Arnold Dreyblatt makes the only minimalist music I know of that can accurately be described as badass. Since the late 1970s, he’s been exploring the endless world of string resonance: hitting or “exciting” the piano strings on his upright bass, kicking up overtones and vibrations and exploring microtones within his tuning system (which has stayed the same for almost half a century). His compositions are droning and deeply rhythmic, and over time he’s added drums to the mix. Listening to Dreyblatt is an energizing thing, more rooted in the body than in the head. His music sticks out in the often-intellectualized experimental world he comes from.
Dreyblatt started as a video artist before diving into the Downtown New York avant-garde music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He studied with La Monte Young, Pandit Pran Nath, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, and Alvin Lucier, and he considers deep listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros his first music teacher. During his time in New York, he played with Arthur Russell, rubbed shoulders with Julius Eastman, and collaborated with Ellen Fullman. Since moving to Berlin in 1984, Dreyblatt has taught workshops, continued his visual art practice, built his own instruments, and performed all over the world with dozens of collaborators. (Check out his amazing website, which is an archivist’s dream)
This month, Drag City released his new album, Resolve, credited to Dreyblatt and his Orchestra Of Excited Strings. Like Dreyblatt’s compositions, the Orchestra has been a steady but ever-changing organism over the decades. First formed in 1979, the ensemble now includes two German musicians—Konrad Sprenger (a.k.a. Jörg Hiller) on percussion and computer-controlled guitar and Joachim Schütz on guitar—as well as Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi. Across four songs, the quartet drones and dances, testifying that there’s complexity, even infinity, in simplicity. The Bandcamp page instructs: PLAY LOUD.
A few days before the release of Resolve, Dreyblatt chatted with me from his Berlin home base. He’s a fountain of ideas, connections, and inspirations. In this edited interview, Dreyblatt talks about the long-gestating roots of Resolve, coming to music from a visual art background, collaborating with Megafaun and Jim O’Rourke, and the enduring rhythms of Bo Diddley. | a levy
Aquarium Drunkard: I wanted to say congratulations on this new album. I really enjoy it. And I wanted to ask you, is there any special way that you’ll be celebrating its release?
Arnold Dreyblatt: Well, it’s been a long wait, as it is for vinyl these days. And also Drag City has a long development time. We just arranged a concert in Berlin to celebrate it in September when everybody’s back. So, yeah, [the release is] a moment, you know. But it’s been a long process.
AD: That’s got to be weird. You make all these songs and then you just kind of have to wait around.
Arnold Dreyblatt: Not only that, I only talked about the record production, but, you know, it’s been a record that’s been in development for a long time. The first recordings were in 19 in Brussels. Then we recorded again in Berlin a year later because the pandemic came. And you know, that just kind of—well, I don’t have to explain that it slowed things down. It was a few years in the making now, just over this pandemic time. And also, I have to say that the band members really worked hard on it, especially Konrad Sprenger [also known as Jörg Hiller], [who] worked with me very well over a long period, [on] the editing. And also Joachim Schütz, who’s a musician, but they’re both engineers and producers. Oren [Ambarchi] also. It’s been a collective effort in that sense, not only in playing, but also in preparing it.
AD: What do you look for in collaborators?
Arnold Dreyblatt: That’s an important question. I’ve had these bands over the years. I mean, the moniker Orchestra of Excited Strings [has existed] since 1979, or at least the first ensemble was 1980. And it’s been a lot of musicians that have passed through, with very different backgrounds. Like, really well trained musicians who are trained classically, [as well as] those who are coming from a rock background, [or an] experimental background. But it’s really varied over the years.
I think actually what’s been the most important aspect is a certain kind of sensitivity to the sound. There’s having some experience playing within a minimalist context. It was very important to me, the kind of timbre of each instrument and how they fit together. I like to say that actually the musicians are there to release the resonance in the instrument. The opposite would be like the virtuoso who kind of bends the instrument to his or her desires and makes it do what it maybe wasn’t even designed to do. But I see the role [as] letting [the instrument’s] resonance out.
But all the musicians bring something to it. In this case, with this ensemble, we’ve been playing for a long, long time. We actually recorded [previously] in 2012 and then weren’t happy with it, but we’ve been working a long time together. Oren is the most recent to join the ensemble. We have a relationship over long periods. He’s been putting out archival material from me and from the ensemble [on his label, Black Truffle]. This ensemble has been working in various ways with some of the important musical aspects that I’ve developed over the years. They’re fully within that kind of minimalist, overtone world. So it’s very specific, also because we’ve been together for so long, and especially myself and Joachim Schütz and Konrad Sprenger, who also have recorded on their own and have their own careers as musicians. They’re also younger. It is a generational thing that’s interesting with this group. [When] I was younger, there was a period where the musicians were all kind of around the same age, in the beginning. [Now] I chose to work with the younger generation who are at home in the club scene, with everything from techno to other kinds of music. And I think that’s been really stimulating for me, and also to perform within that context.
