Mark Dresser is one of those guys who fell into a volcano while sacrificing to the gods of music and emerged as some kind of wraith made entirely from sound. This evening, paired with singer and string player Jen Shyu, Dresser made selective contact with the earthly plane while continually engaging the unearthly.
Looking as if he’d awakened in a strange country, the once and future SoCal avantist Dresser (who left NYC in 2004 to teach at UCSD, among many activities) bent his tousled white head to his bow, with which he’s developed some stunning techniques. He would position his left hand, then sweep the bow across the strings to produce both a bass note and an overtone that seemed to ring all over the room. Or he’d windmill a bowed chord and manage to sound one intensely vibrating note at the same time. Or he’d tap the strings with one hand while sliding the other up and down the strings, producing tones, overtones and fuzzy boinging effects like a jew’s harp along the way.
This wasn’t just the effects circus you might be picturing; a pulse emerged (from where?) and sustained with infinite variations, keeping my heel bouncing the whole time.
Shyu, contrastingly defined in a black gown, complemented Dresser with her own bowings and pluckings on the high-pitched Chinese er hu (which, she informs me, means “two strings,” because . . .). She made the gravest impression when she laid down long notes, and Dresser either focused harmonies on them or used them as a center around which to spin improvisations.
They switched roles in the visual space, Dresser staying rooted while Shyu moved from place to place in a stylized slow dance -- crouching, bending, extending her graceful hands to test the wind, gather a cloud, stroke an invisible cat. Meanwhile she used her pure, high voice to improvise calm words about river voyages and the permanence of change.
They started strong, but halfway through an hour’s four extended workouts the limitations of the duo format started to show. Dresser and Shyu nevertheless gathered steam for a vaguely Latin finale: He pinged, wozzed, rumbaed and shoogaboogaed in abstract but physical fashion; she moaned with birthin’ depth.
It was memorable, and not just for the novelty.