Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Hearing about the Paul Dresher Ensemble straight from the composer’s mouth sums up the story of most composer-driven groups in recent memory: “When I finished graduate school in 1979, the kind of music I was interested in doing no one was going to pay me to perform.”

Dresher’s works, which mix electric and acoustic instruments, brought with them a whole new language that few musicians could easily grasp. “Either established groups would refuse to do it, or if they did try they wouldn’t be able to do it very well,” he said. “But I’d played rock and roll and knew what can happen when the band is hot. I thought I could do the same with my music.”

By that point, Dresher could easily find West Coast antecedents. There was Terry Riley playing his own solo works, also Steve Reich and Musicians, with whom Dresher played briefly. That pairing also reflected Dresher’s own path, which started with the composer performing his solo electoacoustic music in multiple layers and having the Paul Dresher Ensemble evolve gradually as more people came along. For the first decade or so, the Ensemble played only Dresher’s music, but gradually opened up to other composers.

“It was in 1993 when I was working in a series of collaborative musical theater works that I realized I really missed seeing how other people work things out musically,” he says. At that point he decided to begin commissioning works, “the way I’d like to receive commissions,” he says. “First, a real commission, and second, a commitment to rehearse the work until I feel like it’s reached its full potential.”

By now, the Dresher Ensemble’s commissions and premieres include works by Eve Beglarian, Jay Cloidt, Cindy Cox, Alvin Curran, John Luther Adams, Bun Ching Lam, David Lang, Carl Stone, Ayuo Takehashi, and Koji Ueno. In 1995, Dresher premiered and toured John Adams’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and in 1998 premiered and toured Ravenshead, an opera by Steve Mackey and writer/performer Rinde Eckert. Upcoming commissions include works by Martin Bresnick, Lois V Vierk, Terry Riley, John Luther Adams, Randall Woolf and Richard Einhorn.

“A lot of times if you’re a composer you turn to other people’s music,” says Dresher. “That’s why John Adams goes out and conducts all these concerts. But I don’t conduct, so I needed to find another way to do the same thing.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox