of course.

The first half of the show found the Ensemble giving energetic performances of recent works by Dan Becker, Mark Applebaum, and Roger Reynolds. The most accessible of these was Becker’s Through a Window, described by Becker as a “dialogue between the nostalgic, witty, and sweetly guileless” music of 1920s big bands and his own post-minimal style. His piece, too, was sweet, guileless, and nostalgic: a good fit, I reckon. Whether it was post-minimal or not, who knows? Maybe self-genre-casting is a wily pre-emptive strike on a composer’s part. At least you beat the critics to it.

The division between what composers say about their music and the music itself can be large. In the case of composer Mark Applebaum, it is sometimes huge. In Saturday night’s performance of Martian Anthropology 7*8*9, after having read his program notes, one expected the piece to sound something like a combination of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated and Japanese harsh noise. “Structural clarity and proportion can be tediously mind-numbing…hierarchy seems like a hegemonic, counter-revolutionary plot…completeness seems like a cruel and unusual ideal…focus is overrated (the job of photocopiers); and self-contradiction, as should be plain…is my most trusted gravitational center.”

Applebaum’s music is consistently fascinating and colorful and the performance revealed the deep sense of playfulness and clever orchestration in everything he writes. However, I would not turn to his music for revolutionary hegemony busting. It is striking, actually, how he is able to reign in the natural chaos of homemade instruments, constructed of junk, and make them sound as though they are part of a well-established canon of musical practice. He has an outstanding ability to make a piece based on improvisation and chance procedure sound as though it were completely notated down to the last 128th note. The disparity between his stated ideals and his music as realized may well be a part of his admitted tendency towards self-contradiction, but one wonders what an Applebaum piece that lived up to its rhetoric would sound like.

Roger Reynolds’s piece for narrator and ensemble, Submerged Memories, uses texts by W.G. Sebald. Tenor John Duykers and the Dresher Ensemble vividly played out the themes of shared disorientation in human existence. Reynolds’s impenetrable and affected theatrical approach seemed to purposely alienate the audience as a means to act out, literally, the kind of disorientation one experiences when reading Sebald.

Rounding out this highly varied program, the second half of the concert was comprised of excerpts from Dresher’s recently revised work The Tyrant, made in collaboration with librettist Jim Lewis and performed by the Ensemble, now in acoustic mode, with the role of the tyrant played by the talented John Duykers. Unable to leave his throne, the tyrant is forced to rule only by information provided from his court, the Ensemble providing the soundtrack of chattering yes-men, so to speak. Dresher’s music is deeply intertwined with the text, neither overpowering the other, both playing the role of actors who depend on their fellow performers to vivify their characters. At times surprising, but never unrestrained, Dresher’s music avoids straying too far from the familiar but is consistently fresh and, dare I say, maybe even post-minimal.

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Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, teaching summer workshops on SuperCollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).