What would it sound like if every Maker Faire turned into a jam session, with music designed for bands of newly minted instruments? If you live in the Bay Area, you’re in the right place to discover the answer. California-based players and composers have been in the instrument-building and altering vanguard since Harry Partch started exploring just intonation in the 1920s, and two upcoming events feature some of the most inventive performers on the contemporary scene.
On April 21, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive presents “Full: Invent” with Joel Davel on Marimba Lumina and Paul Dresher on the 14-foot single-string Quadrachord. (The triple bill also features Edward Schocker on his updated version of the glass harmonica and multi-instrumentalist Laura Inserra, who specializes on the hang, a Swiss-built metal percussion instrument that resembles Hollywood’s notion of a UFO, circa 1955.)
Together in the aptly named Invented Instrument Duo, Dresher and Davel's collaboration represents two distinct (and overlapping) approaches to creating new instruments. Dresher started as a guitarist and became intrigued by the physics of long strings. Working with Daniel Schmidt, he built the Quadrachord, which has become a primary compositional vehicle.
“Composers are always looking for new sounds and new ways to create sound,” Dresher says. “But even if you find something new, you have to make music from it that operates on time-honored criteria. A cool sound won’t hold up for a concert. You need to create a more elaborate musical statement that hopefully makes sense with a formal development and shape.”
The BAM/PFA program also features Dresher's most extensive performance yet on the Hurdy Grande, a recent creation with Schmidt that employs a hand-cranked mechanical wheel driving a bow, like a hurdy gurdy with nine-foot strings. “I knew from the Quadrachord, when strings get long, a different physics of sound [becomes] possible,” Dresher says. “I had to discover new playing techniques. It sounds like a bowed string instrument, but it does many things that bowed string instruments can’t do.”
If Dresher is a garage workshopper, Davel comes from the realm of digital technology. A conservatory-trained percussionist, he’s spent the past two decades working closely with electronic instrument pioneer Don Buchla, who earned a degree in physics from UC Berkeley in 1960 and went on to collaborate with avant-garde composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender. While his East Coast contemporary Robert Moog tends to get credit for inventing the synthesizer, Buchla simultaneously came up with his own ingenious electronic interface with touch-sensitive plates, which are key components in the programmable Marimba Lumina.
“Don designed the electronics and I designed the circuit board,” Davel says. “I still build them myself. It’s a great position to be in. A lot of people who know how to do this kind of work don’t have the resources or time to translate that into compositions; a lot are stuck in universities too. Paul and I can tour for a month, so we get out there and refine the techniques we use.”
While not explicitly devoted to new instruments, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' “New Frequencies Fest: Sound (In) Art” features several artists whose music is inextricably linked to creating new musical tools. Running from April 28–30, the festival kicks off Thursday with Pamela Z’s “Memory Trace,” a powerful multimedia work by the San Francisco vocalist/electronics wizard. Friday's program includes Berkeley cellist Theresa Wong playing her wrenching suite “The Unlearning” (inspired by the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibition of Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings), followed by Edward Schocker and the Crossing Ensemble’s “The Crossing,” an immersive composition that explores dynamic contrasts using contemporary practices and ancient Korean music.
The festival closes April 30 with a self-curated retrospective by dauntingly prolific Italian-born composer Luciano Chessa. The conductor and pianist is known for his work on musical saw, the single-string Vietnamese dan bau, and his reconstruction of the groundbreaking hand-cranked mechanical instruments created by early 20th-century Futurist composer Luigi Russolo. Chessa’s program includes his latest composition “Blind Date” for the guitar ensemble Mobius Trio, and features works spanning three decades in collaboration with 64 artists, including pianist Sarah Cahill, D. Mark Wilson’s Saint Columba Gospel Choir with soprano Laurel Duncan-Anderson, percussionist Andrew Meyerson, Maya Barsacq’s Cadenza Orchestra, and the chamber groups the Living Earth Show and Friction String Quartet.
Chessa was drawn to the Bay Area by its rich experimental lineage, and in fact teaches a class on the history of invented instruments in contemporary music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, “where we look at pioneers like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and Don Buchla, and the final project is that students create their own instruments,” he says.
“It’s definitely something I feel a part of," Chessa says of the Bay Area's history with creating new instruments. "I met Lou Harrison right after I moved to California in 1997, and of course he was a pioneer who studied Partch’s just intonation. In some ways I banked on California when I was offered the chance to reconstruct Russolo’s instruments. I could have done that in Italy, but I ended up doing it here, where I can just pick up the phone and call Bart Hopkin,” referring to the renowned instrument builder in Point Reyes who published and edited the periodical Experimental Musical Instruments.