Dresser playing contrabass violin in the Experimental Theater Feb. 12.
Double-bass virtuoso Mark Dresser illuminated his singular artistic vision on Wednesday night with a solo performance that mined the sonic potential from the instrument (three instruments, specifically) in ways that only he could have imagined.
Dresser has combined science and art in his ceaseless quest to map and master the infinite possibilities of hitherto dormant music burrowed in the big, resonant chamber of the contrabass: unlocking secrets via deep listening and a slavish attention to detail. In his hands, the bass sings and roars, moans and sighs and throbs; audacity is celebrated and each facet of the human experience is examined. His art is one of paradox and contrast – impossibly deep indigo bowed vibrations clanging up against piercing harmonics and orchestral dissonance. There are gentle strokes followed by violent assaults, all guided by an implacable flow that organizes the lurch, the leap, the saunter into a cogent choreography of motion.
Opening with the appropriately titled “Invocation,” on a huge five-string contrabass violin, Dresser plucked somber melodies culled from the extended register layered along harmonic clusters, the beating sensation of bariolage and the soft creaking of notes too high to exist on the bass. All of this sans amplification.
Picking up another bass, Dresser cut through the silence with the bow, imbuing “Throso,” with mad combinations of tremolo and ponticello techniques before lighting on an upper register triple-stop that sounded like the wounded wails of a war-torn choir. Retuning that same bass into a series of discordant intervals for “JC,” produced a confounding and deliriously altered result from bowed and plucked fingerings; it was at this point allusions to interplanetary orchestration seemed altogether reasonable.
For the fourth piece, “Ulu,” Dresser picked up his main vehicle of expression, a dark, lived-in instrument with hidden pickups mounted beneath the fingerboard, lightly amplified for the potential of exploiting bi-tones, overtones and harmonics into a textural dreamscape that reminded me of the fog bridge in Carlos Castaneda’s “Tales of Power.” It was sound sorcery all the way, culminating in yodeling effects from multiple voices.
The showstopper, though, occurred on a piece that composer Roger Reynolds wrote for the bassist, “MARKed Music.” This was performed in “telematic” collaboration with the electronic contribution of Jamie Oliver, performing from New York, whose simultaneous image was beamed into the Experimental Theater at UCSD via high-speed video and audio Internet 2 connections (imagine Skype on steroids).
Oliver’s contribution was based on pre-recorded samples of Dresser’s playing, processed using four different algorithms. Paul Hembree handled the telematics realization at the UCSD end. Dresser pulled out all the stops on this one: two-handed independent hammer-ons that sent sounds scurrying across the room like demons under a spotlight, as waves of sampled and reconfigured swatches careened around the space in dizzying surround sound. It was impossible, other-worldly and addictive.
The finale represented a different collaboration, this one with visual artist/photographer Moses Hacmon and sound designer Paul Chavez. “Sonifying Water,” took input from Dresser’s bass into a speaker supporting a tub of water which was videotaped so that the vibrations from the bass took on a visual interpretation of the water’s reactions, shown on a large screen as cell-division-like choreography.
It was an interesting combination, another arrow in the bassist’s quiver, but it’s hard to top the inherent multimedia quality of a Dresser solo performance; there is so much drama in the imagery of fingers, bow and string for the brain to comprehend already.
One might think that there would be attention-span limits on a ninety-minute solo bass concert, but the large audience gathered lost only three (obviously casual) listeners along the way. Everyone else was in it for the long, rapturous haul. Attention bears big rewards.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.