The Searcher’s Image:
Roger Reynolds and Mark Dresser’s Collaboration on imAge/contrabass

Joshua Charney

Since 2007, Roger Reynolds has composed seven solo works in his image series; each work is made up of the pair – imagE & imAge. With the imagE pieces, the capital E stands for “evocative.” Reynolds attempts to make these pieces “lyrical, continuous, even tender.”1 The A in imAge stands for “articulate,” since he intends for this music to be “sectional, tending towards assertion, and variety.” 2 So far, Reynolds has written for cello, piano, guitar, flute, violin, viola, and contrabass. He creates the image pieces for specific performers to explore particular sounds and techniques, while crafting a piece that organizes the performer’s approach to the instrument.

imagE/contrabass & imAge/contrabass emerged out of a close collaboration between Reynolds and the contrabassist Mark Dresser. The latter was composed in 2010, while the former was composed two years earlier.Though some of the image pairs have been created simultaneously, Reynolds has the tendency to complete the imagE (“evocative” one) first. Perhaps this corresponds to the idea that articulation requires language, whereas evocation only requires meaning, and meaning precedes language. imAge/contrabass combines both Reynolds’ compositional language and Dresser’s performance vocabulary. Over the past several decades, Roger Reynolds’ objective has been to utilize compositional tactics to reveal something to the listener and to himself. This practice falls under the model of, what Reynolds calls, the “searcher.”  The intent of this article is to focus on imAge/contrabass and examine how the piece indicates Reynolds’ role as “searcher,” while allowing for a musical “tailoring” from both composer and performer.

imAge/contrabass was written for Mark Dresser, who is not only a skilled contrabassist, but also an experienced improviser and composer. In the early 70s, Dresser played with jazz trumpeter Bobby Bradford, while also performing with the San Diego Symphony. He received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music from UC San Diego where he studied bass with Bertram Turetzky. In 1983, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study with Italian double bass soloist and teacher Franco Petracchi in Italy. Dresser then moved to New York where he performed and toured with saxophonist Anthony Braxton. In 2004, Dresser joined the faculty of UCSD, taking over Turetzky’s position. Not long after, Dresser and Reynolds began working together. For Dresser, it was an exciting prospect. Reynolds has been on the composition faculty at UCSD since the late 60s, and even as a student at UCSD, Dresser remembers being inspired by and relating to Reynolds’ dogged work ethic.3

Their collaboration began as what Dresser refers to as a “slow dance.”4 Interestingly, its inception was through writing. In the mid 2000s, Dresser was working on an article that focused on bass harmonics, and he asked Reynolds to help with the proofing. Reynolds gained a deeper understanding of Dresser’s bass techniques and subsequently decided to create a new image work for Dresser. The process developed over three or four years, and according to Dresser, the image pair was written and rewritten at least fifteen times. Reynolds had a set of agendas which were brought to fruition by first reading about Dresser’s approach, then studying Dresser’s language on the bass through demonstrations and discussions. The fact that it was collaborative was clear from the beginning. Dresser describes a part of the process as “tailoring.5 Reynolds tailored the piece to fit Dresser, as he was using Dresser’s vocabulary to construct the music; however, it went both directions, as Dresser participated in cementing elements of the form. He clarified whether or not certain schemes were possible or plausible and suggested better ways to accomplish individual gestures. It was partly for this reason that the piece went through so many different realizations. For imAge/contrabass, Reynolds was pursuing articulate attributes of the bass, and he found this in its pizzicato. Conversely, the evocative piece is played entirely with the bow.

There are two techniques used in imAge/contrabass that are idiomatic of Mark Dresser. The first is the two-handed finger tapping, or hammer-on – pull-off, which Dresser utilizes to execute descending or ascending chromatic lines, often sliding between them. The second is the “buzz,” which is accomplished by the left hand subtly releasing finger pressure. This allows the string to vibrate against the neck percussively. Additionally, Dresser has a distinct way of achieving right-handed harmonics, which are also called for in the piece. He has developed and honed these obscure techniques over several years through improvisation and experimentation. It would most likely be required for any prospective performer of imAge/contrabass to consult Dresser’s performance practice. Reviewing the score alone would not provide complete guidance. imAge/contrabass was published in 2010 and has not received many performances other than from Dresser himself. He estimates he’s performed it about a dozen times. That being said, rather than keeping it a secret, Dresser intends for these techniques to become universal. “Share the shit,” he says.6 imagE/contrabass & imAge/contrabass were recorded and released on Dresser’s album Guts (2010), in which he included an instructional DVD that showcases his craft.

