photo by Mark Paalmer
Paul Dresher plays his Hurdy Grande.
On Friday, at the grand opening of UNC's new venue, Current ArtSpace & Studio,
we grabbed an impromptu interview with Bay Area composer and instrument inventor Paul Dresher
, whose Sound Maze inaugurates the space through Tuesday.
Read the chat and watch the video below; then go play with it yourself. It's a lot of fun to do something you've never done before in a space where you've never been.
INDY: What was your path to creating instruments like this?
I started making instruments in high school. I wanted a twelve-string guitar really badly. For Christmas, my parents got me a kit for a box guitar and it was so uncool. I couldn’t imagine it was going to satisfy my desire for a twelve-string guitar. So I said, well, I’ll just take these materials and build a psychedelically shaped guitar—this was 1967, after all. I worked for three weeks with not much knowledge, but I ended up with a pretty amazing instrument. Taking raw materials, having an idea for what I wanted, building it, discovering what the thing really did—because it rarely does exactly what you intend, at least when you’re a beginner—and then creating the music for it, I found that enormously satisfying.
So I dropped out of my advanced math class and started taking wood shop to build more instruments. I’ve kept that as a stream in my compositional practice since then. About twenty years ago, I started to work the way I’m working here, which is large-scale things that are almost sculptural in nature. Some of these I call musical instruments, but most of them I call sound sculptures. It’s a mechanical process the performer or audience member triggers by putting their energy into the system. It’s intriguing, the kinesthetic interaction with the audience or performer, turning that into a visual sonic event.
And a kind of aleatory performance forms in the room as everyone plays with them. Do you compose for these instruments as well, or are they mainly for audiences to play with?
Most of these were invented for music theater projects. We realized that audiences just adored to come on stage after the show and play the instruments and discover how things work. I thought maybe we should just dispense with the performance and make this available to the audience. So that’s how Sound Maze
evolved, out of post-performance interactions with audiences at shows.
I noticed you were playing one of the instruments yourself while we were in there.
That one’s called the Hurdy Grande, which I would call a real musical instrument. It takes practice to get good at it, while most of these, you can quickly learn how to interact with. The Hurdy Grande, you have to develop calluses on your fingers. That’s my favorite instrument. I could spend hours on that. I do compose for it and use it in concerts.
Do you often play it in Sound Maze to guide people or create sonic context?
Yeah, it’s the least easily accessed by a beginner. It doesn’t tell you exactly how you should make sound. But it’s easy to demonstrate how to get a basic sound out of it. That’s why I sort of park myself there. Also, I’m often in here for hours. I have to practice and entertain myself. I sometimes come up with ideas for compositions while doing it.
Obviously it has something to do with the hurdy-gurdy.
Yes, the hurdy-gurdy’s salient feature is that it has a hand crank that spins a wheel that bows the strings. I replaced the hand crank with a motor and a foot control where I can control the speed of the wheel. There’s no frets—a traditional hurdy-gurdy has frets and keys that press the strings against them, but we dispensed with all that. My strings are four times as long and don’t sit on the wheel. They float just above it and you press the string down to the wheel. It looks like fretting, but you’re not. You’re playing the harmonics of the string. As a result, you’re not really playing the same scale as on the piano, because the equal temperament scale is not in line with the harmonic series, which has some very quote-unquote “out of tune” notes, depending on how you think about tune.
Do you use a lot of salvage to build these? They’re all mechanical, nothing digital.
The only [digital] one is this instrument here, the sampler table. That’s all on a laptop and playing samples, to introduce people to the idea that the sound of a creaking rocking chair, of scissors, of hammering, can all be turned into music. That’s purely electronic, although all the sounds are samples from the acoustical world, like a fluorescent light buzzing. I found one that was really noisy and had a really interesting harmonic spectrum, so we sampled that, and you can play with it as one of your sounds. This is not unusual; people have been doing this since samplers became accessible in the eighties. It’s something I’ve always really enjoyed doing. People are always surprised how you can turn a noise we don’t think of as musical at all into musical material.
Your reliance on mechanical instruments—is that an aesthetic for you, a philosophy, an exigency?
It’s almost all of those things. I spent many years working in the digital audio realm. After twenty years of that, I said, you know, I think I have a different idea of what acoustic instruments could do. Now, working with salvaged materials is just an economic reality. We dumpster dive all the time and have a big warehouse filled with scrap wood, scrap metals, and objects that seem like they might be useful. Then we say, what can we do to test this idea without having to order a mess of parts? In industrial neighborhoods, people throw out an astonishing amount of usable material. We often prototype completely with junk, and then, if it’s an idea that needs to go further, with this bushing or that motor, we go shopping.