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Art of the Contrabass

Six contrabasses in one concert? Mark Dresser made it happen.

"Bass is the Space," was the operating theme for Mark Dresser's Aug 22 performance at the SD Museum of Art, as the virtuoso musician invited five other bassists to join him in various groupings to celebrate a different sort of bottom line.

Dresser and Scott Worthington flanked either side of the stage while Joe McNalley and his son Tim McNalley staked out similar positions in the back of the hall to perform a quartet version of Stefano Scodanibbio's "Alisei," for a decidedly ballsy opener.

Ballsy because "Alisei," a 20th Century classical music composition, moves at a glacial pace, with whispered dynamics and is comprised almost entirely of micro-gestures. Doing my best to seat myself in the center of the four basses, I still found it almost impossible to discern what the other three were playing -- seriously negating my opportunity to experience what might have been a sonically mesmerizing experience. It probably would have manifested in an entirely different fashion in another room with a more egalitarian balance.

Much more rewarding was Dresser's solo recitation of "The Five Outer Planets," each performed in a different tuning. "Jupiter," opened with the bassist rubbing his bow in circular motion against the strings like a deep-tissue massage interrupted by slaps and discreetly amplified overtones. "Saturn," continued with plucked, de-tuned double-stops, ringing steel-drum effects and resonant harmonic clusters. "Uranus," combined arco moves with pizzicato open-strings, a plaintive cry melody and forceful tremolo bowing. "Neptune," was filled with extended pizzicato techniques : strumming, thwacking, split-toned hammering and volume pedal swells. "Pluto," brought it all down to gently cycled resonant clouds of dissonant harmony and throbbing open strings. Each of the pieces was exquisitely timed and crafted from vastly different languages, adding to the cumulative appreciation of the whole.

Next was a duo performance with the legendary Bert Turetzky, where Dresser laid down a plucked dialog for Turetzky to weave arco textures and cool vocals to affect for a moment, a trio. The elder statesman of the instrument created somber melodies in contrast to Dresser's highly rhythmic stopped and unstopped plucking -- making for a superb essay in contrast.

All six bassists joined for Dresser's "Lacytude," creating a lush choir of baritone harmonies that subdivided into a variety of duets before each musician emerged with short features, beginning with Turetzky's discordant intervals and mewling bowed harmonics, Worthington's multiple extended techniques, McNalley senior's rippling pizzicato with freakish high-notes, Kyle Motl's stark arco textures, and young McNalley's deep-toned finger work. A fever pitch was achieved when all six began improvising short phrases, constituting a sonic bouillabaisse.

After a short intermission, Dresser and the McNalley's, each playing a huge 7' Hutchins contrabass violin, combined on the appropriately titled, "Subtonium," all layering indigo sonorities and tossing slapped percussive effects around the room.

My highlight moment came when Dresser performed his score to the ingeniously constructed short animated film by Sarah Jane Lapp, "Chronicles of an Asthmatic Stripper." All of the bassist's skills were called upon to accompany the whimsical visuals of the medically challenged adult entertainer.

All six musicians returned to close out the affair with "SLM," an episodic structure of long-drawn tones, punctuated by a round-robin of thwacks that took orchestral turns as each bassist drew rich arco assignments in elegiac postulations.

Bravo to Alexander Jarman and the folks at the SD Museum of Art for the vision to present such consistently challenging and rewarding music.

Photo by Barbara Wise

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"Bass is the Space," was the operating theme for Mark Dresser's Aug 22 performance at the SD Museum of Art, as the virtuoso musician invited five other bassists to join him in various groupings to celebrate a different sort of bottom line.

Dresser and Scott Worthington flanked either side of the stage while Joe McNalley and his son Tim McNalley staked out similar positions in the back of the hall to perform a quartet version of Stefano Scodanibbio's "Alisei," for a decidedly ballsy opener.

Ballsy because "Alisei," a 20th Century classical music composition, moves at a glacial pace, with whispered dynamics and is comprised almost entirely of micro-gestures. Doing my best to seat myself in the center of the four basses, I still found it almost impossible to discern what the other three were playing -- seriously negating my opportunity to experience what might have been a sonically mesmerizing experience. It probably would have manifested in an entirely different fashion in another room with a more egalitarian balance.

Much more rewarding was Dresser's solo recitation of "The Five Outer Planets," each performed in a different tuning. "Jupiter," opened with the bassist rubbing his bow in circular motion against the strings like a deep-tissue massage interrupted by slaps and discreetly amplified overtones. "Saturn," continued with plucked, de-tuned double-stops, ringing steel-drum effects and resonant harmonic clusters. "Uranus," combined arco moves with pizzicato open-strings, a plaintive cry melody and forceful tremolo bowing. "Neptune," was filled with extended pizzicato techniques : strumming, thwacking, split-toned hammering and volume pedal swells. "Pluto," brought it all down to gently cycled resonant clouds of dissonant harmony and throbbing open strings. Each of the pieces was exquisitely timed and crafted from vastly different languages, adding to the cumulative appreciation of the whole.

Next was a duo performance with the legendary Bert Turetzky, where Dresser laid down a plucked dialog for Turetzky to weave arco textures and cool vocals to affect for a moment, a trio. The elder statesman of the instrument created somber melodies in contrast to Dresser's highly rhythmic stopped and unstopped plucking -- making for a superb essay in contrast.

All six bassists joined for Dresser's "Lacytude," creating a lush choir of baritone harmonies that subdivided into a variety of duets before each musician emerged with short features, beginning with Turetzky's discordant intervals and mewling bowed harmonics, Worthington's multiple extended techniques, McNalley senior's rippling pizzicato with freakish high-notes, Kyle Motl's stark arco textures, and young McNalley's deep-toned finger work. A fever pitch was achieved when all six began improvising short phrases, constituting a sonic bouillabaisse.

After a short intermission, Dresser and the McNalley's, each playing a huge 7' Hutchins contrabass violin, combined on the appropriately titled, "Subtonium," all layering indigo sonorities and tossing slapped percussive effects around the room.

My highlight moment came when Dresser performed his score to the ingeniously constructed short animated film by Sarah Jane Lapp, "Chronicles of an Asthmatic Stripper." All of the bassist's skills were called upon to accompany the whimsical visuals of the medically challenged adult entertainer.

All six musicians returned to close out the affair with "SLM," an episodic structure of long-drawn tones, punctuated by a round-robin of thwacks that took orchestral turns as each bassist drew rich arco assignments in elegiac postulations.

Bravo to Alexander Jarman and the folks at the SD Museum of Art for the vision to present such consistently challenging and rewarding music.

Photo by Barbara Wise

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