PDE Reviews Becker, Applebaum, Reynolds


Great Beyond Expectations
By Mark Alburger

Some new-music ensembles, such as the Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band and the Kronos Quartet, have developed such a distinctive sound over the years that composers can be in danger of losing their individual voices when writing for the groups. But just as an April Fools’ Day joke subverts expectations, so the Dresher Ensemble did likewise in their (mostly) engaging Project Artaud Theater gig in San Francisco, outdoing their own record of instrumental and vocal delights. Composers Dan Becker, Mark Applebaum, Roger Reynolds, and Dresher himself offered a program that was long on diversity, maintaining the integrity of their respective muses in a series of world premieres, plus one new revision.

 While Becker, who characterizes himself as a postminimalist, was one of the younger creators on the program, his contribution was actually closest to the groove with which the Electro-Acoustic Band has often been associated over the years. Through a Window was riff-based music in which a prominent, brusque descending minor-third lick alternated, rondo-like, with a series of haunting pulses and ostinati, plus interpolations of antique, scratchy-record jazz. Sometimes the intent was raw, à la Edgar Varèse’Déserts, with the live and recorded components in sharp juxtaposition; at other moments, shreds of the preexisting recordings became concurrent.

This work allowed for the clearest showcase of the band’s aesthetic and musicianship. The six members — bass clarinetist Peter Josheff, guitarist Dresher, keyboardist Marja Mutru, electronic mallet percussionist Joel Davel, drummer Gene Reffkin, and violinist Karen Bentley Pollick — took the dark stage in colorful, casual outfits and a relaxed intensity. Tight, animated unisons and dizzying passagework were the norm. Haunting harmonies against the ever-present beat were aided and abetted by the lush sound engineering of Greg Kuhn and earbuds for the performers, providing further rhythmic refinement. Becker and the band’s ability to coordinate disparate sound worlds deserves congratulation.

A post-Apocalyptic vision and subdued memories

If Becker’s vehicle was all shiny-slick, Applebaum’s was a junker after the Apocalypse. Martian Anthologies 7*8*9 is one of a series of compositions postulating a postnuclear Earth, where Red Planet denizens musically archeologize what little remains of our formerly green world. In the opening movement, four ensemble members

(Dresher, Mutru, Davel, Reffkin) are decidedly and jokingly underused as a quartet of Cracklebox performers, with handheld gadgets spewing crazy electronic nonsense. Against this, the remaining two players, Josheff and Bentley Pollick, hold forth in chaotic counterpoint. While the Dresher band has given us fairly free-form improvisatory musics before (The “Earthquake” section of John Adams’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky comes to mind), Applebaum’s work was about as far from past experience with this group as could be imagined.

The second movement was a solo or duet, depending on the point of view, and hearing. Davel altered Dresher’s sustained chords from an electronic mallet percussion station that had been transformed into a radio-baton setup as, the notes say, “the controller operator transform[s] the guitar’s timbre by changing values on a signal processor improvisationally in real time.” Got it? The third movement was much earthier. Reffkin sat downstage center on the skeleton of a drum set, with cymbals and skins replaced by a pizza box, egg cartons, bits of aluminum foil, cans, and sturdy plastic bags. Amazingly absurd, and a big crowd-pleaser, it had all the ridiculous intensity of a committed rock and roller, with none of the proper sonic results.  

Reynolds’s Submerged Memories was considerably more subdued until a final, wonderful cacophony. Tenor John Duykers took the stage as a dramatic librarian-poet-professor, surrounded by books and a reading lamp, to dramatically deliver W.G. Sebald’s evocative and imaginative texts, occasionally in Sprechstimme stridency. It was a long text — the libretto printed on seven 8.5 by 11 inch pages, roughly 250 lines — and somewhere in the pointillistic middle, it was not merely the poet who could say “my own consciousness was veiled.” But the fifth movement’s “buffet at Santa Lucia station was surrounded by an infernal upheaval” made it all worthwhile. As obscure as the process was at times, the outcomes were surprisingly direct. Following the Applebaum, Reynolds signaled that the PDEEAB sound world has become broad indeed.

