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A conversation with Stephen Dembski


Our previous conversation with composer Stephen Dembski, from January 2011, was published in number 15 of Sonograma (June 2012), in which we had discussed his early career up through study at Princeton University. This second conversation took place via Skype on Oct. 21, 2012.

Tom Moore: Please talk about your transition from Princeton to what came next.
Stephen Dembski: The entire time that I was studying at Princeton I was living in New York. That was partly because my fellowship covered my tuition, but I didn’t have any other support until the last year that I was there, so I had been teaching in various places – on Long Island, and around New York. I was offered a job in California, and also a job teaching at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. I decided to take the job at Dartmouth. It was not continuing, it was not full-time, but at least I thought that I could commute from New York, and retain the career I had been cultivating and had been quite happy with there. I was getting to know a number of musicians, particularly a group of pianists who had been at Juilliard.

Photo: Roberto Masotti c. 2002

Photo: Roberto Masotti c. 2002

By that point I was living in the very same apartment in New York City that I am talking to you from now, on Perry Street. It’s been very important to me to keep those musical connections alive in New York. Working with performing musicians is always very stimulating. Among the musicians was Jeffrey Swann and Robert Black, who later developed hand injuries and became a conductor – he died in the early nineties, of melanoma. Quite a tragedy for many of us – he was a very important colleague of mine, and a very good friend. Alan Feinberg, who is now a touring pianist, was also a part of this group, and also Andrew Rangell, who was teaching at Dartmouth in a position similar to the one I had, and also commuting back and forth between Dartmouth and New York. Robert Black’s New York New Music Ensemble was also a group of performers with which I remained in touch and retained as collaborators. The group has changed of course, so I don’t think anyone with the group goes back as far as I do now, to the late seventies – maybe Danny Druckman, who is still the percussionist with the group. Working in New York with people like that was very important to me. At the same time, I was teaching theory to Dartmouth undergraduates, very few of whom would become professional musicians, but many of whom were very well-educated and were in pre-professional programs, so they cultivated a certain amount of intellectual rigor in most of their studies. I was starting to get some recognition as a composer – I had won a few prizes, my music was starting to be played around New York, and I got some nice reviews, and gradually that turned into a certain amount of financial support, so that I was able to spend a lot of time working in the New York City apartment. Really wonderful. The dichotomy, at the theoretical level, that we talked about in the last interview, between music that we called collection music, and music based on order relations, like twelve-tone music, was still very alive for me at that time, and I was still working through it, although once I left Princeton I was working through it on my own. When I was teaching tonal theory to these non-professional music students at Dartmouth, I tried to find ways to explain the structure of tonal systems to them, but in ways that were general enough to apply to the problems that I was working through in non-tonal music. One day, I remember quite distinctly, I was working on a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts for the New York New Music Ensemble, I took the train up to Dartmouth, as I usually did, spent the night on the train in the sleeper (it was very romantic in a lot of ways in those days), and then got out at about 5 AM in White River Junction, near Hanover, and rolled in for an 8:30 class, so there was a lot of continuity – I could just leave my work in New York, and go off to teach at Dartmouth I found myself explaining the tonal system to these Dartmouth undergraduates as a pitch-class collection drawn from adjacent pitches on the circle of fifths, ordered by the chromatic scale. It was a very abstract presentation that leveled the playing field between those who had had a lot of music theory and those who had not, because those who had had music theory had never seen it presented in the way that I was presenting it, and those who didn’t, if they had had training in the sciences, were able to understand it very easily, because of the abstraction. So I found myself presenting this in a way that explained tonal music and tonal materials in terms of the circle of fifths and the chromatic scale. A light bulb went on when I realized that these were both actually twelve-tone orderings, but very special twelve-tone orderings, the only twelve-tone orderings that had a single interval of adjacency — in the circle of fifths, a perfect fifth, and in the chromatic scale, a minor second. But if you changed those orderings, a and you still treated them the way you did in the case the tonal system, all of a sudden the whole world changed, changed, but you could use them to inform music in many respects the way that you used the tonal materials. This is what I had been looking for for a long time – a way to work with musical materials that didn’t require me to continually exhaust the materials the way that twelve-tone music did, with progressions of twelve pitch-class aggregates, but could still support constructs that were not as regular as those in the tonal system. This was very important for me, and in the middle of that piece Alba – the one I wrote under that NEA commission, that was for NYNME —, I taught this theory class and realized hat I could use this way of considering musical materials to think about the rest of the music in the piece. So I wrote the rest of the piece thinking about the materials in this way, and found it to be satisfying, and at the same time useful for thinking about broad spans of music that wasn’t tonal, in terms of that whole repertoire of tonal music that people like Boulez said should be left behind. I was able to find inspiration in tonal music again – that was wonderful. And, in fact, ever since then this way of thinking about musical materials has affected the way that I have been working. It seemed at the time that it was going to be very important, and it was. This was thirty years ago, and I have been using these materials in this way since. People would ask me about it from time to time, asking how I was thinking about the materials, and I finally wrote an article about it that came out in Perspectives. I was reluctant to write about it much, because I wasn’t sure that it would be useful to anybody else, but it turned out that a lot of other people had concerns along the same lines, so a number of people have been in touch who have found it very interesting to think about their materials in similar ways.

