In Time of War… notes on the program

George Crumb (b. 1929) is one of the most frequently performed composers in today’s musical world. Crumb is the winner of Grammy and Pulitzer Prizes, and continues to compose new scores that enrich the lives of all who come in contact with his profoundly humanistic art. Crumb’s music often juxtaposes contrasting musical styles, ranging from music of the western art-music tradition, to hymns and folk music, to non-Western musics. Many of Crumb’s works include programmatic, symbolic, mystical and theatrical elements, which are often reflected in his beautiful and meticulously notated scores.

George Crumb – Photo by Becky Starobin

A shy, yet warmly eloquent personality, Crumb retired from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania after more than 30 years of service. Honored by numerous institutions with honorary Doctorates, and the recipient of dozens of awards and prizes, Crumb makes his home in Pennsylvania, in the same house where he and his wife of more than 60 years raised their three children. George Crumb’s music is published by C.F. Peters and an ongoing series of “Complete Crumb” recordings, supervised by the composer, is being issued on Bridge Records. –

In 1976, Crumb was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and completed Dream Sequence (for violin, cello, piano, percussion and offstage “glass-harmonica”), the second of his works to be premiered by the Aeolian Chamber Players (Ocober, 1976). The work is a study in stasis and fragility and its subtitle “Images II” recalls the delicate and evocative timbral shadings of certain passages in Black Angels (“Images I”). – David Cope, extract from Biography from George Crumb Profile of a Composer

George Crumb on Black Angels, Thirtheen Images From The Dark Land for Electric String Quartet

“‘Black Angels’ was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption). “The numerological symbolism of ‘Black Angels,’ while perhaps not immediately perceptible to the ear, is nonetheless quite faithfully reflected in the musical structure. These ‘magical’ relationships are variously expressed, e.g., in terms of length, groupings of single tones, durations, patterns of repetition, etc. . . . There are several allusions to tonal music: a quotation from Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, an original ‘Sarabanda,’ the sustained B-major tonality of ‘God-music,’ and several references to the Latin sequence ‘Dies irae’ (Day of Wrath). The work abounds in conventional musical symbolisms such as the ‘Diabolus in musica’ (the interval of the tritone) and the ‘Trillo del diavolo’ (the Devil’s Trill, after Tartini).”

Julius Eastman was born in New York City and raised in Ithaca, New York. He studied piano and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, graduating in 1963. In the late sixties, he moved to Buffalo, New York, where he was invited by composer-conductor Lukas Foss to join the prestigious university-based new music group, the Creative Associates, eventually becoming a member of the University of Buffalo music faculty. In Buffalo, his colleagues at the new music center included Petr Kotik, Gwendolin Sims, James Fulkerson, Jan Williams, and Morton Feldman. During his highly productive years in Buffalo, he composed Thruway; a ballet score, The Moon’s Silent Modulation; Macle; Trumpet; Colors; and Stay On It; among other pieces. In the summer of 1976, Eastman moved to New York City where he became part of the “downtown” New York music scene. During this period he performed with Arthur Russell, Meredith Monk, Peter Zummo, and others in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music to downtown lofts and disco clubs. From 1976 until his death in 1990, Eastman’s “model of musicianship,” as music historian Ryan Dohoney terms it, “expanded to include free Jazz, improvisation, new wave rock, disco, as well as his own composed music that is marked by intense repetition and political aggressiveness.” This “political aggressiveness” is evident in the series of multi-piano pieces that Eastman wrote with provocative titles such as Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla. Following a series of personal struggles and misfortunes such as eviction from his apartment for non-payment of rent and the confiscation of his possessions including his musical scores, Eastman returned to Buffalo, where he died in 1990 at age 49. -Renée Levine Packer, Co-editor (with Mary Jane Leach) and contributor, Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music (University of Rochester Press, 2015.)

Julius Eastman – Photo by Donald W. Burkhardt

Among the Eastman scores we have left, Gay Guerrilla is possibly the finest example of what Eastman himself called organic music: a sort of large-scale additive process of accumulation of harmonic materials that proliferates and grows organically across considerable time spans. Unlike Philip Glass’s additive minimalism, a process based on lines that rhythmically expand and contract, Eastman’s organic music is based on the piling up of pitch over pitch, harmony over harmony, in curves of decreasing and increasing harmonic density and harmonic rhythm. This process really makes these compositions breath as if they were living organisms.

