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Preview: Stuart Dempster: Playing It by Ear

September 5, 2014


I climbed down the ladder’s narrow rusty rungs, sunlight stabbing the clammy black hole just large enough for me to fit through, the only way in. Everywhere else, darkness, as I surrendered to this sudden night 14 feet underground — deep inside an empty two-million-gallon, 186-foot-diameter defunct cistern.

Once my eyes adjusted, I could see the bell of a trombone, and then another, and another, until I could make out all ten of them. The cistern’s cement walls and rows of pillars recall the weight of water in their damp grip—and release a 45-second reverberation. Here, in June 1995, Stuart Dempster and nine other players blew their slow tones, the harmonies undulating in braided currents.


Stuart Dempster performs Saturday in Portland.

Stuart Dempster performs Saturday in Portland. Photo: Claire Sykes.

The cistern, at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington, is among the many acoustically unusual spaces around the world that Dempster has found, from caves to cathedrals. They represent just one of the ways this 78-year-old Seattle improviser and composer, humorist and healer has transported the trombone beyond the traditional. He was one of the first to take the instrument onstage as a soloist, without accompaniment. He has expanded its sound palette, coaxing out tones and textures that few before have performed or recorded with a trombone. He has included dancers and theatrics, whacky costumes and children’s toys. Often, he has made more than music, when his playing — on trombone or didjeridu, conch shell or common garden hose — invites us listeners to give ourselves over to a meditative state, one that he assures us can restore our physical, emotional and spiritual energies.

We’ll get our chance with Dempster this Saturday, September 6, 2014, 7:00 p.m. at Yale Union, 800 SE 10th Avenue in Portland. In the main space there, he’ll perform solo trombone works,  Didjeridervish (1971-72), Dream Timepiece (2002) and YUbone (2014), the last named with a nod toward this center for contemporary art. Within earshot in other areas of the building, he’ll wander the sonic with conch shell, didjeridu and what he refers to as “little instruments.” He says we should feel free to move about the main space during the performance, turning our tympanic membranes in directions we may be surprised to discover.

Improvisation lies at the heart of Dempster’s music, which he refers to as “real-time composition.” He has written many works for himself, as well as various commissioned pieces for other musicians. His mostly one-page scores often consist only of words, like “Resonating Vibration” and “Creative Silence,” that leave the realization up to the musician’s interpretation. There are about 30 CDs with Dempster’s music on them, much of it recorded in the cistern, which he has dubbed “The Cistern Chapel,” because of the space’s meditative quality and spiritual sonority.

His exploratory nature reminds Portland composer Bob Priest of another Seattle composer, whom he pays tribute to with his CD Hendrix Uncovered, which includes Dempster’s Jimi-inspired “Pitches Low and Inside” (1977). Says Priest, “Stu transforms the trombone, didjeridu, his voice and stray ‘heavy-metal’ pieces of cistern refuse into a loving tribute to Hendrix, a fellow sound wizard and explorer. The two artists are musical cousins.”

It was composer David Mahler who introduced Dempster to the cistern in 1978, just before it was sealed over and locked up, out of concern for public safety. It would take Dempster ten years before the Park allowed entrance again, by permission only. That’s when he, accordionist-composer Pauline Oliveros and singer Panaiotis realized that what they were doing down there was “deep listening” (a term then coined and later registered by Oliveros, who has developed from it a philosophy of listening). During my 2005 interview with him, Dempster said, “Deep listening described not only a way of working — listening deeply and then responding — but also the physical space of the cistern.” A year later, the three began performing with the late David Gamper, improviser of live computer-manipulated acoustic sounds, as the Deep Listening Band.

Dempster’s 1995 CD, Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel features seven improvisations recorded that June day I was in the cistern with all those trombones. There in the cavernous dank (where even a simple boot scrape bellows a multitude of sounds that seem to last forever), Dempster stood in the middle of the trombonists, who spaced themselves about 80 feet apart around the cistern’s circumference. With barely enough daylight to be seen, he turned in slow circles while playing, directing the others with movements of his head. Underground Overlay‘s “Melodic Communion” (1995) joined other sound sources in his collaboration with Merce Cunningham, for the late choreographer’s dance piece called “Ground Level Overlay.” In “Melodic Communion,” Dempster starts out playing the first several notes of the overtone series (higher frequencies you can hear above the fundamental ones). Variations from the other players follow, their aqueous tones blurring together, marked by the occasional “glint” of my Tibetan cymbals.