At that time, in any case, I felt like this all was happening to me in the context of New York. The job at Dartmouth continued for another three years, and then that dried up, around the time that they hired a professional theorist, and I was clearly much more focused on writing music, composing it and getting it performed, than writing about it, so I was not the person for that job at Dartmouth.

Tom Moore: Could you say a little about Dartmouth? I think that most people may not know where it is, and what the culture is like….
Stephen Dembski: [Laughs] There’s quite a culture at Dartmouth!

Tom Moore: If you think of the other Ivies, Harvard is in Boston, Brown is in Providence, Columbia in New York, Penn in Philadelphia…they are all associated with large urban areas. But Hanover is way out there in the mountains.
Stephen Dembski: Dartmouth is halfway to Canada, on the Vermont border, and the Connecticut River separates Vermont from New Hampshire, and there’s a bridge right there at Hanover. A lot of the faculty lived on the Vermont side of the river. Hanover is a small town, completely dominated by the college – the nearest bigger town is Lebanon, and the train, which serves both Lebanon and Hanover, stops at White River Junction. They had something called the Cold Regions Laboratory (CRREL.usace.arm) – when they wanted to study somewhere really cold, they came to Hanover, or very near it. There’s very little population – there are a few small towns, but nothing big up that way.

Photo credit Cole Dembski-Sullivan (2014)

Photo credit Cole Dembski-Sullivan (2014)

Dartmouth has a long cultivation of winter sports, and there’s a strong jock/fraternity culture. But they also have a wonderful arts center, and Hanover is definitely the cultural center of the whole area. People drive 70, 80, 100 miles just to come to cultural events there. It’s very lively, culturally. Intellectually it’s quite strong. It’s only barely a university, with a couple of professional schools, but continues to call itself a college, and wants to be a college, and not a university. That’s one of the things that characterizes both people who go there as students, and people who end up teaching there. They are interested in undergraduate education, and it is not really a professional school, except for the areas of medicine and business. For me it was a wonderful place to go – I would leave New York on Monday nights, and be there for three days, spend a lot of that time teaching, leave on Thursday night, take the train back, and I would be in New York for four days. Those four days that I had in New York were completely free of any academic obligations, so that I was able to get a lot of work done, cook up projects with musicians in New York, and generally have a very rich professional life at the same time. So it was a very, very good situation. I would take the train out, and in New Haven where they would disconnect the electric engine, I would wake up because of the bang when they connected the diesel engine. I was living in three places, in New York, Hanover, and on the train, so whenever I woke up, I would wonder if the big boom was the boiler blowing up in New York, the furnace blowing up in Hanover, or them putting the diesel engine on the train. That went on for three years.

After that ended, I had written Alba, and was getting a lot of recognition as a composer, getting grants and prizes. At that time I had a job replacing Bill Matthews at Bates College in Maine, to which I also commuted for four months in 1982. By that time I had a series of commissions from the National Endowment and had gotten award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and I figured out that if I could eat spaghetti with oil and garlic, no fancy sauce or anything, and sit in my apartment, I could live for three years and four months with the money that I had put together from these various bits of good fortune….I was ready to just hunker down and write music, but I was offered this job in Wisconsin. It was a full-time continuing position, and I had never been offered a full-time continuing position for anything. I was reluctant at that moment, when I was going to be able to support myself solely through composition for a good number of years, to take on academic responsibilities. But when I looked at people’s careers I saw that many of them had had good fortune for a few years, and then they would either disappear, or become poor, or if they were lucky they would get an academic job… or if they were even luckier, they came from money, and they would appear to be making their living as a composer, but were actually living off their trust funds. There was a surprising number of people who were that way. I thought, in my own case, that I had better take this job, since I didn’t have independent means, and all the good things that had happened I thought were 3% the result of hard work, 2% percent the result of my innate qualities, and 95% luck, and the people I knew who helped me to do what I was doing. And who knew how long that would work.