[…] Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla is loosely structured like a Choralphantasie (chorale phantasia). The chorale fantasia is a music composition based on a Lutheran chorale, whose characteristic feature is that the presentation of the choral melody is delayed via an “edging”, often constituted by an extended fugue-like section that prepares the stage for the rhetorical climax: the entrance of the chorale as a cantus firmus to accompany and complete the contrapuntal splendor of the fugal devices already deployed, and which typically leads the piece, triumphantly, to its end. Chorale fantasias were the opening movement of many Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chorale Cantatas and are among the most thrilling participatory moments of the entire Lutheran liturgy. Chorale melodies in general can be conducive to militancy: they are constructed so as to be easy to memorize; some look and function as a “call to arms”; they are a powerful tool to unify a group, as every-one in the congregation is familiar with the melody; and as a chorale is first heard, the congregation is typically frenzied with enthusiasm and tends to participate in the singing. In “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” by Martin Luther, images of warfare are conjured up already in the title, and the text is a call for fortitude and strength (pride!) to overcome oppression […] – Extract form the essay Gay Guerrilla, A Minimalist Choralphantasie by Luciano Chessa.


Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

2017-2018 Season Announcement

Join us for an exciting season featuring amazing works by George Crumb, Julius Eastman, Beat Furrer, György Ligeti, and a world premiere by Orlando Jacinto Garcia written for violist Melia Watras and Seattle Modern Orchestra. We’ll finish the season with a transcendental 50 minutes piece by Jonathan Harvey.








THURS. | OCT. 12 | 8 PM
Pre-concert presentation at 7:30 PM with SMO co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley
@ The Chapel Performance Space in the Good Shepherd Center (4th Floor)

George Crumb – Dream Sequence (Images II) for violin, cello, piano and percussion (1976)
George Crumb – Black Angels (Images I) for electric string quartet (1969)
Julius Eastman – Gay Guerrilla (1979) – Version for 13 strings

Seattle Modern Orchestra opens its 2017-18 season with a concert featuring American music from the 1970s. Composers George Crumb and Julius Eastman responded to the cultural and political turmoil of the ’70s with works that resonate with today’s conflicts. Crumb described his Black Angels, inspired by the Vietnam war, as a “parable on our troubled contemporary world,” portraying a “voyage of the soul” in three stages: Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption). Eastman viewed his minimalist work Gay Guerrilla as an “organic” work which “glorifies Gay” as a guerrilla – “someone, in any case, that is sacrificing his life for a point of view.”


SAT. | APRIL 14 | 8 PM
Pre-concert conversation at 7:30 PM with guest composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia and SMO co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley
@The Chapel Performance Space in the Good Shepherd Center (4th Floor)

Beat Furrer – Aria for soprano and six instruments (1999) – West Coast Premiere
Orlando J. Garcia – the clouds receding into the mountains for viola and ensemble (2017) – World Premiere
György Ligeti – Melodien for chamber orchestra (1971) – Seattle Premiere

Seattle Modern Orchestra is pleased to host composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia with a new piece, the clouds receding into the mountains, written for violist and University of Washington faculty Melia Watras and SMO. The title refers to both the spectacular cloud formations as well as the continually receding aural materials heard throughout the work. The concert also features Swiss composer Beat Furrer‘s Aria and Melodien for chamber orchestra by the 20th century master, György Ligeti.

SAT. | JUNE 9 | 8 PM
Pre-concert presentation at 7:30 PM with SMO co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley
@The Chapel Performance Space in the Good Shepherd Center (4th Floor)

Jonathan Harvey: Bhakti for chamber ensemble and quadraphonic tape (1982) – West Coast Premiere

For its season finale concert, Seattle Modern Orchestra is thrilled to perform British composer Jonathan Harvey’s 50 minutes epic work Bhakti (devotion), centered around Sanskrit hymns from the Rigveda toward a transcendent consciousness. The ensemble and tape are engaged in “dialogue, transformation, memory, anticipation, simultaneous translation, and reaching beyond the instrumental scale to a more universal dimension.”

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

Interview with Clarinetist Carol Robinson

by Rachel Yoder

Paris-based clarinetist and composer Carol Robinson is a contemporary specialist known for her work with the music of Giacinto Scelsi, Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono, and Eliane Radigue. Here she discusses her background, current work, and her upcoming performance with Seattle Modern Orchestra on Mystic Clarinet, a program featuring works by Scelsi, William O. Smith and Jeremy Jolley:

Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and your early musical training?

I lived in many places as a child, but it was in the public school system of Rapid City, South Dakota that I received my initial musical training. This included group lessons, choir and playing in various school bands. Being first chair in the junior high band gave me the opportunity to play with the all-city band and later experience playing in an orchestra. My family moved back to Los Angeles when I was fifteen, and it was there that I began private lessons, working first with John Gates and then most importantly with the great performer and pedagogue Gary Gray. We lived in a neighborhood with a high concentration of people in “the industry” which brought me into contact with all sorts of talented people. The cultural environment was rich and stimulating. When I was sixteen, I went to a music camp called USC-ISOMATA. Once again, I was first clarinet, allowing me to play in the orchestra, chamber music groups and faculty ensembles. That summer, much to the bewilderment of my family, I decided to become a musician.

