The Paul Dresher Ensemble brings a varied program to ODC Theater

Stephen SmoliarSF Classical Music Examiner
  • April 19, 2014

Last night in the ODC Theater, the
Paul Dresher Ensemble (PDE) presented the first of two performances of a program entitled Memory Gain. (The second will take place tonight, again at 8 p.m.) This featured world premieres of three commissioned pieces played by the Electro-Acoustic Band (EAB), several special guest artists, and an “opening act.” The guests included bassoonist Paul Hanson, a former PDE member, performing a piece Dresher wrote for him in 1994 and introducing the evening in a duo performance with guitarist Ariane Cap as a group calling itself OoN (described, at one point, as “bassoon” without the “bass”).

True to that description, Hanson’s bassoon work involves far more than developing a bass line in his instrument’s lower register. In some respects one could say that both his tunes and his improvisations have been inspired by many of the leading
jazz saxophonists, but with more attention to the alto and tenor players rather than the baritone masters. Between the dexterity of his finger-work and his impressive breath control, Hanson also commands a prodigious capacity for rapid-fire arpeggio work. Beyond his jazz sources there is more than a slight suggestion of influence from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1013 A minor partita for solo flute. This made the two selections of Hanson’s own composition, “Serpentique” and “Emerald Mile,” stunning displays of the virtuoso potential of the bassoon.

Cap’s arpeggio technique was equally impressive. Her instrument was listed as “electric bass;” but, while it was tuned for the low register, it had six, rather than four, strings. This allowed Capp greater flexibility in chord construction, and she unfolded her harmonic progressions through particularly elaborate finger work involving both hands on the neck of her instrument. This at least gave the impression that she was using both hands to both stop and pluck the strings in equal measure. She shared with Hanson the unfolding of harmonies through rapidly performed arpeggios, rather than through more conventional chord work or through the slower-paced “walking” technique usually given to the bass in jazz. Cap was responsible for the opening selection, “Epic Epic,” which she composed with her husband Wolf Wein. However, this was very much a duet of equal voices, both of which involved electronic enhancement through equipment such as sampling technology.

In this context it was particularly informative then to listen to Hanson return to his “roots,” so to speak, performing Dresher’s “Din of Iniquity” with EAB members. This allowed Hanson to explore a more lyrical side of his expressiveness, ironically in a sonorous environment that was heavily electronic, not only through Dresher’s guitars but also in Gene Reffkin’s all-electronic drum kit and Joel Davel performing Don Buchla’s Marimba Lumina, a flat surface of sensors that can be played with marimba mallets but that depends on computer software to interpret those strokes in terms of any imaginable number of sonorities.

The major world premiere on the program was Sebastian Currier’s “Artificial Memory,” inspired by Giordano Bruno’s study of mnemonic techniques in the late sixteenth century. Bruno’s techniques were based on defining associations. Items to be remembered could be placed in very specific physical locations in some vast imagined space (sometimes called a “memory palace”); and, in his final treatise, he explored memory associations based on imagined statues.

Currier seemed less interested in the substance of Bruno’s work, however, and more in that underlying concept of association. His score appeared to explore the semantic potential of “mutual association,” through which a word would trigger a musical motif, which, in turn, would trigger another word. Currier explored that technique through a series of separate lexicons, each of which was loosely based on one of Bruno’s topical categories. While one could appreciate the novelty of this technique on paper, in practice the expressiveness of Currier’s music was rather limited, even when enhanced by Michele Beck’s projected video, which included displays of the lexicons and a few of those imaginary spaces (but not statues). Nevertheless, Currier’s approach to instrumentation provided for some fascinating opportunities for EAB members to explore his free associations.

The other two premieres were songs from a major joint project between PDE and Amy X Neuburg. When completed, this will be a cycle of ten songs, each by a different composer and all inspired by the photographs of Diane Arbus. The full cycle is entitled
They Will Have Been so Beautiful, a phrase Arbus used to describe the subjects of her photographs. The work will be performed in its entirety for the first time this fall in an event arranged by Cal Performances.

The first of the two “preview” songs was “At the Window” by Conrad Cummings. This was a relatively brief introspective piece. (Song duration was constrained to last between five and eight minutes.) It provided an excellent platform for Neuburg to explore how intimately she could blend her voice with the EAB instruments.

