Stuart Dempster Plays Didjeridu June 16, 1975

The whole idea of Stuart Dempster appeals to me. The idea that a good trombonist with plenty of work in the Oakland Symphony and other Bay Area orchestras would give it up to devote his time to new music. The idea that he would scuffle all over Europe and America doing solo programs of other people’s music, most of which was far too new and unknown to make him famous. The idea that he focused his attention on one of the most difficult and least appreciated genres of new music, theater pieces, and that he went to the pains of developing acting skills in order to do them well. The idea that he went all the way to the Australian outback to study the didjeridu, an instrument with a two-note range that has never been taken very seriously in the West. Such a combination of adventurousness and thoroughness doesn’t often occur in the same individual.

On June 1 Dempster made one of his rare New York appearances when he provided music for Event # 142 with the Cunningham Dance Company. Assisted by a student, Phil Carlsen, the two musicians spent most of the evening playing didjeridus.

The didjeridu is simply a tube of hollow wood about two inches in diameter and four feet long. It has no keys, no holes, no slide, and no mouthpiece. It is blown like a brass instrument, and has extraordinary carrying power. The low tone is in the tuba register, and the other usually a 12th higher, but Dempster gets far more out of the instruments than two pure tones. Apparently most of his techniques come fairly directly from the Australian outback, where didjeridus play droning accompaniments for singers.

With circular breathing, both performers often sustained uninterrupted tones for long periods of time. Without ever tonguing specific rhythms, they sometimes produced another kind of rhythmic articulation, which I can only describe as a controlled sputtering. Occasionally they played quick high sounds, something like the yelps of a small dog. Sometimes they swung the instruments around while they played, producing odd spatial effects and stimulating unexpected room resonances. During one long section the two produced mysterious echoing tones by playing into a 10-gallon can.

Perhaps the most fascinating technique, and one borrowed directly from aboriginal musicians, involves changing vowel formations while playing. Sometimes one can pick out a more obvious ‘hiyohiyo...hiyohiyo...’ in the tone, as I distinctly did at one point. This music, which Dempster calls ‘Didjeridervish,’ was originally presented at the University of Illinois. It was part of a mixed media work called ‘Ten Grand Hosery,’ and featured a T’ai Chi master. For the Cunningham event, Dempster also presented another aspect of ‘Ten Grand Hosery,’ the hoses themselves.

The principle of plugging a mouthpiece into a garden hose is not new. The famous hornist Dennis Brain even performed a Mozart horn concerto on a garden hose some years ago. But that was a kind of joke, and Dempster’s garden-hose music is no joke. Here three different hoses all emptied out onto piano strings, where sympathetic vibrations were picked up and amplified, thus adding curious reverberations to the hose tones. All three sounded vaguely like trombones, but distant, muffled, and cavernous. Much of the time Dempster played eerie out-of-tune chromatic melodies on high overtones. Meanwhile, the dancing was going on more or less the way it always does at a Cunningham event, but it seemed more moody than usual, perhaps because Dempster watched the dancing much of the time, and occasionally seemed to pace the dynamics of his music according to the choreography. By strict Cage-Cunningham procedures, one isn’t supposed to do that, but it didn’t hurt anything as far as I was concerned. Quite likely, the sparse, strong music, with its distant and sometimes mournful sound qualities, would have added an emotional atmosphere to the dancing no matter how it was paced.

Fortunately, even the didjeridu has not distracted Dempster from his repertoire of theater pieces which he still performs. One of these, called ‘General Orders,’ demands to be mentioned here, because I have never reviewed it before, and because I still remember it quite vividly four years after seeing it. The short work was composed by Robert Erickson, who modeled the melodic lines after speech patterns, but at least as much credit should go to Dempster, who transformed the score into a wonderful character sketch. Standing before a lectern in an admiral’s uniform, Dempster addressed his imaginary troops through his trombone with amazing acting skill, capturing the illusion so sharply that the trombone melodies really did become pompous remarks.

Another interesting thing about Dempster is that he is hard to categorize either as a performer or a composer. It seems that everything he does involves quite a bit of creative responsibility. Yet he seldom, if ever, claims sole authorship of his material. This is an unusual way to approach music, but a useful one probably related to the whole problem of taking instruments across cultural barriers. It would be risky, for example, for American musicians to attempt to perform really authentic didjeridu music, and I doubt that I’d understand it if they did. On the other hand, if one insisted on composing completely original didjeridu music, without making use of its highly developed traditional techniques, the result would probably sound naive. Dempster’s compromise approach makes a great deal of sense to me.