After graduating from Oberlin, you went to Paris to study contemporary music – what led to your interest in contemporary music?

I have always been interested in unusual sounds, even before I knew what “contemporary music” was. From an early age I played and listened to as much new music as possible. It was IRCAM and a desire to further expand my musical horizons that drew me to Paris.

Was there a particular teacher or mentor in clarinet or composition that you sought out in Paris? Did you train at a conservatory or in another setting?

Before arriving in Paris I spent the summer in Siena, Italy studying at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana. The French clarinetist Michel Portal happened to play a concert there, and hearing him was an inspiration because his approach to the instrument was very different from what I had known until then. I came to Paris just to see what was going on, and upon discovering a vibrant scene, decided to leave the master’s program at USC and stay in the city a while. I was awarded a Harriet Hale Wooley scholarship to study with privately with Portal. Another chance meeting brought me into contact with Maurice Gabai, the principal clarinetist of the Paris Opera. In addition to having brilliant technique, he had a particularly expressive vocal way of playing. I took lessons from him at a regional conservatory off and on for a year and received an advanced performance diploma. These French musicians offered another vision of clarinet playing, and were both important to my musical development.

I understand that you worked with Giacinto Scelsi on his music for clarinet. Can you describe this experience and the performance insights you gained?

If I were to name a master, Giacinto Scelsi would be mine. After visiting him in Rome, a friend brought some clarinet scores back to Paris and gave them to me. The music spoke to me immediately. I soon played the three pieces for E-flat clarinet (Tre Pezzi) in concert. The same friend recorded the concert and sent the tape to Scelsi. He subsequently invited me to work with him in Rome. Sessions with him were intense, not only because he was very exacting regarding the scores, but also for the degree of concentration and raw power required. He demanded total involvement, settling for nothing less. Every instant of every note mattered. Those lessons have never left me.

You’ve recorded an album of Scelsi’s music, and two of his works are programmed on the upcoming concert with Seattle Modern Orchestra. What drew you to his music, and can you describe some of your favorite aspects of these works?

I’ll be performing Kya, and coaching two SMO musicians on the stunning Ko-Lho duet for flute and clarinet. I love the power of this music, its urgency and gripping emotional impact. I have always been fascinated by how it sounds simultaneously archaic and ultra-modern.

One of my favorite things about Scelsi is his use of microtones, intervals smaller than the half-steps we typically find in Western music. How do you think this technique affects the listener, and what challenges does it create for the performer(s)?

Microtones, like glissandi, create shifts in the perception of time. They help us slip into another listening reality. Modern orchestral wind instruments were designed with elaborate key mechanisms to play diatonically. These mechanical systems for an instrument like the clarinet can be ill-adapted to producing smaller intervals, and in addition to being imprecise, are often plagued by timbral differences.

On the SMO concert, you’ll also be performing a work by Seattle-based clarinetist and composer William O. (Bill) Smith, who is widely known both as a jazz musician who performed with Dave Brubeck and as a pioneer of extended techniques for the clarinet. What do you see as Smith’s legacy to clarinetists?

Bill Smith’s lasting legacy will be his pioneering work with clarinet multiphonics [multiple notes at once]. His diligence in defining and cataloguing these sounds has opened untold possibilities for generations of clarinetists and composers. Though perhaps less widely known, his compositional exploration of the demi-clarinet, double-clarinet, “prepared” clarinet [using assorted accessories and modifications] and integrated electronics has likewise left its mark. His personal performance practice also includes the use of projections, hand gestures, texts and simple staging. He is a truly inventive and generous person.

Why did you choose to perform this particular Smith piece (Rites for clarinet and tape)?

Rites was written for me, commissioned by the CCMIX (formerly Xenakis’ UPIC studio) in Paris, as part of an multi-composition project for clarinet and electronics. Playing it in Seattle with the composer present is a real honor.

What other composers have you worked with closely?

Though I have worked with many composers over the years, perhaps most important is my ongoing collaboration with the French electronic master Eliane Radigue.

Your mesmerizing album Billows for clarinet and live electronics strikes me as exploring the visceral, mystical territory of Scelsi but with the slower pace and simplicity of Morton Feldman, another composer whose works you’ve performed and recorded. Then there’s the birbyne, a Lithuanian single-reed instrument you use on the album. Can you speak to how your musical influences and interests play out in your compositions?

I suppose that it is normal for there to be parallels between what I prefer to play, and the music I write, though there is no intentional overlap. There is something so physical in the perception and creation of sound, something almost integrated into the psyche. How could they not be mutually influential?

Billows grew out of the quiet section of long, very contrasted work for basset horn and electronics. The idea for it came from a record producer who, fascinated by that slow, floating section, wanted to release a complete CD with only that. The special open timbre of the birbyne was especially well-suited to the live electronic treatment I was working with.

What current or upcoming compositional and performing projects are you working on?