AD: That’s interesting, because I think I maybe first encountered your work through your collaboration with Megafaun, which was a younger band and certainly a very different context. What are your memories or feelings about working with them? Because that’s a really good album.
Arnold Dreyblatt: Yeah, it’s an album I’m really proud of. Unfortunately, they broke up some time after that. But it was great working with them. We did two tours together. We were put together by Jeff Hunt from [the label] Table of the Elements, and we liked each other. It was interesting because, [they have] this kind of folky background and on the other hand, they knew everything about my music, so that was also kind of a surprise for me. But one of them worked in a record store—they were very informed. And I love country music. So, it was a fun thing to find some common ground. I’ve done a lot of projects—not all of them are recorded, but I’ve done a lot of projects where I’ve come together for a short time with a group of musicians and then created pieces together. [With Megafaun], we had a longer time of working together. I went and stayed with them in North Carolina, for a week, a few times, and they were lovely guys.
I just turned 70, so there’s been a lot of different projects. I mean, it’s interesting because a lot of the writing about [Resolve] is, “there’s been no [new album] under this name, Orchestra of Excited Strings, for some time.” But, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of other music projects, so that’s not the only work I’ve been doing. I just worked with a reconstruction of a microtonal organ from Basel. There’s been various other projects with other ensembles in the States, with the Bang On A Can ensemble, I work with an ensemble in Stockholm, [in] various cities. So, it’s been quite diverse, but I’m really happy about this record.
AD: You mentioned that you like country music and you worked with Megafaun. And on Resolve, “Shuffle Effect” has this swinging, almost jazz or blues-like feel to it. It feels very American to me in a certain way. How did that piece originally come about?
Arnold Dreyblatt: Well, it’s interesting. If you would be a musical archeologist, you would see that actually there’s a piece on Propellers In Love, there’s something called “Odd And Even,” which is that [sings rhythm], and it’s in threes. I don’t even come from music. I was a video artist, I was coming from the art world and it really came from experimenting with acoustics and with strings and actually hitting the strings and exciting these overtones. And so this process of hitting it was just natural. There was kind of like—I call it almost a jig kind of thing [sings rhythm], or something very simple, like 2/4 marching rhythms, which [are] also very much of my music. It comes out of the initial impulse. And I’ve done some things with more complicated rhythmic patterns. But generally it’s important for me that the resonance comes through. And, you know, I’m a Bo Diddley fan. [Laughs]
AD: Who isn’t? I mean, you’ve got to be.
Arnold Dreyblatt: There’s something in that hypnosis of the beat, which has been in [my] music from the very beginning. I remember in the eighties, I performed with the orchestra in Budapest when it was still communist. And Budapest has this whole [musical] tradition, the [Bela] Bartok, [Zoltán] Kodály traditions, a lot of very good musicians there. And I gave this concert, and there was a Chinese guy in the audience that [said], “Oh, it sounds just like Chinese folk music.” There were some American guys there: “Oh, yeah, sounds very American.” [There were some] Georgian [people there]—not American, but Soviet Georgia: “this reminds me of Georgian folk music.” And I kind of felt like, everybody read [my music] into their own traditions, which is actually kind of a nice thing, you know?
AD: That’s really cool.
Arnold Dreyblatt: I grew up in the sixties. I grew up partially in the Fillmore East. I heard a lot of music. In the beginning period or the formative phase of developing my music, I listened to a lot of non-Western music, Indian music and Chinese instruments and so forth. So all that feeds into something. It’s hard to say what seed developed which plant, you know. It’s a mixture and we are all products of these mixtures. [My music] developed in a historical context in the New York scene, and even though I’ve been in Europe for so many years and of course, the musical world has changed, information transfer has changed, I recognize that it comes out of that context.
AD: That rhythmic effect that a lot of your music has—I wanted to ask, what kind of physical shape do you have to be in to perform this music, in your body but also your ear and concentration? I imagine it takes a lot of concentration.
