Sound Stage

A New Music Theater work about Making Music

Conceived and Composed by Paul Dresher

Text by Rinde Eckert

Instrument Design and Construction by Paul Dresher and Daniel Schmidt

Directed by Rinde Eckert

Performed by Zeitgeist and Paul Dresher

Visual and Lighting Design by Alexander V. Nichols

Sound Designer, Greg Kuhn

Robert Reetz, Technical Director

Heidi Eckwall, Stage Manager

Produced by Zeitgeist and the Paul Dresher Ensemble

World Premiere June 22 ’Äì 24, 2001, Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN


An extraordinary new work which explores the means and meaning of music making literally from the ground up...way up in fact. A unique world is created, combining a set built entirely of huge invented musical instruments, traditional instrumental virtuosity, deadpan physical humor, vivid lighting design, and a spare text filled with sly wit and real science, the work playfully explores the physics of sound and the mystery of music’Äôs emotional power in our lives.

Leading this exploration, Dresher's score ranges widely, from passages of haunting lyricism and emotional power through sections of almost indescribable rhythmic intensity and contrasted with the exploration of the sonic potential of every day objects. Eckert's text provides both a framework for understanding the piece visually and aurally and engages with its poetic intelligence and humor. The score allows the musicians of Zeitgeist to use the full range of their skills as both traditional instrumentalists and improvisers and with Eckert’Äôs resourceful and restrained direction, they fluidly inhabit the stage environment with the intention and economy of skilled actors.

The elegant visual impact of the work is immediate upon entering the theater, when one views far upstage the centerpiece of the work, a 17 1/2 foot tall rolling A frame with two 17 foot pendulums swinging silently on either side. Over the course of the work, this instrument, whose every surface and material produces sound, becomes many things: a childhood home with an attic full of memories; a set of giant harps plucked by the swinging pendulums; a drum set for all five performers, and ultimately a place of collective musical mystery and discovery.

At the end of the 80-minute performance, the audience is welcomed on the stage to explore the instruments on their own or with the assistance of the designers and performers, creating their own music in an impromptu musical playground for both children and adults.

Composer's Note

It gives me great pleasure to finally be compelled to produce these notes as it indicates that we are nearly at the end of a journey which commenced several years ago and whose destination was largely a mystery when undertaken. Fortunately it has been a wonderful trip, starting with an invitation back in 1995, from the members of Zeitgeist, with the support of the Walker Art Center, to compose for them an evening-length chamber work that was in some way theatrical.

I'm sure this invitation was inspired by the fact that since 1980 I have produced a great deal of collaboratively created music theater, typically combining opera singers with chamber and live electronic music. What Zeitgeist was unaware of was that prior to 1980, I had been deeply involved in acoustic musical instrument invention, inspired by artists such as Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and the musical ensembles from Indonesia and Africa. Since that time I had largely abandoned this avenue of exploration in favor of electronic music systems. However, in 1993 I met composer Ellen Fullman and saw her remarkable invention, the "Long String Instrument." I realized that there were still many possibilities in the realm of acoustic instrument innovation and that in additionally, there was an inherently powerful theatrical component to musical performance on invented musical instruments (something which Partch was always conscious).

Thus I proposed to Zeitgeist that I would invent a stage set comprised primarily of large-scale invented musical instruments and that I would compose a work which combined these invented instruments with their traditional instrumentation and electronic music. In other words, a piece that combined pretty much all the important attributes of my work since I was a teenager.

To undertake the design and construction phase of this project I turned to Daniel Schmidt, with whom I had collaborated on American gamelan instrument designs in the 1970s. In the summer of 1998 we established an instrument building shop and have worked together closely on all phases design and construction since then. His contribution to what we see and hear in this performance cannot be overestimated.

One of the other key things I have learned in creating music theater is that as a composer, I neither possess the skills nor inclination to develop the work being created from the visual, choreographic or theatrical perspective. From the beginning it was clear that we needed someone in a role which combined the skills of a director, a choreographer and a musician. This is a hard person to find but I knew that long-time collaborator Rinde Eckert was exactly the kind of artist who possessed all these talents, along with that those of a writer/creator. He has given a given shape to the elements I created and then built a theatrical and human dimension of his own with these materials.

Contributing immensely at all phases of this project have been the musicians of Zeitgeist who have brought their remarkable musicianship and participated in the development of the work as true collaborators. Their commitment to bringing this project to completion was total and essential. I cannot thank Heather Barringer enough for her unrelenting efforts to bring this project to fruition. In addition to those organization credited in other parts of this program, I want to thank individuals John Killacky, Philip Bither, Lou Siegal, and Arnie Malina, along with the California Arts Council and the LEF Foundation which supported some of my work on the project.
’Äì Paul Dresher

Director's Note

A six-inch metronome is just a metronome. A sixteen-foot metronome is architecture. The monumental is never simple; it obstructs the view (or provides it); it exaggerates. So meanings are entailed in it, associations are drawn from it, and questions arise around it. Here on this stage we are charged with the management of a small economy of abstract ideas and concrete metaphors about a 16ft. pendulum, a 4 meter string instrument (called a quadrachord), and a 70ft. "singing" wires. Of what does it all remind us? What does it inspire in us? How might it change the way we move and think? Sound Stage is a response to these dramatic questions and demands of these five musicians. ’Äì Rinde Eckert

Opera/New Music Theater

"Forget the drum circle. Forget the hurdy-gurdy. This beats all....It's a musical jungle gym -- every square inch playable’ĶZeitgeist members displayed their exceptional ensemble and improvisational skills for 80 minutes of non-stop performance’Ķ ..works such as this are the future of the arts: a cross-pollination of music, visual art and theater limited only by the imagination."

’ÄîMinneapolis Star Tribune June 24, 2001