Berkeley-based composer Paul Dresher's performance group the Paul Dresher Ensemble celebrated its 25th anniversary in March with the San Francisco premiere of Schick Machine at Z Space, a solo piece featuring percussionist Steven Schick amid large-scale instruments invented by Dresher. That's the latest of many theatre pieces Dresher has created with writer/performer Rinde Eckert and other collaborators, including the American Trilogy (Slow Fire, Power Failure and Pioneer), Ravenshead and Sound Stage.Originally from Los Angeles, the 60-year-old Dresher also performs in the Electro-Acoustic Band, his chamber music group that plays commissioned work from other composers and Dresher's own compositions. He's collaborating with Margaret Jenkins on a new dance theatre piece that will premiere in November, and the Berkeley Symphony has commissioned a concerto for two of his invented instruments and the orchestra scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2012.
How did you get started in music?
I came from a family of very active, avid consumers of the performing arts. We went to hear symphony, opera; I saw a lot of plays as a kid. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven years old, and when I was about 12 or 13 I was allowed to stop. I took up the guitar very quickly after that, and the guitar instantly became a means of very deep personal expression. I was playing rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll and folk music. At that point I just fell in love with music and have pretty much devoted my life to music since then. As a teenager I was always interested in the fringe of rock 'n' roll: Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, or bands like Cream that went on extended, elaborate improvisations. When I got to the Bay Area in 1968, I was playing for spare change on the street and spending any money I made buying used records, educating myself about all styles of music. I very quickly discovered that what interested me the most was what we would now call contemporary classical music. I found records by John Cage, Terry Riley, Stockhausen, Pauline Oliveros, and those people were pushing the boundaries in ways that felt very much like what I wanted to do.
What brought you into theatre?
That really came out of my collaborations with John Duykers and George Coates and Rinde Eckert. We did The Way of Howin 1980 and I developed the score, and I learned about collaborating in a theatrical context. But I had done a chunk of music theatre work starting in 1970. The band I was in then, an offshoot of the Grateful Dead, did a mime and music show called Tarot.
How did the Ensemble form?
After doing three big projects with George Coates, I felt like the trajectory of George's work had been from some kind of character-based theatre into purely visual theatre. Rinde and I both were chafing at that; we both felt like there was so much we wanted to do with character, with language, with narrative. I had completely gotten the bug for music theatre. I just loved the process, the collaboration. Slow Fire in 1985 was our first full-on theatre piece. That was working with Richard E. T. White, who was very important in creating and shaping it. Rinde and I had an enormous number of ideas, but at that point we didn't actually have a sense of how to create a theatrical whole.
Creating instruments goes way back for you.
I started building my first invented instruments when I was in high school. I had wanted a 12-string guitar, and my parents bought me a kit for making a box guitar. It was a hideous-looking thing, and I said, "I don't want that. I'm going to make my own instrument." I came up with a 12-string guitar, but it had a very psychedelic shape. It played reasonably well as a guitar, and I took it to school and people just went wild for it. So I dropped out of my advanced placement math courses and spent a year just building more unusual instruments in the high school woodshop. In the late '70s I transitioned into building electronic instruments, like the tape loop system that I used for Slow Fire and the pieces we did with George Coates. This was way, way before digital looping was possible. In the late '90s I started to relook at the possibilities of invented musical instruments, but much more from a theatrical standpoint.
You've been based in the Bay Area how long?
I've considered the Bay Area my home since 1968. At different times I've spent a year in New York, three years in Seattle, two years in San Diego and one year in Asia, but I've always had a home in the Bay Area. Really since coming back from Asia in 1980, I've always considered San Francisco to be my artistic home. I strongly suspect that's always going to be true.