Arnold Dreyblatt: Yeah. I’ve composed music for other ensembles where it’s more written out, all the measures. But here, we’re counting a bit. Of course, certainly in the way that I play and, actually for all of the musicians, [it’s] definitely extremely physical. If you would see us, we’re all moving, right? But it’s also a lot of fun to play. So as much as you play the same thing, you always hear something new in it. There are all these multiple resonances there. There’s different levels of what’s going on. There’s the beat and the accent of the drumbeat. But then there’s the strings being struck on [top of] that. So there’s more than you think to listen to. You know, it’s like someone once said [about my music], it’s like taking a microscope to sound so you can get inside it.
There’s some stamina, you know? I’m getting older, but I always feel, even if I’ve had the experience of being very tired or even performing when I’ve been ill, [with] terrible colds, then I start to play and you just kind of are invigorated by the music if it goes well. Of course, there’s the gigs where you just feel, “okay, that was great.” And then afterwards collapse. [Laughs] But yes, it is very physical. We’re all moving around and hopefully we have smiles on our faces.
AD: I think that definitely comes through because there is a sense of play with the music. Even though it is maybe different from what most people are used to, it is really fun. It reminded me: I have a daughter who’s one years old, and she’s in the phase of just hitting her hands on everything. And this morning I was watching her and thinking about this interview and thinking about your music. And there’s a connection here. You’re kind of getting back to that childlike place.
Arnold Dreyblatt: It is kind of primal in a sense. And even though there’s an intellectual aspect of this tuning system, which [is] the only tuning system I’ve ever played, once we know that and have it set up, then we’re in something else. And I think especially in this music, we’re all tuned to the sound and keeping it driving.
AD: You’ve also collaborated with Ellen Fullman. I really love her work with the Long String Instrument. And I’m just curious: y’all were working with similar ideas. Were you finding that independently, or were you all feeding off of each other, if you remember?
Arnold Dreyblatt: I’ve known Ellen for a really long time, and we met in New York, maybe 77 or something. I had already studied with La Monte [Young]. I was already working with tuning systems. Maybe I met her even a little bit later, shortly before I left the States [in 1983]. And she was coming out of art school, actually, in St. Louis and had discovered this thing with putting rosin on her fingers. And so we had similar interests at that time. She was just beginning to sort of develop her work. And, we’ve kept in touch all these years. In fact, Konrad Sprenger put out her second record, Ort. So cool connection there. And in fact, I had something to do with bringing them together.
I remember that when I met her, she had been composing these songs. She’s from Memphis, so there’s this kind of southern aspect, country music thing. And I suggested the Woody Guthrie song that she sings on that record [“John Hardy”]. But there’s actually another line. I was also very close to the artist Terry Fox, I don’t know if you know the name, who actually first used that same long string effect in sound installations already beginning much earlier. But they didn’t know each other and she developed it independently. He’s probably the first one who did that in an art context.
Yoshi Wada [Japanese sound artist and Fluxus member] was [also] a very close friend of mine. I’m now friends with his son Tashi Wada, who’s in LA, and also musician, composer Phill Niblock was a great influence on me in the seventies. Arthur Russell, who I played with once or twice and knew him in the years before I left New York. Earlier than that, there was a relation to Tony Conrad. Tony and I met in Buffalo before he taught in Buffalo [at the University at Buffalo]. I was studying video in the video department [there]. I had already done some electronic music then, but I also took some courses in the music department. Pauline Oliveros came, [and] in some sense I call her my first music teacher. Julius Eastman, I knew from that time in Buffalo, and then we all moved to New York and it was a very exciting time [in] the seventies, early eighties.
AD: That seventies New York downtown scene…you just rattling off the names alone, it was so rich and interesting and it sounds like you still—even though it’s gone—have such a connection there.
Arnold Dreyblatt: Somehow yeah, there is a connection. But one has to also say that at that time, there was no internet. It was a tiny little scene. The audiences [at these concerts] were mainly other musicians or their partners and a few other friends. I remember a European friend of mine telling me about going to New York, [to] the legendary Knitting Factory, for instance. And he went to, I don’t remember whose concert it was, but it was John Zorn or something. So someone really famous, and there were like 12 people in the audience [laughs]. It was a kind of a community, but not to be too nostalgic about it, I think there was an intensive time in all the arts in those beginning years. And I think the arts were more together. What I remember in the seventies was concerts in [art] galleries where there would be theater people and music and dance people and visual artists coming to these concerts and that was less so later.