A Toy Box of Musical Sounds

Since then, I’ve been in Dempster’s company many times, and each is like going back to childhood, a place he never really left. The world is a toy box of musical sounds to him. Once, in his office at the University of Washington, where he taught for 30 years, I watched him swivel and rock in his squeaky chair, turning the noise into a tune. He’s belched full force in front of me, delighted by the sound. His son, Loren, a cellist who has often performed with him, told me that his father’s keen ear once pointed out a moving truck’s B-flat.

And then there’s the frog event. In the mid-1980s, Dempster did a faculty performance with Mahler, at a workshop for high school students at Fort Worden State Park. That evening, instead of playing his trombone, Dempster had everyone go down to the pond to listen. “It was beautiful,” Mahler told me. “As lovely a piece as could be, and as good an instruction, too.”

Those frogs could easily find themselves in Dempster’s 1989 self-published catalog of about two dozen human-made and natural places in Washington that possess special musical characteristics, intentional or not. Titled SWAMI: State of Washington as a Musical Instrument, the guidebook includes the cistern, Palouse Falls, Seattle’s Georgetown Steam Plant, the state Capitol building’s rotunda in Olympia, and the Blowout, an area of Klickitat County near Bickleton on the border of the Yakima Indian Reservation. In his description of the Blowout, Dempster writes that shale rock clinking beneath your feet sounds like “walking on a loosely constructed xylophone. Once you are really into the area, it is possible to yell or whistle and hear echo effects off of the far-away canyon.”

Sound Gatherer

Dempster has been listening since he was a kid growing up in Berkeley, California, his home filled with recordings — grand opera, symphonies, Gilbert and Sullivan, traditional jazz and Spike Jones. And he loved the sound of streetcars, boat whistles and, especially, the trains that passed through town. “Before I could even bicycle, I would badger my parents to take me down to the train station,” the self-proclaimed “sound gatherer” told me. “We’d bring a picnic dinner. It was good, cheap entertainment during a period of gas rationing.” (See Dempster’s “Training for Listening: A Lifelong Practice,” in Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening, edited by Monique Buzzarté and Tom Bickley, Deep Listening Publications, 2012.)

Stuart Dempster, Hermosa Beach, 1938. Photo by Fred H. Dempster.

Stuart Dempster, Hermosa Beach, 1938. Photo by Fred H. Dempster.

An early interest in piano gave way, in fifth grade, to the baritone horn, which he played in the school band. But due to a lack of teachers for that instrument, he turned to the trombone. Dempster told me, “I had quick-enough results that, by the tenth grade, I decided I was going to be a serious musician.”

By the late 1950s, he also became much more serious about listening, refining his ear while working with Oliveros and composers Terry Riley and Loren Rush, when he was an undergraduate at San Francisco State University. Dempster often says (quoting David Mahler who claims Captain Beefheart as the source), “Listen with all your holes open.”

All of them are for Dempster, especially when he invents new musical sounds on unconventional instruments. This started for him in the early-to-mid-1960s, influenced as he was by the electronic music he listened to at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. “I’d think, ‘Oh, I can do that on the trombone,’ and then I’d go imitate it,” he told me. “Doing this was a niche that was sort of my own, and it seemed like something that needed to happen. I wanted to educate myself and others about the trombone as a musical resource, of which we were using only about one percent. And there was this other 99 percent I wondered why we had to ignore. Then I found out later on, when I started playing didjeridu, that other parts of the world understood that larger sound palette.” He began codifying his new trombone sounds on tape, the basis for his book,  The Modern Trombone: A Definition of Its Idioms (originally University of California Press, 1979, reprinted by Accura Music, 1994).