The second song was Lisa Bielawa’s “Ego Sum.” The text consisted of 28 sentences overheard in transient public spaces, all (like the song’s title) beginning with the first-person singular pronoun. This was one of the pieces that pushed the eight-minute upper boundary (and felt as if it had exceeded it). It also provided Neuburg with a more diverse platform for her acting chops, since each sentence reflected a different personality type. Ultimately, however, it was a piece of music trying to make a point about the mindless tyranny of first-person thinking; and that point had been firmly established well before the score hit its half-way mark.

The evening concluded with “Fusebox,” composed by James Mobberley for EAB in 2004 and revised in 2013. If, as I have often remarked, jazz is
chamber music by other means, then “Fusebox” celebrated the capacity of EAB to perform rock by other means. The score seemed to revel in the potential of rock for truly uninhibited jamming but all in a context that combined the acoustic virtues of violin (Karen Bentley Pollick) and clarinet (Jeff Anderle) with the sonorous diversity of the electronic guitars, percussion, and piano (Marja Mutru). This piece also tended to push the limits of its own duration a bit too much; but there was no doubting the infectiousness of its celebratory rhetoric, ending the evening’s concert with maximal exhilaration.

Bass and Bassoon Duo OoN Bring Melodic Chamber Rock to Benicia
July 17, 2013  |   Posted by: Keith Johnson

By Keith Johnson

San Francisco Informer

What happens when a bassoonist and electric bassist, each acclaimed monster musicians in their own right, unite to perform songs using dazzling playing techniques? Music lovers can find out when dual virtuosos OoN perform at 851 Music Studio in Benicia July 27 at 8 p.m.

“People may be scared when they look at the combination and expect something atonal and avant-garde and out there, but we play melodies that sound like songs,” said Paul Hanson, world-renowned jazz bassoonist, saxophonist and Bay Area native.

OoN is Hanson and bassist Ariane Cap, an Austrian music educator, composer and multi-instrumentalist. Each has an impressive and diverse vitae; Cap has covered styles ranging from jazz, folk and flamenco to Celtic, African and punk while Hanson’s collaborations include Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Jonas Hellborg, St. Joseph Ballet and rocker Eddie Money. Both have performed with Cirque Du Soleil.

“Both Paul and I are influenced by a lot of different styles of music,” Cap said. “When we write tunes it comes all together in a big melting pot. But what’s extremely important to us is groove and melody.”

“Half the fun is making that sound full with just two of us. We’re aural illusionists, I guess,” said Hanson, who described the band’s sound as melodic chamber rock. “There are a lot of technical musicians out there who try to show off. We’re trying to use some of those techniques but not try to show off.”

Hanson steps outside traditional bassoon boundaries with extensive improvisation, the bending of notes, and the use of amplification, effects processors and looping. Cap’s specialty is playing her six-string bass like a piano, using both hands to independently tap out notes on the fingerboard.

“I think the technique comes easy to me because I’m a piano player, and the way of approaching the tapping technique reminds me very much of the piano style,” Cap said. “When I got together with Paul it was just this compatibility of sound that was incredibly interesting to us.”

“She’s doing like three or four parts at once,” enthused Hanson, whose arrangements for piano or multiple instruments are often adapted by Cap. “I wrote a bass part, a keyboard part and a guitar part and she’s doing them all. I just take it for granted that she’s going to learn to play it, and she always does!”

“Most important to us is the music, though, and not the techniques,” Cap emphasized. “But since we bring unconventional tools to this band, the sound is fresh and new. It is also fun to watch!”

According to a band press release, OoN’s live repertoire features original compositions, a Beatles cover, a jazz standard and Jimi Hendrix-infused adventures. One of their most challenging pieces to perform is “Mr. Coffee” due to its many musical twists and turns.

“It’s a tune I wrote about 30 years ago and I never thought I’d play it again, but it sounds great in this group,” Hanson said.

Tickets for OoN’s 851 Music Studio show can be purchased at Attendees are welcome to bring a bottle of wine; glasses and cork screws will be provided.

“It’s a very intimate setting,” Cap said of the 40-seat venue, “so they can look forward to really getting the full sound of the instruments. The acoustics there are really great. It’s all brick walls, so there’s a lot of natural reverb. We’re very much looking forward to that gig.”

For more information on OoN, visit