Paul Dresher, a composer, performer, and instrument inventor, is the founder of the Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Electro-Acoustic Band, and the Double Duo.
Sound, whether natural or intentionally created as music, occupies a place in both our conscious and subconscious lives that is as vital as language but that language cannot describe. Every culture uses sound and music for all the essential rituals of life: rites of passage like birth, courtship, marriage, and death, as well as social and religious celebrations of all sorts, from the mournful to the ecstatic. Why humanity has evolved to have sound occupy a “hardwired” place in both our consciousness and subconscious lives is a beautiful mystery—one that continually inspires musicians and composers and, in my case, a composer, performer, and inventor of new musical instruments.
Wonder is a word we can give to this mystery. (Stephen Greenblatt made the word famous in his anthropologically informed literary analysis, counterpoising it with resonance: resonance being the power of art to evoke “the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged” and wonder the power “to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness.”1) With musical instrument invention, the artist wonders what might happen, and the audience experiences another kind of wonder when it encounters an instrument or a sound that is new. Wonder is one of the prime motivators of art, both for the makers of art and for the people who experience it. Wonder enables you to apprehend the world or your life in a new way.
“I wonder what would happen if . . .” This is the question I ask when approaching instrument invention, which, for me, feels like a kind of improvisation. I am intrigued by not knowing what will be the result of my experimentation. For example, what would happen if I put a thirty-foot-long string between a wall and a staircase? I begin not with a problem to solve but with a question to which I don’t know the answer. This is the heart of both improvisation and instrument invention. But the question an inventor or improviser asks is inevitably informed by a lifetime of experience with the broad subject. Invention, like improvisation, still requires and builds on a given set of experiences and structures. As a person who has played strings since the age of eight, I have a good idea of how strings behave. The questions I ask are going to be informed by this experience, which is very different from the questions one might ask if one comes fresh to a subject. But even with decades of experience, the musician who asks “informed” questions and explores familiar places can still discover entirely new realms of sonic resource. I experienced this most vividly in 1993, when the inventor-composer Ellen Fullman first demonstrated for me her Long String Instrument and the physical phenomenon of longitudinal waves. My wonder and near incredulity lasted for weeks until I could physically experiment with this mode of vibration for myself and ultimately expand my understanding of how strings behave and how sound can be made.
So the experienced instrument inventor and the person who comes in fresh can share a sense of being amateurs or beginners. In our culture, amateur is a word often loaded with associations of being subpar and not worthy of being paid for one’s work. But in the sense in which I wish to present the word, I evoke its original associations with love. Professionals—inventors or improvisers—must come to this work with love, even passion. To ask the question “What would happen if . . .?” inventors and improvisers have to have a curiosity about—or a passion for—what they don’t know. What are the musical possibilities of a tin can, a Coke bottle, a fork? An imaginative and receptive individual can make music out of almost anything that vibrates through being struck, bowed, blown, rubbed, or plucked. Thus the question “What would happen if . . .?” is essential when using the simplest of materials or the most complex of mechanical instruments, such as a pipe or theater organ or electronic musical instruments.
Beyond the purely auditory realm, the creation of sound, by improvisation or with invented instruments, often involves important visual and kinesthetic or physical elements. These move the performance directly into the theatrical realm. (The iconoclastic American composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch, in both the body of his theater compositions and in his magnum opus A Genesis of a Music, published in 1949, demonstrated this linking in the most compelling way yet.) You’re not just inventing instruments, you’re also exploring how sound is produced and performed and “displayed” because the physical performance of music, particularly on invented instruments, is compelling to audiences. How an invented instrument is played and dis-played creates a mystery that engages audiences, and through this engagement, they gain an apprehension, both aurally and visually, of new possibilities of sound and performance.