“Stuart has built an extraordinary repertoire of sounds, and he’s an extremely meticulous performer,” Oliveros wrote in an e-mail. “He gives great attention to the detail of each sound that he makes. His tone on the tenor trombone is exquisitely beautiful.”

Shell Games

Around 1964, a student of Dempster’s gave him a conch shell, which he still has and performs with. Toys have been another favorite — the laughing ball, the mooing box, the squeaking plastic cheeseburger dog toy, and many others. And what about that garden hose? After he heard a recording of one in the mid-1950s by Dennis Brain, then principal horn in the London Symphony Orchestra, Dempster put one to his own mouth. For a piece by California composer Robert Hughes involving a 50-foot hose, he cut a splint into it at about the 15-foot point so the sound had a place to come out, while a dancer twirled and wrapped himself in the rest of the hose. Then for Oliveros, he stuck one end of a hose inside a grand piano and blew on the other. Describing his own Ten Grand Hosery (1971-72), for ten grand pianos, garden hose and solo dancer, Dempster said, “The sound travels across the stage from one piano to the other, with different hose lengths having different pitches. A clever technique is when I’ve entered a pitch on one piano and then subtly enter the same pitch on another, and the audience can’t tell exactly where the sounds are coming from.”

Dempster and composer Robert Erickson were working on the latter’s General Speech for Solo Trombone  (1969), with its vowel-like sounds that mimic General Douglas MacArthur’s famous retirement speech given at West Point, and with exaggerated military costuming and theatrical effects, when Erickson noticed something new: The trombone’s utterances resembled those of the didjeridu, an Australian aboriginal instrument, traditionally made of eucalyptus wood hollowed out by white ants or termites. He happened to have a one-minute tape of didjeridu music from the early 1900s, which he loaned to Dempster. “I figured out that there was circular breathing involved, and I taught myself that and whatever technical stuff I could glean from the tape,” he said.

Restorative Music

Around that time in Seattle, Dempster ran into a former yoga teacher of his, LaMont West, Jr. (a.k.a. Tan Cahil), who turned out to be the only other white didjeridu player in North America then. The two taught each other what they knew. “He had the knowledge and I had the chops,” said Dempster. “Over the next five years, I got reasonably good at it,” which ultimately led to a four-month Fulbright fellowship at the University of Victoria in Melbourne, in 1973. While teaching there, he studied didjeridu with Australian Aborigines on the Bamyili and Numbulwar Reserves in Arnhem Land. Because Dempster doesn’t feel comfortable playing a traditional instrument in an untraditional way, he devised his own version of the didjeridu, using plastic (PVC) sewer pipe, calling it the “American indigenous model.” He took it to the University of Illinois, where he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study. While working with tai chi expert Chung-Liang Al Huang, he learned how to dervish with the didjeridu. “At first, I didn’t know how to stop spinning,” he told me. “But then he suggested that I stick my arm out to slow down, or pull it in if I wanted to go faster.”

Out of this came Dempster’s Didjeridervish, in which he dervishes while playing his PVC-pipe didjeridu, with all its drones and barks. He said, “When you’re playing straight ahead or in one direction, only, it sounds a certain way. And then when you turn around, the pitch will drift up and down to the audience’s ears, depending on whether it’s moving away from them or towards them. It’s the Doppler Effect.”

Within a few years, he realized the therapeutic benefits of the didjeridu. He felt better playing it and wanted the same for his audiences. “Breathing with the trombone is exhausting; your chops get tired. But the circular breathing on the didjeridu is very yogic,” said Dempster, who has been practicing yoga since 1967. “The instrument also attempts to make a restorative music that changes your mental space somehow, so you feel better going out the door than when you came in.”

Anyone who participates in his Sound Massage Parlor (1986) sure will. The pieces for audiences of eight to 15 were inspired by Dempster’s work with behavioral kinesiologist John Diamond, M.D., who helped him direct the didjeridu’s positive, “massaging” energy to others. While Dempster plays, he walks among the audience “smoothing their auras,” as he puts it, and encourages people to make their own sounds. Whimsical titles, such as Didjeriatsu (didjeridu as shiatsu instrument) and Acuhosery (garden hose as acupressure instrument), reflect his interest in the therapeutic qualities found in both meditation and humor. “It really works,” David Gamper told me. He had been suffering from a sprained knee and “one long blast from Stu’s didjeridu and I wasn’t hobbling anymore.”