Dresser’s idiomatic approach to the instrument aids in applying Reynold’s concept of image to the work. Before Reynolds composed his first image piece, he produced the electronic work The Image Machine (2005). Image in the context of music may have always been relevant to him, but after this point, there is a consistent engagement with it. In an interview published in 2007, Reynolds references the third of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, where the piano plays a seemingly unrelated lower register chromatic passage in the second half of the variation. Reynolds equates this moment with an image, a “shadow – subtle blurring.”7 For him, the concept of image in music is established through mood over other musical designs. In Reynolds’ words, “this is a musical idea that is not based on pitch content, not based on texture, not based on rhythm; it relies on the nature of its evocativeness.”8 This certainly applies to imAge/contrabass. Though it might not be dubbed capital E – the evocative one, it still prioritizes the exploration of vivid and articulate material over pitch or rhythm content. What Dresser provides is not his ability to interpret melody or execute complex rhythmic material, though he is quite capable of both; he contributes his expertise in producing expressive sounds that communicate, articulate, and arouse something in the listener. This is not to say that the image series is devoid of melody and rhythm, but rather that “expressive resonance” sets a precedent.9

The image concept is also present in a literal way, where the visual aspect of performance becomes meaningful. imAge/contrabass is a solo piece, as are all of the image series, and like all of the other pieces, the name of the instrument is in the title. This is not imAge for contrabass, it is imAge/contrabass, as if to suggest that the bass itself is a critical part of the image. There are no electronics or amplification, only the instrument and the instrumentalist. In general, solo performances draw the audience’s eyes to a fixed spot, much like a painting, whereas an ensemble or orchestra will give the audience several points of visible entry. Seeing the performer manipulate the instrument and explore it in idiosyncratic ways is not only food for the ears, but the eyes as well. Having witnessed a performance of imAge/contrabass by Mark Dresser, I can speak from experience in saying that it was an utterly engaging and vivid experience to watch Dresser animatedly produce these sounds with the bass. 

Assembling these sounds and techniques into a sonic architecture is how Reynolds enacts the role of a “searcher.”  In his 1987 book A Searcher’s Path, he divides the composer into two categories, the “maker” and the “searcher.” Makers are composers “whose work utilizes familiar patterns in devising communicative music.”10 The maker communicates with his or her listener by accessing conventions with which the maker and listener are both familiar and in agreement with. They make music that, regardless of its value or power, is reliant on a large body of pre-existing communal responses. Reynolds believes the maker has become the predominant figure in American musical institutions. He, on the other hand, self-identifies as a “searcher.” Searchers are composers “whose efforts are aimed at revelation, at inviting music to manifest itself for us in forms that are not premised on the ideal of communication from composer to listener.”11 As opposed to the maker, the searcher works with compositional stratagems and techniques that are “hand-forged” by the composer. The searcher is dedicated to “invitation and revelation.”12 He or she communicates something unfamiliar to the listener, doing away with any prerequisite of perspective commonality. In one regard, Reynolds’ harnessing of Dresser’s personal techniques adheres to the qualities of the searcher. The collaboration was initially a literal search for unfamiliar sounds. Dresser too plays out the role of searcher, as his discovery of this performance practice emerged from his own effort to reveal something through composition, improvised or otherwise.

Another area where Reynolds attempts to assert himself as searcher is in the formal construction. He applies, as he does is many of his works, a compositional practice he calls “transformation.” It is not unlike variation – “the process of mutual variation, but variation rethought in response to contemporary opportunities so as to become a more broadly conceived transformation.”13 It is not surprising that Reynolds mentions the Diabelli Variations in an interview, as this sort of practice is significant in his work, though it is not the variation of a Beethoven, but rather a distributed variation. His solo piano piece, simply entitled Variation (1988), provides further insight. At the beginning of the score Reynolds defines the notion of variation as “not a succession of restrained variants, but rather a flux of influences in continuous transformation.”14 In imAge/contrabass, he works with very short segments – 17 five-measure phrases or transformations; there is one irregularity which I will discuss later.

