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A Conversation with Stephen Dembski


Stephen Dembski has been composing music for public performance since the early seventies, and has been professor of music at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for the past thirty years. In this first interview we discuss his early influences and his studies and compositions up through his work in the doctoral program at Princeton University. We spoke via Skype on January 7, 2011.

Stephen Dembski ©Photo: Roberto Masotti

Tom Moore: Please talk about music in your family when you were a child.
Stephen Dembski: My mother always claimed that she couldn’t do in anything in music, but my father was a pretty serious piano player when he was younger – that is, younger than he was when he was my father. His parents were born in Poland, and when he was a young man, he was a translator on a boat going between New York and Warsaw. So he was very much immersed in Polish and Polish-American culture. He idolized Paderewski, and played a lot of Chopin and a lot of Gershwin – he grew up around New York. There was an upright piano in our house, and I remember sitting underneath this piano while my father was playing, and watching his feet on the pedals. When I was maybe three or four years old, someone started giving me piano lessons, and so I read music at the piano, after a fashion, really very early. I remember fooling around at the piano, and making up tunes and chords, and sometimes I would show them to my sister, who was about a year younger than I. I remember some of those moments very intensely at this point. I never really practiced the piano the way that I should have, so I never learned to play the piano correctly, although I can slowly read music on it. I read music much better silently, actually.

Later, I was in school and wanted to learn an orchestral instrument. I wanted to study the clarinet, but I had braces on my teeth, so they wouldn’t let me do that. My arms weren’t long enough to play the trombone, which was my second choice. I ended up playing the flute, and studied the flute through elementary and junior high school, and into high school, and got to be a better flutist than anything else, really. While I was a teenager I also picked up a lot of folky instruments, like guitar, banjo and harmonica, and eventually washtub bass, and things like that, but I was completely illiterate on those instruments, and still am, really. That was a different way of making music altogether. Then I started with some electric music – rock and roll – and played with a group that did music that would probably be called jazz now, but then it was sort of a soul band – part black, part white: about eight people in all. So I played a fair amount of rock and roll while I was in high school. When I graduated in 1967, I got a fellowship to go to England for a year, and there I paid for the beer I was allowed to drink by performing in pubs, singing what I called American songs – the folkie tunes that I had learned back in the United States. I played guitar and banjo and harmonica over there for a while, but at the same time I was studying the flute classically. It was in England that I started to find very recently-composed music for the flute. I got more and more interested in that music, and began playing it better technically and with more engagement than I had been playing earlier music, although baroque and classical music is really the grounding of my musical experience as a classical performer.

TM: To rewind a little, could you talk about where you grew up?
SD: I grew up in Reading, Massachusetts. My parents moved there just after I was born. I was born in a hospital in Boston, and they were living in an apartment on Myrtle Street on Beacon Hill at the time. They moved to Reading because my father, who had grown up in New York, thought that kids should grow up in the suburbs. Reading is about halfway from Boston to New Hampshire, going straight north. At the time that I was growing up there, it was swampy and farmy – now it is very suburban, and entirely dependent on Boston. There were perfectly good public schools there, and they had, as schools all did at that time, orchestras and bands, and had teachers for all the orchestral instruments, so I got pretty good instruction. There were also local private teachers for piano and so forth. I had a piano teacher – one who was not not my father – for quite a while when I was young, and I had a flute teacher at school and played in the orchestra there. There was a local music director who I remember very well – Mr. Oliver.

His name was J. Douglas Oliver. He was a very important musical figure in Reading at the time. He had a lot of influence on a lot of young people, and worked very hard – one of those many people who are underappreciated, it seems to me.

Stephen Dembski

TM: What was his background? Was he a string player?
SD: He conducted the orchestra. I recalled him ending his sentences with “eh, bien”, which I later learned was a French interjection, so I imagine that he had studied in France for a while. He was probably a string player, but I’m not sure. I took a summer school course with him where we looked at West Side Story, which was a very new piece at the time, since I grew up in the fifties. I really liked that music, although it was very different from other music that I had experienced at the time. He brought that in too.

TM: Those were the days in the Boston suburbs when all the towns had to have complete music programs. I understand that Reading no longer has a string program.
SD: It is amazing what existed at that time. There was also an operatic group, the Goldovsky Opera Theater, which was a touring ensemble that during my time put on two operas in the high school auditorium – Rigoletto, and Carmen. I remember quite intensely getting involved in studying these operas. The town did not have an opera house, the way towns in the Midwest and the West did. There used to be these touring companies all over the place, and the Goldovsky was perhaps one of the last.

TM: My high school in Winchester [Massachusetts; right next to Reading] had a very large auditorium, with a large stage, with plenty of space behind and above the stage to fly scenery and so forth. In those days it was not so common to go into Boston for your culture.
Were you involved in ensembles in Boston?
SD: When I was about 13 my mother decided that it might be a good thing for me to apply to Phillips Academy (“Andover”), a private boarding school down the road from Reading. I did, and I got in, so I spent my last three years of high school there. They had a pretty good orchestra and a pretty good chorus. I participated in the orchestra all the time, and in the chorus a little bit. Some of the students who were there were very, very accomplished. I remember especially the pianist Eugen Indjic, who had an international career, even as a student – he was touring all the time. At Andover I got involved with the folkie musicians – a lot of them had grown up around Boston and Cambridge. The one of these I worked most closely with, John Tucker, was the son of the pianist and composer Gregory Tucker, who was the first composer of classical music that I met personally; I eventually got to know him a bit. But generally, when I went into Cambridge it was to hear my friends play at places like the Club 47, and sometimes to play there myself.

