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.

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.

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.

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.