I mean, there’ve been different waves. It’s interesting for me also that minimalism came back. And I always say that has a lot to do with Jim O’Rourke. So I credit him. I mean, of course you can’t actually say it’s one person, but at least my meeting him was [a] very important connection to a younger generation. He kind of rediscovered a lot of people, from John Fahey, Tony Conrad, and then me. One can look for different reasons. There was techno and repetition came back in another way. This is actually something I remember suddenly realizing: that young people can listen just to sound. They don’t need song form or somebody singing and then some break in between. They could actually just listen to sound, large numbers of people. Maybe not on the total pop end of it, but that was a huge change, you know. So if I think back to the avant garde, to these little places downtown [in New York], loft spaces, and if you had like 60 people, that was a huge crowd. And then, I remember when Jim brought me to Chicago [for] that first concert where I played my bass alone, and we did something together with Jim and Kevin Drumm and the others. And [it] was packed in this club, and you could hear a pin drop. I couldn’t believe it. You know, who the hell are these people? [laughs] I’m sure they’re not drugged [or] they don’t know where they are. Aren’t they waiting for the band that comes after? No, they’re there for me! That was a huge change. That was in the nineties, ’95 I think, or ’96. There’s a lot of negative about the music world, about what’s happened with Spotify and all of this. But I think the opening of ears is something positive that’s happened.
AD: Drone is a very important part of your work, and drone is so important in ritual or spiritual music. I wonder if there’s any sort of spiritual connection with your music?
Arnold Dreyblatt: I think it’s not an accident that longer tones lead one into a state of consciousness, a state of awareness, like listening to something for a long period of time and then hearing small differences. You can connect it to meditation, to other forms of consciousness and so forth. I haven’t made that an important part of my music. I think it was unnecessary. And I’m also not really interested in telling people what their associations should be.
But I think if you look at most spiritual or, I hate to say, religious music, whether it’s Gregorian chant and early church music, or looking in the East from various cultures, there’s something about sustaining and hearing different tones over a long period. You can say “spiritual,” but you could also say that it induces certain psychological states or perceptual states and maybe slows one down a bit, or the attention is a little bit different. When I listen to music, [like] certain periods of classical music or the Romantic period or even some contemporary composers who are not minimalist, I often have the feeling like, I’m hearing something that sounds really great, but then it’s gone. They don’t stay with it, you know? It’s there and it’s like, “okay, stay with it!” You have this beautiful moment, [so] explore that, but they go to the next thing. So that’s frustrating to me.
Listening is very much about what you’re listening for. What are people listening for when they’re paying attention to improvised music? It’s maybe not exactly the tones or melodies that people are playing. It’s more about the interaction or how one goes off one riff that one played into something else, all those different things. So I think one has to be careful. Music can be about many different things.
AD: You come from a visual art background, and I’m always fascinated in that connection between visual art and music. There are a lot of musicians who also make visual art, and vice versa— there are visual artists who are interested in music. Do you see your music in any sort of visual way?
Arnold Dreyblatt: My early video work was stroboscopic and also about periodic frequencies and frequencies of color. But that’s in the seventies. But [now], most of my visual work is text oriented. It’s a very different direction.
Music is very abstract, or it’s a kind of abstraction. [When I started making music] I couldn’t just deal with frequencies or ratios or numbers. I needed something physical in the beginning, maybe because I didn’t come from music. I started to read acoustics books with strings and sort of observe string vibration [through] a monochord. And then you could see the string actually vibrate, and you can see the waves. You can touch it, you can see the wave change. It’s like the nodes—it’s where “nodal excitation” comes from, the name of my first record. So that’s my beginning, actually. I [was] just trying to get to what is actually going on there. And with a string, you can actually see it. In a way, the music grew out of observing and trying to sense, where does it begin from? And for me, that’s the vibration of a string.
When I started to research, I saw that actually the monochord was the reference instrument in medieval Europe, and also earlier in Greece, and also in China. So all the siblings, all of the court cultures, and it also appears in tribal cultures.
AD: I think the diddley bow, from West Africa, is one-stringed.
Arnold Dreyblatt: Yeah, there’s a berimbau—there’s many cases of this. It’s also about limitation, what that teaches. And in a way, minimalism is also about limits, defining limits. You’re not going to modulate constantly and play this melody and then derive another melody out of the lead melody and so forth. The focus is something else. It’s also about being inside a sound and not perceiving it out there. Now, my music is very heavily amplified and whenever I’m talking to the sound guy, I’m always saying, “I don’t want to hurt anybody, [laughs] or maybe the old ladies it’s okay to hurt.” But I want you to feel like you’re in it, not that you’re hearing it from over there.