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The Paul Dresher Ensemble brings a varied program to ODC Theater

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Last night in the ODC Theater, the Paul Dresher Ensemble (PDE) presented the first of two performances of a program entitled Memory Gain. (The second will take place tonight, again at 8 p.m.) This featured world premieres of three commissioned pieces played by the Electro-Acoustic Band (EAB), several special guest artists, and an “opening act.” The guests included bassoonist Paul Hanson, a former PDE member, performing a piece Dresher wrote for him in 1994 and introducing the evening in a duo performance with guitarist Ariane Cap as a group calling itself OoN (described, at one point, as “bassoon” without the “bass”).

True to that description, Hanson’s bassoon work involves far more than developing a bass line in his instrument’s lower register. In some respects one could say that both his tunes and his improvisations have been inspired by many of the leading jazz saxophonists, but with more attention to the alto and tenor players rather than the baritone masters. Between the dexterity of his finger-work and his impressive breath control, Hanson also commands a prodigious capacity for rapid-fire arpeggio work. Beyond his jazz sources there is more than a slight suggestion of influence from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1013 A minor partita for solo flute. This made the two selections of Hanson’s own composition, “Serpentique” and “Emerald Mile,” stunning displays of the virtuoso potential of the bassoon.

Capp’s arpeggio technique was equally impressive. Her instrument was listed as “electric bass;” but, while it was tuned for the low register, it had six, rather than four, strings. This allowed Capp greater flexibility in chord construction, and she unfolded her harmonic progressions through particularly elaborate finger work involving both hands on the neck of her instrument. This at least gave the impression that she was using both hands to both stop and pluck the strings in equal measure. She shared with Hanson the unfolding of harmonies through rapidly performed arpeggios, rather than through more conventional chord work or through the slower-paced “walking” technique usually given to the bass in jazz. Capp was responsible for the opening selection, “Epic Epic,” which she composed with her husband Wolf Wein. However, this was very much a duet of equal voices, both of which involved electronic enhancement through equipment such as sampling technology.

In this context it was particularly informative then to listen to Hanson return to his “roots,” so to speak, performing Dresher’s “Din of Iniquity” with EAB members. This allowed Hanson to explore a more lyrical side of his expressiveness, ironically in a sonorous environment that was heavily electronic, not only through Dresher’s guitars but also in Gene Reffkin’s all-electronic drum kit and Joel Davel performing Don Buchla’s Marimba Lumina, a flat surface of sensors that can be played with marimba mallets but that depends on computer software to interpret those strokes in terms of any imaginable number of sonorities.

The major world premiere on the program was Sebastian Currier’s “Artificial Memory,” inspired by Giordano Bruno’s study of mnemonic techniques in the late sixteenth century. Bruno’s techniques were based on defining associations. Items to be remembered could be placed in very specific physical locations in some vast imagined space (sometimes called a “memory palace”); and, in his final treatise, he explored memory associations based on imagined statues.

Currier seemed less interested in the substance of Bruno’s work, however, and more in that underlying concept of association. His score appeared to explore the semantic potential of “mutual association,” through which a word would trigger a musical motif, which, in turn, would trigger another word. Currier explored that technique through a series of separate lexicons, each of which was loosely based on one of Bruno’s topical categories. While one could appreciate the novelty of this technique on paper, in practice the expressiveness of Currier’s music was rather limited, even when enhanced by Michele Beck’s projected video, which included displays of the lexicons and a few of those imaginary spaces (but not statues). Nevertheless, Currier’s approach to instrumentation provided for some fascinating opportunities for EAB members to explore his free associations.

The other two premieres were songs from a major joint project between PDE and Amy X Neuburg. When completed, this will be a cycle of ten songs, each by a different composer and all inspired by the photographs of Diane Arbus. The full cycle is entitled They Will Have Been so Beautiful, a phrase Arbus used to describe the subjects of her photographs. The work will be performed in its entirety for the first time this fall in an event arranged by Cal Performances.

The first of the two “preview” songs was “At the Window” by Conrad Cummings. This was a relatively brief introspective piece. (Song duration was constrained to last between five and eight minutes.) It provided an excellent platform for Neuburg to explore how intimately she could blend her voice with the EAB instruments.

The second song was Lisa Bielawa’s “Ego Sum.” The text consisted of 28 sentences overheard in transient public spaces, all (like the song’s title) beginning with the first-person singular pronoun. This was one of the pieces that pushed the eight-minute upper boundary (and felt as if it had exceeded it). It also provided Neuburg with a more diverse platform for her acting chops, since each sentence reflected a different personality type. Ultimately, however, it was a piece of music trying to make a point about the mindless tyranny of first-person thinking; and that point had been firmly established well before the score hit its half-way mark.

The evening concluded with “Fusebox,” composed by James Mobberley for EAB in 2004 and revised in 2013. If, as I have often remarked, jazz is chamber music by other means, then “Fusebox” celebrated the capacity of EAB to perform rock by other means. The score seemed to revel in the potential of rock for truly uninhibited jamming but all in a context that combined the acoustic virtues of violin (Karen Bentley Pollick) and clarinet (Jeff Anderle) with the sonorous diversity of the electronic guitars, percussion, and piano (Marja Mutru). This piece also tended to push the limits of its own duration a bit too much; but there was no doubting the infectiousness of its celebratory rhetoric, ending the evening’s concert with maximal exhilaration.

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