Dresher challenges his own sound.

Dresher’s own work brought to mind Arnold Schoenberg on several counts. As the old atonal/12-tone master once remarked, mid-career, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major,” so Dresher reminded us that there is still a world of possibilities in older forms such as opera and within established ensembles such as Schoenberg’s own Pierrot ensemble of flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello. So, ironically, if the “Paul Dresher sound” has often of late been associated with his Electro-Acoustic Band, in his present work The Tyrant, Paul Dresher sounded the least like “the sound.” Even the performers’ dress bought in more traditional conventions, as he wore basic black.

This excellent ensemble (flutist Tod Brody, Josheff, Mutru, Bentley Pollick, and cellist Alex Kelly) was supplemented, as is often the case in such more-or-less standard new-music ensembles, with percussion (Davel again). But, as a nod to “electro-acoustic,” it was mostly amplified, with the use of electric keyboard. Dresher’s engaging music, as poignantly rendered by Duykers, was challenged by a traditional allegory of the dictator-as-neurotic, put to a text by Jim Lewis (inspired by the writings of Italo Calvino). Melissa Weaver’s staging was basic and to the point. The music is not as riff-based as one may expect, yet, the “Heavenly Clockwork” section is one of the most thrilling. The lyrical “Lullaby,” which concluded this performance (coming at the end of what will be Act I when it is premiered by the Cleveland Opera and Cleveland Playhouse later this year), brought this stimulating program to an end, not with a bang but a lovely, intentional slumber.

 Copyright 2006 Mark Alburger

By Paul Hertelendy www.artssf.com,
Week of April 2-9, 2006; Vol. 8, No. 82

The veteran John Duykers is that rarest of all opera performers: One who acts even better than he sings.

Duykers’ role in the new monodrama-opera, and that of his stage director Melissa Weaver, should be studied by every aspiring singer, particularly when so many others act like lumps of coal lumbering about the opera stage.

There’s Duykers’ smug inward smile. The quick uneasy glance to the side without turning the head. The benign upward turn of palm suggesting benevolence.

But it’s all a sham—there’s nothing remotely benevolent about “The Tyrant,” which opened here in a semi-staged excerpted preview, as created by S.F. composer Paul Dresher and librettist Jim Lewis.

Grandiose on the outside, petty within. Keeping up a facade, but terrified of a revolt. Lord of all, yet in effect imprisoned within his palace and paranoia. All too aware of his vulnerable reality, yet given to hearing a phantom woman’s voice.

This uneasy figure from a novel by the late Italo Calvino fascinates as we see through the regal wave and the kowtowing. When the tyrant finally exerts his authority, it’s to tone down the percussionist a few feet away.

This 36-minute segment, the first of two acts, is musically seductive. The fusion musician Dresher puts aside his intrusive electric guitar and opts for a mellifluous musical flow via a sextet of players around The Tyrant. Even without the lighting, the spiffy military costume and other stage elements, this performance brought forth a magnetic drama of regal insecurity performed on unctious and consonant melodic lines. It brought to mind not only a host of dead kings, but also living dictators holding their peoples in bondage—from Nero to King Claudius to Husseins real or imagined. “The Tyrant” is a marvelous political statement without being overtly partisan-political.

Duykers, a West Coast singer best known for the Mao Tse-Tung role in Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” two decades ago, has since moved from tenor to a warm baritone, though the composer seemed unaware of the shift, if Duykers’ high-note efforts and falsettos were any indication. Since the work appears to be in metamorphosis as it moves toward its Cleveland Opera staging May 2-7, adjustments are likely to be made. In between, at the April 21-23 Milwaukee concert performances, the second act of this opus should be on view as well.