TM: Harvard Square was a very interesting place at that time.
SD: In junior high school, too, back in Reading, one of my teachers played me an LP of Herbie Mann, and she told me that the only place that I could get this record was at the Harvard Coop. That was one of the first reasons that I went into Cambridge, and that was while I was still in junior high school. I rode my bike there – it was about ten miles.

TM: It’s a good long ride.
SD: Yes, but it was worth it for this LP, which I listened to a great deal afterwards. That started getting me involved in jazz. Later I found the Birth of the Cool, which I listened to over and over again, and still do. Even now, the impact of that music on me is still enormous, and it’s amazing to me how lucky I was to have come upon it within a few years of its release as an album.

So I started buying records of jazz, and also baroque music, around Cambridge. I got very interested in Charlie Parker, to the point of getting records of out-takes of old sessions and things like that. These too were very important to me, and still are.

TM: It would be worth doing a history of music focused on the Boston area.
SD: I was telling a student the other day that Boston is one of those places outside New York that really had an independent musical culture, and has now too, in composition. There are very few places that you can say that about. You can’t even quite say it about San Francisco. Almost, perhaps, but it does not have quite the identity and independence that Boston has.

TM: I recall that in the 1980s David Hoose did the American premiere of the Schumann Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in Boston. About seven years later there was an announcement in the New York Times that a group there was going to do the American premiere of the work –so they were ignorant of what was going on just 200 miles north.
SD: One of the things that I love about New York is its provincialism.

TM: At what point did you start composing?
SD: Not until I was in college. I would always jot stuff down, but it wasn’t something that I would do for any kind of public consumption. I just did it very naturally. I played a lot of jazz in college too.

I ended up going to Antioch College, after that year in England. During the time I was at Antioch – very unusually, because it was a very small college, and not known for music – there were about six composers on the faculty, which is just amazing to me in retrospect. They were all strong influences on me in various ways, but Cecil Taylor was there in residence, with his group that he called the Unit, which included not only Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille, but also a couple of dancers, and some other people – they put on huge productions. And he also had a big band there, about thirty-pieces. He had been in Wisconsin for several years before, and brought some of the people from Wisconsin with him to Ohio. I played in the band, and every night we rehearsed from 10 pm to about 2 or 3 in the morning. It was a revelation to me at the time, the way he put together music, and how he conceived of pieces and worked with performers. Much of my early model for composing came from that experience, actually. Then I had a wonderful teacher there, who had brought Cecil – who had gotten a Ford Foundation grant to do it. His name was John Ronsheim; he had been a pupil of Dallapiccola and had also been very involved in jazz, as a bass player, before that. He was a great influence on me, in lots and lots of ways.

Through college if I had a public activity at all it was playing the flute, either in Cecil’s band or in classical orchestras, and occasionally singing Ockeghem and Dufay in Ronsheim’s chorus. At a certain point I realized that if I was going to be the flutist that I wanted to be, I would have to stop playing music, and reground my technique completely: I imagined just playing long tones and scales for about two years. I realized that I had not had the sort of early training that would have prepared me for a professional career, nor had I had even some sort of correction of the training that I had had – my habits were all wrong. Even though I was playing pretty well, there was a limitation there. And at that time I had already been putting most of my good hours of the day, not into playing the flute, but actually into writing music. I realized all this when I was about twenty or so. At that point, although I still was not showing the music to anybody, I was composing it and writing it down in such a way that it actually could be played by other people.

Stephen Dembski ©1982

I began to think of myself as a “public composer”, even if I was still in the closet, at that time. I didn’t mind being in the closet at all, but I had this fairly productive life as a composer whom nobody knew as a composer. I was imagining all this music, writing it down, developing notation for it – that was when I was in my early twenties.

I graduated from Antioch College in 1973 – I was about 22, 23 – and, with Ronsheim’s help, got a job selling records for CRI, if you can believe such a thing. That is what got me to New York, initially. At the same time I was applying to schools, many in the New York area, for graduate programs in composition. I had a few pieces then, but I had never had anything played. I presented these pieces to the programs, and I got into a few of them. I wanted to live in New York, but study outside of New York, which just seemed like, for me at the time, too much of a hothouse. I went to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which calls itself Stony Brook University now. That was wonderful. I commuted there from New York for two years. At that point people started playing my music, and I was entering contests and doing pretty well, and I became much more public as a composer.

TM: SUNY Purchase was started in the seventies, and it had a very important music program. Was Stony Brook the same vintage?
SD: Stony Brook was actually started earlier, I think – it was one of the first big university centers and research institutions in the SUNY system. They were talking about trying to make a “Berkeley of the East.”They had a medical school there, but they also had a big music program, which developed a graduate program in the early seventies. I arrived in 1973, when the doctoral program was just getting codified in various ways – although I was a master’s student at the time, I was on a committee that was advising the faculty on how to structure the doctoral program. As I understood it, Purchase was intended to be equally strong, but more on a conservatory model, and more for undergraduates than graduates. Some on the faculty were shared, with some of the instrumental people teaching at both Stony Brook and Purchase.

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