So I took the job at Wisconsin, but by then I was so much in the habit of commuting out of New York, that I decided I would continue commuting, but at slightly lower frequency, and commute out to Wisconsin. At that time my supervisors there were enlightened enough to see that that way I would continue to have contacts in New York, and I am eternally grateful, because as time has gone by I have continued to keep up that commuting model. I need the isolation and the stimulation in New York. For me, it works.

Tom Moore: The easiest place to be alone is in the big city.
Stephen Dembski: In the country you have to answer, say hello to people, and actually have conversations with them. In the city your relations with people are much more formal, and no one expects you to answer the door, unless they’ve obtained permission to knock on it. That’s very helpful when you are in the middle of a good working session, and you don’t want to be disturbed.

Tom Moore: Would you like to talk about some of the pieces from your early years at Wisconsin?
Stephen Dembski: After that trio [Piano Trio (1977), discussed in the first interview, Sonograma, No. 15], and Digit, I wrote a piece called Stacked Deck, which was commissioned by a group up at Dartmouth. Right after, I wrote Alba, and it was a critical piece for me: it got a lot of attention because of the kind of sound that it had, and the way I was working, but also because it started out with a few minutes of musical space with just the percussionist playing bongos and congas, and the other instruments gradually coming in. The beginning of the piece was really quite distinctive: bongos and congas were not as common in European-tradition chamber music as they are now. But I have always liked them, and I insisted that they be played with bare hands (a lot of European musicians at the time wanted to play them with sticks, which was just appalling to me). The piece began very distinctively, and had five movements, and was set up so you could play them in the order that they were in the score, but there were also a number of different orders that could be played, as well as different orders for fewer than all five movements. It had a kind of mobile form in that sense. That was a very important piece for me for lots of reasons.

Right after that, when I had thought about these materials, and this way of thinking about materials that gave me scales and chords, and ways of relating those scales and chords, that were very much analogous to keys and chords in tonal music, but weren’t restricted to the constructs and regularity of the diatonic material, I saw that I could write a piece that would test whether these things would really work in a way analogous to the way tonal materials worked. I didn’t have a title for it, and I had asked Andrew Rangell to come down for lunch. As he walked in, I was playing through the piece, reviewing it at the very last moment, and he said “what’s that you’re playing?”. “That’s the piece I’m working on.” “What’s it called?” “I don’t have a title for it yet.” He knew about Alba, and he was a great punster. He said “why don’t you call it Alta?” It begins in a very high register for the piano, and it stays there for quite a while, with just one note at a time. I was thinking of the way that Bach’s pieces for solo instruments went, where there is no explicit harmony on the surface of the piece. The harmonic constructs are “chunked” together by the listener from single notes that don’t sound at the same time. There are many analyses that describe how this works. So if the notes in Alta were going to be chunked together, this would have to be done by the cognitive perceptual activity of the listener, and in my view at the time, that would only happen if the material were organized in a traditional enough way that so it could be chunked. The materials I was using were three and four-note combinations that that were not the referents of tonal music, but they were being put together in the same way. The piece had a very positive reception from a lot of people – a Pacifica radio reviewer called it “moving and beautiful” – and I thought that was great, because to me it meant that they had heard something, and that it made some sense to them. The most important thing was that they heard it as music, and it was working as music, and even though it was only one note at a time, they were making harmonic sense of it. I was very happy about that – I took it as a test case that lent some support to the idea that this way of thinking about materials might work for me.

Photo: Wm. Garrett c. 1986

Photo: Wm. Garrett c. 1986

Alta was first played and recorded by Alan Feinberg, and his performance was so sensitive and delicate and knowing that it brings out many of the things that I was hoping would appear — so much of the credit for the success early on of that piece goes to Alan’s interpretation of it. It was really just wonderful. It was dedicated to the memory of another piano player, Bob Miller, who did premieres of works by many different composers in New York – Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, and earlier pieces of mine.

After that I got into a groove with commuting between Wisconsin and New York, and found it to be pretty productive. Robert Black started the Prism Orchestra, and asked me to write a piece for them. My mother had died in 1983, and this piece, from a couple of years later, is in memory of her. It’s a piece that is completely unlike Alba and Alta, in its surface attack and so forth, with chords in the strings that whoosh in and whoosh out, a very different way of articulating musical ideas that enabled the expression of different things than the music I had written before. It was later recorded for CRI. That was Spectra.