Upcoming compositional projects include a 13-minute piece for solo percussion and electronics, a duet for birbyne and voice, and a piece for string trio and electronics which will be part of my cycle THE WEATHER PIECES, inspired by meteorological phenomena.

In addition to performances of my own music, there will be a premiere of a new opera by Wandelweiser composer Jürg Frey in Ireland, and a new work for birbyne and harp by Eliane Radigue for the Venice biennial.

A longer-term project is recording a CD of new works for birbyne by various wonderful composers.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m very happy to be playing this program in Seattle!

Hear Carol Robinson perform works of Scelsi, Smith and Jolley with Seattle Modern Orchestra on June 3 at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle, WA (more info/tickets). To learn more about Robinson, visit her website.

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

Mystic Clarinet: Saturday, June 3, 2017


For its season finale concert on Saturday, June 3, Seattle Modern Orchestra collaborates with Paris-based clarinetist Carol Robinson in a program centered around enigmatic Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, with whom she worked closely. Robinson will also premiere a new work by SMO co-artistic director Jérémy Jolley, and celebrate the 90th birthday of renowned Seattle clarinetist/composer William O. “Bill” Smith with a performance of one of his works.

Carol Robinson grew up in the U.S. and graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory, but was drawn to Paris by the opportunities to study and perform contemporary music. Her activities led to an opportunity to work with Scelsi in Rome, where she had the intense experience of learning his music to his exacting standards. She has recorded extensively, including an album of the clarinet works of Scelsi on Mode Records as well as albums of works by Luigi Nono, Morton Feldman, Luciano Berio, Eliane Radigue and Phill Niblock. As a composer, Robinson has written for instruments with live and fixed electronics, and created music for dance and musical theater. Her work also includes frequent improvisation and multidisciplinary collaborations.

Scelsi (1905-1988) is an Italian composer famous for his Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola, a set of four pieces, each a meditation on a single note that is explored through timbre and microtonal variation. SMO’s Mystic Clarinet program will feature his Ko-Lho and Kya, both works that will transfix listeners with the organic gestures and surprising sonorities of Scelsi’s sound world.

Of Scelsi’s music, Robinson says, “I love the power of this music, its urgency and gripping emotional impact. I have always been fascinated by how it sounds simultaneously archaic and ultra-modern.”

William O. “Bill” Smith’s Rites for solo clarinet and tape was written for Robinson, commissioned by the CCMIX (formerly Xenakis’ UPIC studio) in Paris. Robinson and SMO will perform the world premiere of Jérémy Jolley’s Archipel… en résonnant à Venise… for solo clarinet, four instrumental groups and fixed media. Archipel… is based on Jolley’s memories of the sonorous qualities of Venice, Italy and places the musicians around and in the audience for a holistic listening experience.   


  • William O. “Bill” SmithRites for solo clarinet and tape (1998)
  • Giacinto Scelsi Ko-Lho for flute and clarinet (1966)
  • Giacinto Scelsi Kya for clarinet and 7 instruments (1959) – Seattle Premiere
  • Jérémy Jolley Archipel… en résonnant à Venise…  for solo clarinet, 4 instrumental groups and fixed media (2017) – World Premiere

WHEN: June 3, 2017 – 8 PM (7:30 PM Pre-concert conversation with co-artistic director Jérémy Jolley and guest clarinetist Carol Robinson)

VENUE: Chapel Performance Space at The Good Shepherd Center

TICKETS: SMO Chapel Series Season Pass: $60 Adult

Single tickets: General $25 | Seniors $15 | Students $10

About Carol Robinson

To say that Carol Robinson is a Franco-American composer and clarinetist is perhaps too restrictive to describe the eclecticism of her experience and passion. In fact, she seems interested in everything having to do with sound. She is not someone who likes the middle ground, preferring the edges, the extremes. Her music is situated in those places of tenderness and rage, gentleness and power that come from experience and mastery. Trained as a classical clarinetist, she graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory before continuing her study of contemporary music in Paris thanks to a H.H. Wooley grant. Whether playing repertoire or more adventurous material, she performs in major venues and festivals the world over (Festival d’Automne, MaerzMuzik, Archipel, RomaEuropa, Wien Modern, Huddersfield…), and works closely with musicians from a wide stylistic spectrum. A fervent improviser, she prefers the most open musical situations and regularly collaborates with photographers, visual artists and videographers.


Carol Robinson’s recent recordings demonstrate the breadth of her work. In addition to her own compositions Billows (PLUSH), Laima (Expériences de Vol) and Cross-Currents (SHIIIN), there are also monographic recordings of important contemporary composers such as Giacinto Scelsi, Luigi Nono, Morton Feldman, Luciano Berio (MODE), Eliane Radigue (SHIIIN), Phill Niblock (TOUCH), as well as alternative rock, jazz, and classical music.

