Listening in the Round: An Interview with Stuart Dempster

Seattle Modern Orchestra / Solaris Vocal Ensemble: Double Portrait
March 11, 2017
Chapel Performance Space
Interview with Stuart Dempster 7:30pm
Concert 8:00 pm

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.

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

(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.”

From the score of 'Milanda Embracing.'
From the score of ‘Milanda Embracing.’

“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.