Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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A playground of sound

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Zeitgeist members Patrick O'Keefe and Heather Barringer play on the 17-and-a-half-foot-tall A-frame. (Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist)
Contemporary music is often a rather foreboding prospect for many listeners. But some local musicians say that if you combine it with the theatrical spectacle of a musical jungle gym the new sounds become immediately appealing. For the past five years the local new music ensemble Zeitgeist has toured around the country with performances of California composer Paul Dresher's "Sound Stage." Now "Sound Stage" returns to the place where it premiered in 2001, the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Towering over the Southern Theater's center stage is a 17- and-a-half-foot-tall, rolling A-frame with two large pendulums on each side. It looks like a giant metronome and serves as a musical playground. Musicians climb up, around and through it, banging on drums, plucking and bowing strings. For composer Paul Dresher it's a physical manifestation of the creation of sound.

"We take sound for granted sound when we see great musicians play," Dresher says. "With "Sound Stage" you actually get to go back to these basics of how sound is made. What happens when you strike this. What happens when you bow this. What happens when you put these two materials together. I think that's something that's still endlessly fascinating whether they're musicians or not."

Paul Dresher was invited by Zeitgeist in 1995 to compose an evening-length chamber work that was in some way theatrical. Working with designer Daniel Schmidt, he came up with an ambitious work combining traditional, acoustic instruments with invented instruments, including the giant A-frame.

On one side of the towering structure there is a set of percussion instruments. The 100 pound pendulum sports nylon teeth acting like guitar picks. As it swings it touches off various bells and drums.

The other side is strung like a giant harp. As the pendulum swings back and forth it plucks the strings, creating a deep and resonant sound.

There's also a second floor to the instrument about 10 feet up. It's like an attic with more percussion and something Paul Dresher calls a quadrachord. This is a stringed instrument that can be plucked or bowed. Off to the left of the stage is another quadrachord. This one looks as if a guitar was stretched like Silly Putty. Its strings are 14 feet long and they're mounted on a long, wooden sawhorse.

"It can be a great bass and it can also be a great melody instrument," Dresher explains. "It can make many different kinds of sounds.I'm continually fascinated by it."

Paul Dresher's music has been described as post-minimalism. It's an eclectic mix of elements from western classical music, jazz, rock, Indonesian gamelan and African percussion. All of this can be heard in the music he's written for Zeitgeist in "Sound Stage."

Dresher's invented instruments along with violin, piano, bass clarinet and marimba create music that's both intense and lyrical. The music isn't based on the standard western tuning and intonation, but Zeitgeist woodwind player Patrick O'Keefe says it's still very accessible to listeners.

"It sounds like normal music, but it's just a little bit different," he says. "It has a shimmering quality it's not going to sound out of tune or wrong. One piece in particular I love is called "Unequal Distemperament." It's a big very slow piece that happens toward the end of the show. For me it's like playing Brahms. It's melodic and rich and no different from other late 19th century music. Except with weird intonation."

Composer and critic Kyle Gann wrote about Paul Dresher in his book "American Music in the 20th Century." He says Dresher has found an audience for his new and challenging music without having to compromise.

"The point of music like Paul's to me is that there really isn't anything over the audience's head," Gann says. "There may be structures underlying the music that aren't immediately clear on the surface, but it's a music that comes across very melodic, lyrical and very pattern oriented. You can pick up a lot from it the first time you hear it and you'll keep finding new levels when you go back to it."

Gann says there's a playful imagination in Paul Dresher's music that people respond to. That's certainly the case with "Sound Stage." Dresher says the visual element of the work lets audiences accept music they might not find as engaging if they heard it in the concert hall.

"Audiences listen to very complex and sophisticated and abrasive music in film all the time," he says. "They have no difficulty with hearing music that if they heard it in a concert hall they would think that's really weird, difficult music. And while we may not have a narrative story that's the same as you'd typically have in film, you still have a level of visual engagement that allows you to create a context for things that would be new and unusual in and of themselves."

Another thing that's unusual about "Sound Stage" is that after each performance audience members can try out the instruments. That's something that started with the very first production when Paul Dresher says audience members spontaneously walked on stage.

"You could just see their palpable fascination," he remembers. "They wanted to pull on the strings and make a sound. They wanted to see how the quadrachord worked. They wanted to actually push the pendulum. What it showed us is that we're dealing with very compelling material."

After five years and more than 40 performances, Zeitgeist percussionist Heather Barringer says "Sound Stage" has reached the end of its touring life. She doesn't know if the group will perform the work again after this weekend, but she says they might if someone asks them.

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