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

Listening in the Round: An Interview with Stuart Dempster

by Shaya Bendix Lyon

(Stuart Dempster, February 2017. Photo by Shaya Lyon)
Stuart Dempster, February 2017. Photo by Shaya Lyon

Hear Stuart Dempster perform with Seattle Modern Orchestra / Solaris Vocal Ensemble on March 11, 2017 at the Chapel Performance Space.

Stuart Dempster’s living room emits a sound: a softly insistent rhythmic noise that my ears, then eyes track to an electrical timer plugged into a corner outlet. Long on this planet, plastic yellowed, its bits charge around in circles, increment by increment, with steadfast metronomic regularity.

I bring my thoughts back to S.M.O.R.E.S., the topic of our discussion. Dempster, 80, is a composer and trombonist; he’s premiering a new work by that name with the Seattle Modern Orchestra on March 11. The program also includes works by his colleague, Robert Erickson, who would have turned 100 this year. Erickson was part of a group of composers he commissioned in his early career that also included Luciano Berio, Andrew Imbrie, Ernst Krenek, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Suderburg, and several others.

(Lest you think this commission or his performance of it is an unusual occurrence, I should mention that Dempster’s many recent performances include a collaboration with Wayne Horvitz at the Asian Art Museum; an 80th birthday concert with William O. Smith, who was turning 90; several events with and in memory of his longtime collaborator and dear friend Pauline Oliveros; Bull Roarchestra at the Henry Art Gallery with Ann Hamilton; and a UW Dance Department commission with UW alum and Broadway/Merce Cunningham veteran Holley Farmer. Just last month, he led SMO in a performance of his work Choral Riffs with the Solaris Vocal Ensemble, who will join SMO to perform S.M.O.R.E.S.)

Dempster’s voice is low and gentle. As I record our conversation, I worry that the ticking timer will overpower it, but they work well together.

S.M.O.R.E.S., or “Seattle Modern Orchestra Resonating Enthusiastic Solaris,” was commissioned by SMO and Solaris Vocal Ensemble. The orchestration calls for mixed ensemble, voices, and audience – yes, audience – and seating is in the round, with the audience and Dempster at the center and the performers surrounding them. 

Like other pieces Dempster has written recently, S.M.O.R.E.S. pairs structure with improvisation. Both the audience and the performers will have a score and a part to play. Dempster himself will play the trombone as a conductor-leader, and the performers will follow his lead.

“I move around in a circle, giving information to different people,” says Dempster. “I give them information by what I play, and then I give instructions for them to stop, or to do something else. There is the danger that I ‘abandon’ players if I get involved with one section… If I play something else, or if I abandon a player, they have the option to change what they’re doing – for example, choosing a different register, or a different pitch.”

S.M.O.R.E.S. can be played for any length of time; this performance will run for about 12-15 minutes. Beyond that, Dempster says, “I do it in real time – so I can’t really tell you what’s going to happen.”

SMO and Solaris will prepare for the unpredictable in rehearsal, and each time they go through the piece, it will yield a different result. As for the audience, you’ll be humming! (Dempster’s advice: Don’t be timid.)

Joining S.M.O.R.E.S. on the program is a similarly structured piece, Milanda Embracing, written in 1993-94 and named for the child who greeted Dempster and his fellow artists with open arms at a studio at the start of a residency.

Milanda Embracing also involves audience participation. It is more complex than S.M.O.R.E.S., and – unusually – the audience will have a score of its own. (No music-reading skills are required.)

It also differs from S.M.O.R.E.S. in that it’s not led by Dempster. Performers read the instructions, which include directives like “Send sounds across space.”

“There’s no piece there, actually,” he says. “If you look at the score, there’s no piece. It’s what you should think in playing a piece, and through that, you can make a piece. It’s what I call the original minimalist piece – because there’s nothing there, among all this verbiage. But most of it is stuff people should be thinking about when they’re playing Haydn, or playing whatever.”

Dempster reassures that he’ll preface the performance with an explanation of the score and the piece itself, but that the players need the audience to join in.

“I have found that the kind of sounds that I make will be influenced by the kind of sounds that the audience makes, or thoughts that an audience has,” he wrote in 1994. “There is a beautiful feedback loop here.”

Also on the program are Erickson’s The Idea of Order at Key West, Pacific Sirens, and General Speech for solo trombone, commissioned by Dempster and written in the late 1960s by his colleague, Robert Erickson.

General Speech is performed with costume (an abstraction of a military costume) and lighting (for pomp and circumstance), and is designed to mimic the sounds of a military speech – specifically, General MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” farewell speech of 1962.

“MacArthur always seemed to be about nine feet tall,” says Dempster. “He had a huge presence in WWII, and certainly in Japan after the war. Erickson heard a recording of him speaking, and he was intrigued. We got together and decided to try this speech. I figured out a way to sort of say ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ on the trombone, and that’s how it got started.”