Perhaps what Reynolds is hinting at above is that since the musical material is continually changing, the variations emerge before the subject is ever presented. The first phrase of imAge/contrabass may seem like a theme from which to build the following transformations, but, in fact, there is no theme, rather the first phrase becomes the first transformation. The piece begins with a loud quick striking of the open strings of the bass. This is an immediate and brazen entrance for the performer, but it also creates a marker, as each subsequent phrase begins with the same or similar gesture and introduces the forthcoming transformation. Reynolds works with a very brief initial variant, then remodels it again and again until it is presented seventeen times. He hardly strays from this process. As each transformation proceeds, Reynolds further explores the several outlined techniques, such as the finger-tapping, glissandos, or the right-handed harmonics, or he shortens or extends the duration of the phrase. Regardless, a 5/4 metered measure always clearly marks the phrase’s end.

The idea of transformation is tantamount for Reynolds. He once said, “that experience – of the transformation of ideas, of elements, over time – is what a piece is ‘about.’”15 These condensed transformations speak to his exercising of memory and repetition and allow him to access the “perceptual present.” This is “a period of time within which we are aware of no past and no evolution, but are absorbed in the moment; this period stretches in rare cases to perhaps seven seconds.”16 The seventeen phrases in imAge/contrabass exceed seven seconds, but not by much. In fact, Reynolds notes the duration of each one, the shortest being 10 seconds, while the longest is 17. This method of determining segment duration comes out of Reynolds’ experiments with “logarithmic formal divisions,” which began in the 1970s, but nevertheless, there is an inherent invitation for the listener to remain in the moment.17 The jarring open-string fortissimo strumming is a reminder and a persistent act of reiteration. This use of repetition is in complete contrast to a composer who might have material slightly or slowly change over time. Reynolds utilizes established units, but transforms them with each new phrase, still producing detectable recurrences, yet allowing the listener to move with the emerging relationships.

EXAMPLE 1: imAge/contrabass, mm. 1-6. First transformation, plus first measure of the second transformation.

Upon further examination of the form, the significance of numbers becomes blatantly apparent. For a composer, implicating certain numbers is unavoidable, but for Reynolds it is deliberate and meticulous. His composition Archipelago, for example, utilizes the number collection 1, 5, 7, 10 as the basis for a thematic element.18 In imAge/contrabass, there is a collection as well, but the number 7 holds specific significance. It is most notable in the tempo changes. The piece begins at quarter note = 60, then changes after measure 49 (7×7) to 102 bpm. Each proceeding transformation decreases by 7 bpm, until it returns again to 60 bpm; there are seven tempo changes. Additionally, there are 84 measures in total, which is also a multiple of 7 (7×12). The number 17 is significant as well (its second integer being 7). There are 17 transformations throughout. Each one is 17 beats – four measures of 3/4 and one measure of 5/4 (3+3+3+3+5); when the tempo is 60 bpm, each transformation is 17 seconds long.

As mentioned earlier, there is one exception to this. Reynolds writes at the beginning of the score “[s]tructurally, a regular 17 second-long phrase length is asserted until measure 50, when it is abruptly reduced to 10 seconds, then gradually recovering the original 17 second span.”19 The irregularity occurs in the transformation from measure 31 to 34, which is only four measures, and 14 beats long, hence 14 seconds. It is possible that Reynolds simply made a mistake and short-changed this transformation by one measure, but let’s assume this is intentional. How would it then relate to his number collection and the overall form? For one, this irregularity occurs within the seventh transformation, and rather than 17 seconds, it becomes 14 seconds (7×2, another multiple of 7). Also, by subtracting a single measure before the tempo change, he organizes 49 measures (7×7) before the change, instead of 50. This seventh transformation also places a division in the collective structure.

After this phrase, certain motives are transformed further. For example, Reynolds establishes a half-step descending motive within the first phrase. This is explored through the seventh transformation, where in the eight transformation, it is inverted to a half-step ascending motive. The eight transformation also introduces the technique of a “quasi bisbigliando,” which Reynolds designates as a “quiet 2-fingered tremolo.”20 This is one of Reynolds’ many devices in his exclusive compositional tool-box. Of course, there are others, even ones he has employed for years, such as the fermata with an arrow. This symbol “indicates a break in, a kind of suspension of tempo that resolves itself with a resumption of measured time at the end of the arrow.”21 On the recording, Dresser uses these fermatas, as well as the breath marks (also with fermatas), as opportunities to implement space and allow the ends of the transformations to ring out momentarily, often before a raucous juncture.