Shortly after that the violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who had worked very closely with Jeffrey Swann, and had won the prize for American music from the Rockefeller Foundation, was lamenting the fact that that it had been a long time since there had been any new pieces of major proportions for violin and piano. So he asked three composers, of whom I was one, to participate in an NEA consortium commission, which included Ron Copes and James Buswell as violinists. I took the idea of major work very seriously, and wrote a huge piece which I still regard as neo-classical in a sense – a violin sonata in three movements, fast-slow-fast, a kind of triple meter in the last movement, very meditative middle movement. The piano part is tremendously challenging – it takes a really dedicated pianist as well as violinist to do the piece, and depending on how fast or slow you take it, it could run up to forty-five minutes. Roughly, the movements are twenty, fifteen and ten minutes. It got a number of wonderful performances in the late eighties and nineties, including by Ron Copes, who is now one of the violinists in the Juilliard Quartet.

Tom Moore: Could you elucidate the view of the work as neo-classical?
Stephen Dembski: I wasn’t thinking of neo-classical in the sense that it is often understood in America. The tonal materials are not the ones that we associate with neo-classicism – they are atonal, not diatonic. The neo-classicism in the piece both resides, I would say, in the overall sense of what the music does. The first movement has a 19th-century heroic rhetoric. Also, the closing variation is spectacular in some ways, very challenging. The second movement is extremely restrained, with the pianist playing three-note chords in quarter notes, and the violinist sings above those chords, very lyrically and freely, as if he is improvising. With respect to the chords, it’s not really a passacaglia, but you could say that the cycle of chords is transformed about eight or ten times through the course of the movement, with the same relations between the chords, even though chords themselves are different. You get one cycle after another of chords that eventually come back to the one you started with, while the violin is improvising over them. The first movement is the most neo-classical in its rhetoric, but also, in a sense, in its structure. At the time I remember thinking very consciously of the classical sonata-allegro form. For Mozart, that was just the way he made music, but later it was codified. Although there’s a neo-classical conception, and a nod toward neo-classical ideal forms, almost in the Platonic sense, it doesn’t sound like anything that we would call neo-classical in the sense the term had in the mid-twentieth century in the United States. Most of those older pieces have a diatonic framework that they play with in ways that are distinct from the ways that tonal music works. In this case, it’s non-diatonic materials that form the framework.

Tom Moore: This piece stands out as being so notably larger than the other pieces in your catalog. It seems like we have a dichotomy in contemporary music between the pieces that are Webernian and epigrammatic, say what they have to say in two or three minutes, and then we have the pieces that go on for five or six hours in the minimalist tradition. But there’s not so much music of “symphonic” dimensions, where a symphony or tone-poem might last forty-five minutes, or even thirty minutes.
Stephen Dembski: I would say it is a reflection of the musical materials themselves that people use, and how they think about them. Schoenberg is often quoted as saying that when he was writing pieces like Erwartung, he was unable to write pieces of great complexity and length. Now Erwartung is a pretty long and complicated piece. And nevertheless he was saying things like that about his experience of writing pieces. I think that what he meant was that he didn’t have conceptual tools, conceptual models, for thinking about broad spans of music. A lot of composers in trying to write longer pieces with non-tonal and non-diatonic materials have tried to invent those models somehow, but I think that because, in general, they have had either twelve-tone models to work with, or relatively inchoate non-tonal pitch-class set models, in terms of thinking about working with pitch structures, they have not found ways of constructing conceptual models for broad spans of music, because in neither of those are there generally accepted and well-understood ways of considering music hierarchically — a system of nested constructions, if you like, which is what supports the length of those forty-five minute symphonies. I am happy, in the case of tonal music, to suggest that Schenkerian analytic models will have important things to say about how we understand that music. With twelve-tone music there are a lot of relational possibilities, but certainly no generally accepted ways of thinking about large-scale twelve-tone structures. And there are not so many people writing twelve-tone music. Diatonic minimalism not only takes the diatonic set of materials as a given, but uses repetitions of it in a way that takes long spans of time just to happen, so that you understand right away that the way that the music is going to go is really quite different from the way that music used to go, before 1950….

Almost by the nature of its construction, diatonic minimalist music tends to be quite long. One of its glories is that it is an extraordinarily proposal for how music is going to go, and I have enormous respect for those people like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who took those steps, and imagined those ways of music proceeding. Interestingly, even my music – Alta, for example – was called minimalist, or almost minimalist, by reviewers, which was always amusing to me.

One of the reasons that I was so excited about the materials for the violin sonata was that they related in a way that was so similar to the way that tonal materials do. It was their genesis that allowed me to write a piece that was so close to neo-classical models.

Tom Moore: At this point there is no commercially available of the sonata?
Stephen Dembski: It was recorded by Fulkerson, and pianist Charlie Abramovich, back in the 90s. I am hopeful that it might actually be released soon. There’s been a flurry of activity over the past few months, so I am excited about the possiblity that something might actually happen.

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