It was a 300-hour-long, side-by-side process. Dempster would start playing sounds, and Erickson would work on the score.

“First he’d say, ‘Play the words of the speech.’ After trying this, and then that, I would finally get it figured out. That would take 20 minutes, that one little phrase. Then he would ask – ‘What are you doing?’ – ‘I dunno…’ and we’d have to go back all over it again, trying to figure it out.”

After hours of working through it, they had a score that made some sense. (For a sneak preview, check out the video below.)

The sound of a speaking trombone is not only eerie, but unique to that instrument.

“Erickson – and others too – used to say trombone pieces were mostly piano pieces masquerading as trombone pieces, but when you start using the larger sound palate of the trombone, that’s a different thing,” says Dempster. “It’s idiomatic to the trombone to have all those vowels available. You don’t have that on harp, you don’t have it on piano, you don’t have it on much of anything.”

Dempster is a careful listener; he tunes in to everything from a passing garbage truck to the resonance of a specific corner of the Chapel space in the Good Shepherd Center, where this concert will take place.

“The building has a lot of sounds to offer. I was doing a piece one time – it was the centenary of the building in 2007. It was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a leaf blower outside. When it came my turn to play, Steve [Peters] started to close up the window. I said, no, no, open it! Of course it stopped fairly quickly once I started playing. And oh, the heating! It’s not as noisy as some classic new York heaters that just pound and crash and bang. The Chapel radiator is a little too polite (he laughs) – just one clunk once in a while. I like that. I always enjoy it when that happens.”

Of S.M.O.R.E.S., Dempster reiterates: Just listen! Listen to the performers, the sounds of the room, the surround. Resist the temptation to turn around, or even to turn your head around. Get used to people being behind you. If you do turn, he says, “turn really slowly so that you can change how the piece sounds by what you do in the audience.”

As our conversation winds down, I ask Dempster about the ticking timer. He laughs.

Oh, that thing! That’s from the Sixties. I keep thinking I’m going to replace it. I probably said that 20 years ago, too.”

His tone sobers.

“You’re sitting here, and suddenly the power goes out. The refrigerator’s off, the heater’s off, and that thing is off. You do have this magnificent quiet. But – it’s been sounding like that for a very long time. In an odd way, it doesn’t bother me… it’s in there with all the other stuff I listen to.”

Come hear Stuart Dempster perform with Seattle Modern Orchestra and Solaris Vocal Ensemble on March 11, 2017. Concert begins at 8pm; arrive at 7:30 for a moderated chat with the composer. Tickets/more info here.

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

Double Portrait – Erickson/Dempster


“I do it in real time – so I can’t really tell you what’s going to happen.”

— Stuart Dempster

SEATTLE MODERN ORCHESTRA Featuring Solaris Vocal Ensemble: Double Portrait – Erickson / Dempster (TICKETS)

Saturday, March 11, 2017, 8 PM (7:30 PM Pre-concert conversation)

On Saturday, March 11, Seattle Modern Orchestra celebrates the centennial of American composer Robert Erickson and the 80th birthday of legendary Seattle trombonist and composer Stuart Dempster with a concert of their works, including the premiere of Dempster’s S.M.O.R.E.S., a new work for ensemble and voices commissioned by the Seattle Modern Orchestra.

Stuart Dempster is a pioneering trombonist, composer and improviser whose career includes commissioning Berio’s Sequenza V for solo trombone, and collaborating with Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band. He is well-known to Seattle audiences due to his active performance schedule and work on the faculty of the University of Washington.

S.M.O.R.E.S, like many of Dempster’s works, is a structured improvisation. Dempster creates the work by using the performers almost as a living sound palette.

“I move around in a circle, giving information to different people,” said Dempster in a recent interview. “I give them information by what I play, and then I give instructions for them to stop, or to do something else.”

Dempster’s Milanda Embracing (1993-94) similarly uses an open form, but provides a written score for the audience and performers to interpret with guidance from Dempster.

Robert Erickson (1917-1997), a former colleague and collaborator of Dempster, crystallizes the American pioneering spirit in music. He was one of the first American composers to explore Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, experimented with custom-made percussion instruments and instrumental extended techniques, and worked extensively with sounds recorded on tape with or without live performers. His General Speech for solo trombone (1969) features Dempster imitating the speech patterns of General Douglas MacArthur (listen to a recording here). The three works by Erickson on this program give a glimpse into this underrated American artist.