Both the inventor and the potential audience member know what a conventional instrument does. But when you create and improvise with an invented instrument, like a magician you are creating mystery from within the world of familiar objects and activities. How does the object produce this particular sound when the performer makes a certain action? Even when the means of creation are fully revealed, a truly successful invention retains its ability to evoke wonder. Of course, the aesthetics of sound inevitably come into play—is that sound interesting, seductive, repulsive, or in some way intriguing (or all of these)? And, as with all questions of aesthetics, answers can be quite divergent at any given point in a history or a cultural perspective. But we also know that cultural aesthetics are constantly evolving, often expanding to embrace much of what had previously been rejected. If one makes new sounds (or sounds in a completely new way, as improvisers have always done), one will hopefully evoke an experience of wonder for the audience and, in the process, shatter some part of their beliefs about and expectations of what constitutes music and what musical instruments can be.
Boundaries: I make instruments because I believe that there are many sounds that can be discovered that are not yet made (or perhaps cannot be made) by conventional instruments. These sounds are by definition mysterious, compelling, and kinesthetically intriguing in performance, precisely because they are yet to be experienced in a performance. Conventional instruments create an array of boundaries around what people think is musically useful or important or significant or potent. Inventing instruments is a way of breaking down boundaries of what music is and might be.
Improvisation: for me, improvisation is an essential element of instrument invention. It is perhaps no surprise that the exploration of any musical notion involves a lengthy improvisational process in order to discover potentials and limitations. This is a vital part of the design and building process itself. I share with my longtime collaborator in music instrument invention, Daniel Schmidt, regular design “jam” sessions in which the flow of ideas develops out of my initial “What would happen if . . .?” question. This proceeds in precisely the same attentive and responsive way as it does when I play with colleagues such as the electronic percussionist Joel Davel, the drummer Gene Reffkin, the astonishing percussionist Steven Schick, and the virtuoso woodwind performer Ned Rothenberg—or when I collaborate with the unclassifiable singer, performer, writer, and director Rinde Eckert. When Daniel and I work together, our ideas hopscotch over or build upon one another, leading to greater and greater possibilities and refinements that allow us to quickly formulate designs for the next physical manifestation of an evolving instrument, resolving previously discovered problems and, at the same time, expanding the range of sonic possibilities for the new instrument.
In the end, for me, wonder and improvisation are vitally linked in practice: wonder is the question, and improvisation is an exploration of the infinitude of possible answers. And in the process one hopes that the boundaries of one’s thinking and experience can be transcended.
Thanks to Philippa Kelly for assistance in refining and editing this text.
Stephen Greenblatt, "Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 42. ↩
Paul Dresher, Glimpsed From Afar, 2006, composition for two invented musical instruments, performed by Paul Dresher and Joel Davel. Recorded November 2010, ODC Theater, San Francisco. Excerpts available on YouTube.
Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert, Schick Machine, 2009, music theater work for solo performer with a stage set of invented musical instruments and mechanical sound sculptures. Recorded November 2009, Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Excerpts available on YouTube.
Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert, Slow Fire, 1985–88, music theater work created through a collaborative improvisational process in which the music is performed on an analog live tape loop system that allows the live recording and immediate playback of whatever was performed well before digital looping became possible. Excerpts available on YouTube.
Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music (1949; Boston: Da Capo Press, 1979). One of the first and few texts that seriously explore the reasons and resources of invented musical instruments.
John Cage, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, 1946–48. Various recordings are available, but my favorite is the original by Maro Ajemian released in 1950 as CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) 700. The invention of the prepared piano by Cage in the 1930s has had an enormous influence throughout contemporary music practice. Sonatas and Interludes was his final work for the invention and one of the great works of the mid-twentieth century.
Nikhil Banerjee, North Indian classical musician, sitarist; almost any recording by him, but, for example, Raga Records #214, Rag Hemant—Amsterdam, 1970.
Evan Parker and Ned Rothenberg, two astonishing woodwind improvisers who extend the techniques of their instruments, virtually inventing new instruments. Many recordings of each are available, but they have a duo CD recorded live from a 2006 performance at Roulette Intermedium in New York (Animul Records, ANI 106). Recordings of that performance are available on YouTube.
Cream, Wheels of Fire, live recording of their improvisational interpretation of the blues classic Spoonful by Willie Dixon, originally released on vinyl in 1968.
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, originally released on vinyl by Impulse Records in 1965.
Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard; originally released on vinyl in 1961; currently available on CD (2005) as The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961.