Photo courtesy of Dreyblatt website
by Michael Freerix
A member of the second generation of New York minimal composers, Arnold Dreyblatt continues to develop his work in composition and music performance, having invented a new set of original instruments, performance techniques, and a system of tuning. He has formed and led numerous ensembles under the title "The Orchestra of Excited Strings" for over thirty years. Dreyblatt's musical and artistic practice has ranged from large multi-day performances to permanent installations, digital projections, dynamic textual objects, and multi-layered lenticular text panels. His visual artworks create complex textual and spatial visualizations about memory, reflecting upon such themes as recollection and the archive.
Dreyblatt does not think of himself as a musician, who gets on stage and plays songs by Gershwin or Porter from sheets. His interest in music came from working with electronic images and the noises they produced when transformed into sound. So he developed a keen interest in creating sounds in spaces and changed from electronic sources to analog sources, by building or rebuilding instruments.
Born in New York City in 1953, Dreyblatt had piano-lessons as a child, but abandoned the instrument later. His mother was a painter, so paintings and art where always around him. In the early 1970's, he started to study at Wesleyan University, and then moved to the Center for Media Study at the State University at Buffalo, N.Y., working with video and electronic music. He became a pupil of Woody and Steina Vasulka, two pioneers of Video Art. Exposed to their ideas he developed an interest in the physical characteristics of vibrations.
Dreyblatt used to hang out a lot at The Kitchen, the famed performance space that Vasulka had established in 1971: "It was sort of like my living-room," he remembers.1 It was there that he met composer Arthur Russell in 1975, who was appointed as music director of the Kitchen and organized concerts including David Van Tieghem, Laurie Anderson, Rhys Chatham and Peter Gordon. Dreyblatt loved the atmosphere there and the mix between visual art and music. "I was very interested in periodic visual perceptual phenomena - I was making "flicker" videotapes when I was shown the early experiments of Tony Conrad and that of filmmaker Paul Sharits (who also taught at Buffalo)."2 In New York City Dreyblatt studied with La Monte Young, too. Only later, as his tape archivist, a job he did for two years, he discovered Tony Conrad's contribution to the conceptual development of the Theater of Eternal Music. But it was not until Dreyblatt attended a concert of Alvin Lucier that he suddenly realized that music sends out waves that one could perceive and experience and touch, "that musicians where really just comparing frequencies in their heads and that instrument builders had preserved this knowledge which was no longer conscious for musicians."2 It opened up the world of sound for him: "I had been made keenly aware of the relationship between "slow" frequencies of sound waves and those really high bandwidths of the electromagnetic spectrum. What was important for me was that it was all about waves. So I was hooked, and dived into sound and eventually "music" for the next ten years."2
In the late 1974, he abandoned his work with electronic images and began making electro-acoustic sound installations instead. "But my interest slowly developed in the direction of a more traditional model of music performance. I had acquired an elementary level of training in Western and various non-western musics in the search for a language which would be useful to me in realizing my ideas. I looked to a physical description of sound- a definition in acoustic terms."3
"As I began work in music composition, an important model for me had been the approach of American experimental non-narrative film... In lieu of the production baggage of producer, cameraman, editor etc., filmmakers in the sixties took control of the means of production and distribution, utilizing inexpensive home movie technology, setting up a network of unofficial cinema "cooperatives" and publishing critical journals."4
At the same time, Experimental theater groups such as the Living Theater, Bread and Puppet Theater, as well as the theaters of Richard Foreman and the early Robert Wilson productions rented their own spaces and did their own advertising, drawing from a group of non-paid performers to "do-it-themselves." Poets organized their own readings outside of the academy, and published each other's works in a tradition dating back to the fifties. Judson Church on Washington Square, where groundbreaking Fluxus performances organized by another Lithuanian immigrant George Maciunas took place, also witnessed the stylistic development of the Downtown Dance scene, with Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainier and many others. "I gave myself quite a few years in the 70's to allow all these influences to incubate before I came out with "my thing." After all, this was an incredibly active time, there were often concerts every night, not to mention the total environment in dance, theater, etc. But in the music scene itself, I always felt strangely an outsider, in the sense of not coming from a musical "old boy's network." I hadn't gone through the normative initiation process: that incredible time investment in years of practice and handiwork. So I was free on one hand but with hands tied."2
Beginning in 1977, the art scene gradually shifted to the East Village where small galleries and Performance Art Spaces were springing up and gaining immediate media attention. CBGB's and the Mudd Club, where many of the new wave of pop bands got their start, became venues for composers on Sundays and off nights. The Kitchen in Soho began attracting a fashionable "club" crowd. Rhys Chatham drew on his experience as a student of La Monte Young in creating extremely high decibel minimal overtone music for the rock band format of electric guitars and drums. Others followed suit, and Glenn Branca who expanded the form to electric guitar symphonies became the more famous in a rivalry with Chatham (reminiscent of that between Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the sixties).
