Paul Dresher’s Awed Behavior

The first full-length work of the Paul Dresher Ensemble began with composer Dresher alone on a small stage, cradling an electric guitar and playing an unremarkable guitar line. After repeating it several times, he stopped; but the riff kept going–he’d programmed it into a tape loop with foot pedals. He began an offbeat, contrapuntal line, got it down to his satisfaction, and plugged that into the loop as well. Others followed. The original line was now merely a part of an enticing mosaic of sound. An unobtrusive drummer joined the mix, and then a manic, operatic-voiced bald man took center stage. As he dressed himself in an absurd red bathrobe and oversize green sunglasses, he recited these lines:

He takes out the keys, he opens up the door

The first thing be notices is that everything is just as be left it

The photo of his first car was hanging next to the photo of him and his dad, just before their last trip…

Slow Fire, the low-budget opera written by Dresher and scripted by singer Rinde Eckert, was ostensibly a trip through the memory of a murderously uptight guy. But it was mostly an excuse for a bravura piece of musical theater, and the intensely memorable show became an important benchmark in the development of the San Francisco avant-garde music and performance scene. With the most understated of musical and theatrical props–Dresher’s guitar, keyboard, and tape loops on the one hand, some weird clothes and objects for Eckert–the show provided a rare marriage of both rock ‘n’ roll and theater, and rock ‘n’ roll and so-called “new music.” Dresher and Eckert have continued with ever-more-elaborate works, notably the hilarious Pioneer, an epic postmodern meditation on exploration and colonialism. Anchoring them all is Dresher’s music: blistering guitar solos over Terry Riley-like minimalism on one song, operatic drama and slapstick on the next, industrial noise and a 40s-style torch ballad after that. His latest work, Awed Behavior, plays at the Vic Saturday night; while Dresher and Eckert have been in town before for collaborations with SF’s Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (they’ll be back with her in June), the show is the group’s solo debut here.

“Our goal is to play any style of music credibly,” says Dresher by phone from Berkeley. “Generally, when a classical musician tries to rock it sounds silly.” But Dresher draws on a varied musical background–equal parts rock, world, and modern classical music. The pair–Dresher studied music at Berkeley, Eckert singing at Yale–come out of an impresssive San Francisco performance scene that in the early 80s was dominated by George Coates, a rococo conceptualist who’d stage periodic multimedia extravaganzas–psychedelic films and lights projected over music by Dresher; discordant, abstract singing from Eckert; and weird acting from avant-garde mime Leonard Pitt. But the pair gradually became disenchanted with Coates, yearned for a sparer, more narrative-based medium. They’ve since settled on their low-key operas, independent work, and various collaborations with other Bay Area dance and video artists.

Dresher’s fabulous tape looping in Slow Fire was born of necessity, not theory: he couldn’t afford other musicians. Now, while still constrained by the near-prohibitive economics of taking such a decidedly nonmainstream endeavor on the road, he’s got three other musicians to fill in the gaps; expect two keyboardists, a woodwinds player, and Dresher on keyboards and a MIDIed guitar. Eckert wrote and directed but doesn’t appear in the show, which features Amanda Moody and J. Spence Stephens Jr. as characters loosely based on Percy and Mary Shelley. Hitsville hasn’t seen Awed Behavior and is a little worried about reports from San Francisco, where some normally supportive critics panned it. But the pair remain on the cutting edge of music and performance in America, and anything they do should be worth seeing.


Exile in Guyville, the eagerly awaited debut from Liz Phair, is out May 4. The cover is a strategically cropped black-and-white shot of a topless Phair taken in the photo booth at the Rainbo nightclub. She’ll be working in upcoming weeks on the record’s first video, for the song “Never Said Nothing,” with Chicagoan Kathy Maguire directing. Next project: improvng her admittedly less-than-impressive stage persona. “I wouldn’t go to see me live,” she admits. Those not interested in taking her advice can see a short set as she opens for the Coctails CD-release party at the Bop Shop next Friday, April 24….Jim DeRogatis is now identified as “pop music editor” of the Sun-Times….Last week Hitsville reported on new price increases from the major labels. This was the industry’s gift to consumers after an enormous jump in sales during 1992. Now See Hear’s Ken St. Jean reports a new indignity: a letter from the local WEA distribution branch syaing that WEA would no longer pay co-op ad dollars for stores that sold used CDs. (Labels generally chip in for advertising that mentions their product.) The record labels have been living off found money (in the form of the CD boom) for a decade. They recently scored an unforgivable tax on blank tape and have just begun an across-the-board price increase. Now they’re trying to cut off any opportunity for anyone to pay less than major-label dictated prices. Anything consumers can do? Sure: home taping, home taping, home taping.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christiana Ceppes.