Slow Fire

1988 – Part One of the American Trilogy

CD and cassette recordings, as well as a video are available.

Original Stage Production Credits:
Directed by Richard E.T. White
Produced by Robin Kirck
Composed by Paul Dresher
Written by Rinde Eckert

Singer/Performer: Rinde Eckert
Guitar, Keyboard, Electronics:
  Paul Dresher
Percussion: Gene Reffkin

Larry Neff Lighting Design
Jay Cloidt Sound Design
Melissa Weaver Production Director
Delphi Technical Services & Design Consultation
George Lakoff Linguistic Consultant
David Hyry & Associates Marketing And Public Relations
Kate Edmunds Visual Design Consultant
Leonard Pitt Movement Consultant
Rowie Kirck Costume Construction
Rena Shagan & Associates, NY Booking Agent

SLOW FIRE is part one of the Paul Dresher Ensemble's American Trilogy. Followed by the second installment, POWER FAILURE, the trilogy was completed in 1990 with PIONEER.

Tape loop system designed and built by Paul Tydelski and Paul Dresher

Special thanks to Jana Hawley, Chris McFee, Alex Nichols, Fides Krucker, Jeremy Hamm, Roxanne Merryfield, Carrie Boram, and Theater Artaud

SLOW FIRE was commissioned by New Music America '85 and produced with the Mark Taper Forum and the American Music Theater Festival. Support for the production was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, Lila Acheson Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, Zellerbach Family Fund, Betty Freeman, the Los Angeles Opera Association and the Los Angeles Theater Center.

When the Paul Dresher Ensemble last performed Slow Fire in 1996 – eleven years and nearly 200 performances after Rinde, Gene and I, in a basement jam session, started discovering the music and words for the comically disturbing everyman characters Bob and Dad – we promised ourselves (and our audiences) that it was time for Bob and Dad to go bed, permanently.

But as Rinde and I have collectively and individually toured around the United States and Europe since then, we are continually pleased to be approached by people who saw Slow Fire, considered it a seminal event, and still hope for yet another chance to see it, this time with their partner and/or children. There was something about Bob and Dad that resonated with most of our audiences, who could see in these figures a part of themselves, their fathers, or someone close from their past. Thus the work developed a remarkably broad spectrum of audiences beyond its own origins in the contemporary performing arts. These included fans of traditional opera, rock and roll, modern dance, the visual arts, and even large numbers of children.

But Slow Fire was never just a character study of a familiarly comic but dangerous buffoon. Bob and Dad’s outlook contained the attributes of a world view that, when written large, reflected some of the darker consequences of American attitudes: the hubris of “manifest destiny”, the despoiling of the environment and destruction of indigenous cultures in the name of progress and property, and the obsessive enforcement of power, not in a self-questioning culture of ideas and principles, but in a climate that poses the threat (and actuality) of violence. While Slow Fire in is no way an explicit political critique of American policies, it offers engaging characters whose behavior asks that we reflect on the larger consequences of their actions. Slow Fire was created in the political cauldron of the mid 1980’s, during the Reagan presidency, soon after Vietnam, and during our now nearly forgotten but very violent adventures in Central America. The fears and anger wrought by 9/11 have sadly propelled the American public on a course that plays into and amplifies these most dangerous of American inclinations toward the exercise of power. We hope that Slow Fire will offer audiences a renewed opportunity to reflect upon the connection between our choices and actions as individuals and our current condition and choices as a nation.

Slow Fire was, individually and collectively, a defining work for each of us, launching our long-time collaboration, our individual careers as artists, and the Ensemble as one of the leading producing and touring groups in the field of new opera/music theater. Thus it is with both gratitude and great expectations that we offer the work again in a 20th Anniversary tour.
Paul Dresher
August 2003

SLOW FIRE gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of one man in isolation. Through operatic aria, speech, frenzied falsetto and declamatory incantations, his language vacillates between common clichés and poetic soliloquy. The first of three works in the "American Trilogy," SLOW FIRE conjures up the imbalances and dark passions lurking behind the "normal" veneer of middle-class American life. Writer and performer Rinde Eckert plays ‘Bob,’ a man caught between the American dream of success and consumerism and the alienating psychoses of contemporary urban living. Although the action takes place all in one weekend, Bob’s story unfolds through memories and fragmentary thoughts; only at the end are his deadly secrets finally revealed. Bob’s life balances precariously on the banality of day-to-day practicalities and the intricacies of a disturbed psyche. Through his reminiscences we hear the voice of Bob’s father, who conjures up an old-fashioned rural wisdom and reverence for land, clashing with Bob’s urban consumerism. Haunted by paranoia, he sleeps with the lights on and panics when he hears a knock on the door; Bob also has the ability to transform ordinary objects (a cardboard tube, a flashlight) into personal, mystical totems.

Composer Dresher uses a tape delay system of his own invention to create a densely layered and richly evocative score, infused with the propulsive rhythms of rock and roll. His delay system manipulates the elements of language to accentuate the unsettling sense of fragmentation. Dresher, playing electric guitar and synthesizers, and percussionist Gene Reffkin perform at either side of the spare stage. SLOW FIRE was developed by Dresher, Eckert and director Richard E. T. White.

SLOW FIRE premiered in its final form in February 1988 at Theater Artaud in San Francisco. Its first one-act version premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1985. It has received rave reviews proclaiming it a masterpiece. SLOW FIRE was commissioned by New Music America and American Music Theater Festival and was produced by Robin Kirck.

Act One:

Glimpses of Bob. He remembers his Dad. He asks questions.

After a phone call, bedtime. Did he lock the car?

He settles down, he drifts.

Saturday: scrapwood for a decoy, Dad says "Fire into the clouds."

Act Two:

A noise at the door. He rifles the Sunday paper.

He practices the art of self defense.

He looks at his scrapbook.

Bob and his Dad on their last trip.

The weekend is over. Eyes open, he starts his day.

Opera/New Music Theater

"Outrageously funny, often scary, ingeniously constructed and consistently communicative...a monodrama made monumental...firmly places Dresher in the forefront of a new breed of American composers".
  – Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner

"A rare piece of music theater, a tour de force of intellectual and emotional artistry. It is, to put it simply, a masterpiece."
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

"The New York Philharmonic's Horizon's '86 Festival struck gold with SLOW FIRE...a rough-hewn passion that makes much celebrated postmodern music theater seem not just impressionistic, but escapist by comparison."
–Linda Sanders, Village Voice