  • Robert EricksonThe Idea of Order at Key West for soprano, flute, clarinet, trumpet, viola and cello (1979)
  • Robert Erickson General Speech for solo trombone (1969)
  • Robert EricksonPacific Sirens for percussion and variable instruments / voices (1969)
  • Stuart DempsterMilanda Embracing for various instrumentation (1993-94)
  • Stuart DempsterS.M.O.R.E.S. for ensemble and voices (2017) – World Premiere

WHEN: March 11, 2017 – 8 PM (7:30 PM Pre-concert conversation with co-artistic director Jérémy Jolley and guest trombonist and composer Stuart Dempster)

VENUE: Chapel Performance Space at The Good Shepherd Center

TICKETS: Single tickets: General $25 | Seniors $15 | Students $10

Stuart_Dempster2010About Stuart Dempster

Stuart Dempster, born in Berkeley, California in 1936, studied performance and composition at San Francisco State College. From 1962-66 he was principal trombone in the Oakland Symphony under Gerhard Samuel and, since 1968, he has been on the faculty of University of Washington. Grants include: Creative Associate at SUNYAB (1967-68); Fellow in the Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois (1971-72); Fulbright Scholar in Australia (1973) where he studied aboriginal didjeridu; a NEA Composer Grant (1978); US/UK Fellowship (1979); Guggenheim Fellowship (1981). His book The Modern Trombone: A Definition of Its Idioms was first published in 1979 and he has recorded on several labels including Columbia, Deep Listening, Nonesuch, and New Albion, the latter having produced his “Abbey” recording (NA 013) which has become, in the words of one reviewer: “…a cult classic.”

Dempster tours regularly as a solo recitalist performing his own works as well as his commissioned works by Berio, Erb, Erickson, and others, and also with the Deep Listening Band. His work exemplified by Sound Massage Parlor, and environmental/site specific works such as SWAMI (State of Washington As a Musical Instrument) have earned him a reputation as a composer/performer whose work is at once deep, meditative, and amusing. Deep Listening Band recordings include: award winning Deep Listening, with Pauline Oliveros and Panaiotis, recorded in the old Fort Worden (Port Townsend, WA) cistern with a 45″ reverberation, released in May 1989 on New Albion Records (NA 022); Troglodyte’s Delight, recorded in an old limestone quarry in upstate New York, released in September 1990 on ¿What Next? Records (WN 0003); and The Ready Made Boomerang, recorded in the above mentioned “Cistern Chapel” and released in January 1992 by New Albion Records (NA 044).

Dempster was the producer for all three of these CDs. In 1993-94 he was composer-in-residence in Minneapolis with Seattle’s New Performance Group as part of the Music in Motion project. Also in 1993 Dempster was commissioned by Meet The Composer’s Composer/Choreographer Project for a collaboration with Merce Cunningham for what has turned out to be highly acclaimed performances in the US and Europe. The music for that project was recently released entitled Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel on New Albion Records (NA 076).

solaris_horizAbout Solaris Vocal Ensemble

Solaris Vocal Ensemble aims to encourage a renaissance of innovation in the field of choral music. The group consists of twelve of Seattle finest vocal artists. Its debut project, sponsored by the Royalty Research Fund of University of Washington, was the commissioning of four new choral works, some utilizing electronics, by established American composers. These works were performed and recorded in 2012 and released on the Albany Records label under the title Floodsongs. Learn more about Floodsongs here.

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

Spotlight: SMO Guest Artist Gloria Cheng

On November 3, Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng joins the Seattle Modern Orchestra for the world premiere of a concerto by Andrew Waggoner.

Gloria Cheng

Cheng has long been well-known in Los Angeles for her frequent collaborations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and composers including John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Steven Stucky. With her 2008 release, Piano Music of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Steven Stucky, and Witold Lutosławski, Cheng earned a Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance – and her notoriety grew. Following a second Grammy nomination for her 2013 release, The Edge of Light: Messiaen/Saariaho, Cheng secured a place as one of America’s foremost interpreters of contemporary music for piano.

The New York Times has lauded her “mercurial imagination and exacting touch,” and the Washington Post described her performance as “breathtaking.”

The new Concerto for Piano by Waggoner represents the culmination of a nearly 20-year relationship between the two musicians. Waggoner, a New-York-based composer, wrote a pair of solo piano works for Cheng, the first in 1997 and the second in 2009. With his Piano Concerto, Waggoner draws on influences as diverse as Carl Jung, Walt Whitman and Gabriel Fauré to explore the nature of dreams, compassion, forgiveness and loss. The final movement is dedicated to composer Steven Stucky, a friend and collaborator of both Waggoner and Cheng, who passed away as the work was being completed. It is material sure to elicit inspired playing from Cheng, known for her ability to translate the depths of human emotion into sound.

Andrew Waggoner’s Concerto for Piano, written for pianist Gloria Cheng, conductor Julia Tai and the Seattle Modern Orchestra, will be premiered on November 3, 2016, at 8 p.m. in the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle, WA.

Interview with Gloria Cheng

Gloria Cheng in a live performance of Oliver Messiaen’s, Preludes, Un reflet dans le vent (1929)

More about Gloria Cheng:

Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng has been a recitalist at the Ojai Festival, William Kapell Festival, and Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, and has performed on leading concert series including Carnegie Hall’s Making Music, Cal Performances, San Francisco Performances, and Stanford Lively Arts.