EXAMPLE 2: imAge/contrabass, mm. 79-84. Final transformation with closing measure and “after thoughts.” 

Despite the detailed formal construction, the collaboration process with Dresser never involved formal analysis. Dresser was aware that Reynolds was using one of his algorithms in composing the piece, but, in terms of studying the form, Dresser says, “I just let the musical material speak to me.”22 Even without being consciously aware of the irregular and divisive seventh transformation, on the recording, Dresser goes into the eight transformation with more energy and intensity.

He premiered imAge/contrabass on March 24, 2010 at the Hawaii Contrabass Festival. The image pair was recorded that same year and released on Guts, along with nine other compositions by Dresser. Some of the tracks were heavily improvised, while others were completely notated. For Dresser, the decision to include Reynolds’ pieces was obvious; he wanted the album to be an honest document of what he was working on at the time. Dresser also remarks of the album, “it was made for players.”23 Guts is not only a compilation of Dresser and Reynolds’ works, but also a collection of Dresser’s bass techniques in the context of composition. It is intended to instruct curious bass players on how to produce these sounds. In this regard, the album is a record of both Dresser and Reynolds assuming the role of “searcher.”

What Dresser brings to the table is not only his performance capability, but his composer’s mind. He is the only performer within the image series, so far, that is also a prolific composer. He has been successful in gathering and inventing this vocabulary and participating from his end in the “tailoring” of the piece. Ultimately, the partnership proved to be a valuable experience, as the two would go on to collaborate on future projects. MarkEd Music (2011) was written for Dresser and computer musician. The piece makes use of Dresser’s idiomatic techniques and also leaves room for improvisation. “It showed a level of trust and engagement that I don’t think [Roger] has ever done before, especially with improvising because that means letting go of some control.”24 The image series puts Reynolds and the instrumentalist in a collaborative position where the piece is “tailored” to both the composer and performer. In the case of imagE/contrabass & imAge/contrabass, it cultivated a creative relationship that would propel Reynolds and Dresserinto an area of artistry that may have otherwise never been explored.


Boyd, Michael. “The Evolution of Form in the Music of Roger Reynolds (I).” Tempo 66, no. 259 (2012): 36-48.

Dresser, Mark. Interview by Josh Charney. September 25, 2015.

Dresser, Mark. “Mark Dresser Working With Roger Reynolds.” Guts. Online Video.

Reynolds, Roger. imAge/contrabass. New York: C.F. Peters Corporation, 2010.

Reynolds, Roger. Variation. New York: C.F. Peters Corporation, 1988.

Reynolds, Roger. A Searcher’s Path: A Composer’s Ways. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1987.

Reynolds, Roger, and David Bithell. “Image, Engagement, Technological Resource: An

Interview with Roger Reynolds.” Computer Music Journal 31, no. 1 (2007): 10-28.

  1. Reynolds, imAge/contrabass, 2.
  2. Reynolds, imAge/contrabass, 2.
  3. Mark Dresser, interview by Josh Charney, September 21, 2015.
  4. Mark Dresser, interview by Josh Charney, September 21, 2015.
  5. “Mark Dresser Working with Roger Reynolds.”
  6. Mark Dresser, interview by Josh Charney, September 21, 2015.
  7. Reynolds and Bithell, “ Image, Engagement, Technological Resource,” 20.
  8. Ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. Reynolds, A Searcher’s Path, 25.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid, 3.
  13. Ibid, 31.
  14. Reynolds, Variation, 2.
  15. Reynolds and Bithell, “Image, Engagement, Technological Resource,” 21.
  16. Reynolds, A Searcher’s Path, 33.
  17. Boyd, “The Evolution of Form in the Music of Roger Reynolds (I),” 43.
  18. Ibid, 11.
  19. Reynolds, imAge/contrabass, 2.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Reynolds, Variation,2.
  22. Mark Dresser, interview by Josh Charney, September 21, 2015.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.