In 1978, Dreyblatt built his first one-string musical instrument. When the string was plucked and then touched at nodal points along its length, the overtones would be singled out and made audible. In 1979, he began experimenting with a larger instrument, a double bass which he restrung with unwound steel wire. "Of course I was led to the bass for its huge resonating capacity and the long speaking length of its strings. And I had already decided on strings as the only instruments which enabled the "basic acoustic model" to be seen, heard and touched. Unwound wire can produce more of the higher overtones because of its greater flexibility. So it was already a set up."2 As he exited – set them into vibration - the open strange with a bow, he heard chords of overtones shifting above the fundamental. "Then, in order to keep those high overtones flying, one had to keep hitting, sort of like juggling to keep the balls up. And it was fun!"2
In the following year, he formed his first Ensemble of Exited Strings for which he redesigned several acoustic instruments whose timbres are amplified and mixed in performance. It consisted of Michael Hauenstein on bass (with exited strings), Peter Phillips on midget upright pianoforte, Kraig Hill on portable pipe organ and Greg Lewis on hurdy gurdy, which led to a recording on the India Navigation Label in 1982. On the recording, you can hear one string bass has been extended eleven inches. The pianoforte has been restrung, and the hammer felt and the dampers have been removed. The hurdy gurdy is a copy of a fourteenth century European instrument, and the organ had been built by Dreyblatt himself, with air under pressure from an electric blower, which is channeled to 41 flue and 6 reed pipes.
A small piano, a pipe organ, and a hurdy gurdy supplied pitches which reinforce specific overtones above a fundamental tone sounded by two double basses. "I do not stop the string, which means to press it against the fingerboard. It's actually impossible, the strings are under such high tension I would end up with bloody fingers. I often say I set the strings in motion. I'm not a master-musician, who controls the instrument.5
Shortly after this recording was released, Dreyblatt received a stipendium from the Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst (DAAD) and moved to Berlin. "By the time I left New York, minimalism had run its course, economic hard times would set in and public funding for the arts would plummet from its peak in the seventies (still minuscule by German standards). Gravitating around "Roulette" in Tribeca and other spaces in downtown Manhattan a group of improvising composers/musicians, distinct but sometime overlapping the "Free Jazz" scene, created a post-minimalist and post-modern performance network in which vocalists and instrumentalists, each with a recognizable individualized and often idiosyncratic style, group and regroup for performance and recordings in different constellations under rotating "band leaders".4
Moving back and forth for some time, Dreyblatt finally settled in Berlin, forming a new Orchestra of Excited Strings, with members Wolfgang Glum on drums/percussion, Jan Schade on modified miniature upright pianoforte, Dirk Lebahn bass with exited strings and Wolfgang Mettler on violin. His first release with this newly assembled Orchestra was Propellers in Love. The musicians had participated in the development of these pieces during a one-year workshop period at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where he had his studio. It is the first time that Dreyblatt used drums in one of his compositions: "I have to admit that I was a bit hesitant to use drums. It had become almost a cliché in the late seventies, and I was often not happy with the way those rock drummers in many of my contemporaries' overtone guitar music often obscured the overtones and textures of the electric guitars... I found myself for years involved in variations of a kind of Bo Diddley beat. It came completely intuitively, and of course I've had to learn how rhythm works from the ground up just like I did with tuning and acoustics. So this process is also apparent in the development of the music itself. I see the rhythmic aspect as already being in the music, so the percussion just accents it and propels it all along. It's like the basement or fundament of a building, which supports the whole structure."2
Releasing Animal Magnetism (Tzadik, 1995), The Sound of One String (Table of Elements, 1998), Point Source/Lapse (Table of Elements, 2004), Resonant Relations (2005), Live at Federal Hall (Table of Elements 2006) and Turntable History (Important, 2010) as he delved deeper into the sounds of overtones.
But last year saw him cooperate with Durham-based folk trio Megafaun on Appalachian Excitation. They had already backed Dreyblatt during a tour in 2008, and after a show at Hopscotch Festival in 2013, they went into the Pinebox Recording Studio in Graham to record some new tracks: "Right away, I realized that there's a folk element and instrumentation that was available to me suddenly," Dreyblatt says of Megafaun. "These guys have such a wide musical background. They're familiar with the whole avant-garde. They can play folk music, rock music. They're songwriters. They're incredibly flexible and just put their heart right into it."5 Which seems to bring his music back to his folkish beginnings that were overtly present on his first record on Indian Navigation. The opening, "Recurrence Plot," lumbers slowly to militaristic drums, allowing the feedback from intermittent guitar strums to grow into intoxicating plumes. "Radiator"—the last, longest and best of the four tracks—builds a magnificent clutter across its 10 minutes. What sounds like reverb-doused dulcimer is offset by jagged guitar jabs as the drums and bass shift quickly. Excitation retains a special power, augmenting it with skewed old time elements overflowing with effects and occasional blasts of steely distortion.
But this record is only a stray from the actual ‚Orchestra of Exited Strings', with which he performs regularly. It now consists of Dreyblatt (excited strings bass and laptop), Jörg Hiller (percussion and digitally controlled electric guitar), Joachim Schütz (electric guitar) and Robin Hayward (tuba).
Also, see more about Dreyblatt's work at his website
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