Let the Space Suggest the Sounds

Since the 1980s, the audience has often played an integral part in Dempster’s performances. “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, and visa versa,” read the program notes for his Milanda Embracing (1993-94), for unspecified instruments.” There is a beautiful feedback loop here that is so often taken for granted or not recognized,” And the score asks of the audience, “Think right thoughts: Assume a healing attitude” and “Listen to the performance space: Let the space suggest sound and listening strategies. Send sound across space.”

dempsterscoreMeanwhile, Dempster has always sought help from the hall. In every performance space, he keeps an ear out for inherent acoustic resources. “Any time I’m in a place, I kind of meditate on what it might offer,” he told me. Maybe it’s a lobby or stairwell or the space beneath a balcony’s overhang that gives a certain character to his sounds. “I’m always listening for reverb.”

Ten seconds of it in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where Dempster often performed church concerts and services in the 1960s, pinned his ears to reverberation for the first time. “It felt really good to listen to it, let alone play it,” he recalled. “The reverberation’s support is like that from an audience. It’s more refreshing somehow to play with it. And you can improve your playing with it. It teaches you to play in tune, with a really good tonal center. If you misfire even a little bit, the sound yaps back at you in a way that is not very pretty, and gets your attention in ways you couldn’t possibly expect.”

While he was on tour with Merce Cunningham in 1976, Dempster found reverb at the Pope’s Palace in Avignon, heard on his CD In The Great Abbey of Clement VI. In Tarpaper Cave, near Woodstock, New York, he placed cans under its dripping water, collecting sounds for his piece Cannery Row (1990) on the CD Troglodyte’s Delight. A lava cave in the Canary Islands has less reverb, but offers a mellow sound quality unique to this particular space. Later on, the sounds of Dempster’s trombone and Oliveros’s accordion filled a grain silo near Kingston, New York. And he described to me what came out of his trombone in the decommissioned Satsop nuclear power plant in Washington State as “curving, glissando pitches, like ping-pong balls bouncing around in the goofiest ways.” It’s too bad some of these exotically acoustic Satsop finds can’t be easily recorded, because of too much wind.

That’s where the Expanded Instrument System (EIS, say “ice”) comes in. Designed by Oliveros in 1983, and later refined by Panaiotis and then Gamper, it is an evolving electronic sound-processing environment that simulates some of the acoustically rich spaces that Dempster has encountered. “The musicians and their instruments are the sources of all the sounds, which they pick up by their microphones and subject to several kinds of pitch, time and spatial ambiance transformations and manipulations,” reads the liner notes for the Deep Listening Band CD Sanctuary.

With the EIS, Dempster has come full-circle. It was early-1960s electronics and the novel sounds coming out of it that originally inspired him to explore and create experimental music. And now, as he nears 80, he has returned to electronics, giving back to it even more new sounds. The Deep Listening Band is doing this by way of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s acoustician and sound artist Jonas Braasch’s Simulated Cistern Technology, a simulation of the acoustics from the cistern in Port Townsend. (The cistern has since been named the Dan Harpole Cistern, in dedication to this passionate arts advocate and former chairman of the Washington State Arts Commission, who died in 2007). Dempster’s explorations only continue.

So do mine, as I take note of sounds and listen for music in them, thanks to Dempster. I still shut all the doors and windows when someone’s running a leaf blower, but the grumble of my refrigerator now intones more than it annoys. And when I think of the cistern, I think about Dempster and how knowing him is a lot like being down in there: You hear things you never have before. You take it all in, and it becomes a part of you that you’ll always hold onto. And then, when you’ve climbed back up and out into the day, you freely give it away.

© 2014 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved. A longer version of this article appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Musicworks magazine. Stuart Dempster performs at 7:00 p.m. Saturday, September 6,  at Yale Union, 800 SE 10th Avenue in Portland.

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer living in Portland.
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