The Paul Dresher Ensemble, a long-standing S.F. institution, features an electro-acoustic band. This is a sextet blend of symphonic and rock-electronic instruments, with Dresher, who is a tall, youthful 54, at the lead via his guitar, and the fast-flying Gene Reffkin, now starting his 22nd year with the group, handling the big percussion assignments downstage. The performances were held the weekend of April 1 at a bare-bones warehouse building noted for avant-garde ventures called Theatre Artaud, a site which until recently had railroad tracks going down the street—admittedly inelegant, but an important and enticing workshop for contemporary creativity year after year.

The PDE also performed instrumental works of Dan Becker (“Through a Window,” with continua of sound), Mark Applebaum (“Martian Anthology 7*8*9,” with wild-eyed novelties) and Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Reynolds (“Submerged Memories,” readings by Duykers with insidious glissandi).

Copyright Paul Hertelendy, 2006

April 3, 2006

Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Scary at the top for Dresher’s ‘Tyrant’

Whatever you might think, it isn’t easy being a bloodthirsty autocrat.

The protagonist of “The Tyrant,” the new monodrama by composer Paul Dresher and librettist Jim Lewis, may have an entire realm at his beck and call, but he’s painfully aware that his grasp of power is only as strong as his control of the physical throne he occupies. So he’s reduced to spending his entire life there — even a visit to the john, in this paranoid political fable, might invite a coup.

As embodied with wonderfully reptilian anguish by tenor John Duykers in an excerpted performance Friday night at Theatre Artaud, the nameless tyrant is a mixture of self-assurance and terror. At one moment he is expansive about the erotic perks that come with the job; at the next, he flinches at some ominous noise that may presage his downfall.

Friday’s performance offered only a tantalizing taste of the full work — disconnected excerpts from the first of two acts that are scheduled for a complete premiere in Cleveland next month — but that was enough to leave a listener eager for the rest.

As a composer, Dresher has always responded most readily to the stage, and his writing here is both fertile and intricate. The solo part shifts fluidly between spoken text and shapely arias, and the music, scored for six acoustic instruments, fades in and out of the worlds of tonality and rhythmic regularity.

The result is a musical landscape in which distinct set pieces sneak up and catch the listener unawares (not unlike the way more unpleasant surprises lie in wait for the tyrant himself). The first act ends with a lullaby of lovely, almost saccharine allure.

The dramatic setup may not be particularly new — it’s “Macbeth” filtered through Kafka and Calvino — but Lewis’ libretto mines this familiar territory with plenty of wit and grace.

The obvious precedent is “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1969 music-theater tour de force about a raving George III surrounded by instrumentalists. In one theatrically savvy moment, Duykers brings his tyrannical authority to bear on a percussionist who’s gotten a little too unfettered in his playing.

Duykers, in fact, was the main attraction of the performance, his singing potent and well modulated and his dramatic contribution terrifically nuanced.

The program’s first half was devoted to three world premieres commissioned by Dresher’s Electro-Acoustic Band. The most intriguing of these was “Through a Window,” Dan Becker’s affecting mash-up of hard-driving post-minimalism and ’20s jazz.

The latter makes an appearance through some scratchy vintage recordings, and although you don’t have to know that the trumpeter on them is the composer’s grandfather to find the juxtaposition touching, it doesn’t hurt. In either case, the cross-generational theme comes through clearly.

Over the course of 12 minutes, the piece flashes back and forth between Becker’s spare, punchy electric textures, marked by a persistent two-note figure redolent of funk, and the zippier jazz motifs. Slowly, the two strains come closer together, but in the end, instead of actually merging, they both give way to a lovely chorale that seems to encapsulate some third approach.

In “Martian Anthropology 7*8*9,” composer Mark Applebaum celebrates discontinuity and non sequiturs, from the scratches and squeals of some kind of electronic juice-boxes to a drum set constructed of milk cartons, tin foil and empty plastic containers. Roger Reynolds’ “Submerged Memories” had Duykers reading texts by the late German novelist W.G. Sebald to the accompaniment of various fragmentary instrumental comments

Email jkosman@sfchronicle.com
Copyright (c) 2006 San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.