Paul Dresher — Improvisation

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Paul Dresher

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.


  1. 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. 


For Further Reference

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.

See Also

Documentation — Ain Gordon

Poststudio — Kristy Edmunds

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ellen Fullman playing her Long String Instrument, which she invented in the early 1980s. Photo: Robert Szkolnicki, 2014. Courtesy of The Lab, San Francisco.

John Cage preparing a piano by inserting objects between its strings, ca. 1960. Photo: Ross Welser. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.