In recital and on recording Cheng explores meaningful interrelations between composers, as in her 2008 release,Piano Music of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Steven Stucky, and Witold Lutosławski, which captured the Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance [without Orchestra]. A second Grammy nomination followed for her 2013 release, The Edge of Light: Messiaen/Saariaho. 2015 saw launch of MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano, a themed recital, recording, and award-winning film (Breakwater Studios), featuring works composed for her by Bruce Broughton, Don Davis, Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman, and John Williams.

Cheng was the last soloist to appear in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its historic final concerts there in 2003 under Pierre Boulez; at Mr. Boulez’s personal invitation she performed Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques with the orchestra. Cheng’s concerto debut with the L.A. Philharmonic was in 1998 under the direction of Zubin Mehta. Other concerto engagements have included appearances with the Louisville Orchestra, Indianapolis, Shanghai, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Pacific symphonies.

Recent seasons have brought Cheng and pianist/composer Thomas Adès together onstage to offer the premiere of Adès 2-piano Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face, commissioned by Sue Bienkowski. In 2015 Cheng premiered the late Steven Stucky’s Piano Sonata on the Piano Spheres series, and presented coast-to-coast screening/recitals of MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano, often with one or more of the celebrated composers in attendance. As a curator Cheng has overseen programs such Music at Black Mountain College for the Hammer Museum; BEYOND MUSIC: Composition and Performance in the Age of Augemented Reality at UCLA, an international gathering of composers and media artists that included Kaija Saariaho, Jean-Baptiste Barriere, and Bill Viola; and an upcoming symposium at UCLA celebrating the 70th birthday of composer John Adams.

In Los Angeles Cheng has been a frequent guest on the L.A. Philharmonic Green Umbrella series, performing works such as Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord conducted by Oliver Knussen, John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, and the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dichotomie, composed for and dedicated to her. She presents an annual recital on the Piano Spheres series, performing on both piano and harpsichord, and collaborates often with the Calder Quartet and on the Jacaranda Music series.

Cheng’s countless premieres, commissions, and dedications come from a varied and distinguished roster of composers who include John Adams, Gerald Barry, George Benjamin, Gavin Bryars, Daniel Strong Godfrey, John Harbison, Joan Huang, William Kraft, Veronika Krausas, Magnus Lindberg, James Newton Jr., Bernard Rands, Terry Riley, Carl Stone, Steven Stucky, Stephen Andrew Taylor, Claude Vivier, Andrew Waggoner, and Gernot Wolfgang.

Cheng received her B.A. in Economics from Stanford University, followed by graduate degrees in Music from UCLA, where she studied with Aube Tzerko, and from the University of Southern California, as a student of John Perry. She teaches at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music where she has initiated classes that unite performers and composers. She is often invited to speak as an advocate for contemporary music, and in 2012 served as Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.

Thoughts on Wolfgang Rihm’s Chiffre II (Silence to be Beaten)

by SMO co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley

Wolfgang Rihm’s artistic output reflects a profound admiration for the expressive power of the European cultural past. The German composer has a truly deep knowledge and understanding of its literature, visual arts, and music. Born in 1952, he has spent his career addressing and reclaiming this past in the “tabula rasa” artistic climate of the previous generation: Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, Maderna, etc… Although a great admirer of these composers, he claimed the right (yes, we are talking about ethics here!) of hinting or layering several references of his cultural heritage without any quotational intent.

Chiffre II (Silence to be beaten) offers a panoply of references to his own works as well as others. This work, which can be performed by a full orchestra as well as a sinfonia ensemble like SMO, is part of a series of pieces titled Chiffre I – VII and recalls the preceding Chiffre for piano and orchestra. Its subtitle refers to Varèse’s direction to the conductor in a section of his Arcana. The music brings Varèsian bombastic brass gestures with a returning and inciting rhythm pattern in the piano, reminding me of Berlioz’s “Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat” from the celebrated Symphonie Fantastique… (or it is just me?) …which perhaps is one of the central ideas in experiencing Rihm’s works: your interpretation of the work say more about you than the work… your approach towards history reflects your needs for the future…

On our November 3 concert, SMO performs Chiffre II alongside Baltakas’ Redditio (Latin for returning, or recurrence – note also that Baltakas was a student of Rihm) and Waggoner’s new Concerto for Piano. I believe this program will inspire a rich conversation on the unprecedented place of the past in contemporary life, as each composer, in their own way, brings their perspective to Nietzche’s idea of “the use and abuse of history for life.”

CHIFFRE II (Silence to be beaten) – Large orchestra version – performed by Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Chambreling, conductor. SMO will perform the sinfonia version.

Seattle Modern Orchestra is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike.