Stuart Dempster and Stephen Scott: A Progress Report December 31-January 6, 1981

Perhaps the most gratifying thing about following new music over the years is the opportunity to observe musicians grow and develop. The process is by no means consistent. Some weak artists plod along for a long time and then suddenly begin producing inspired work, while some good artists never seem to stretch very far beyond what they started out with. And some people are just up and down. The most satisfying pattern, the model that I guess everyone would like to be able to follow, is provided by those good artists who seem to just get better and better. Stuart Dempster and Stephen Scott are both examples.

Dempster’s work has a special significance for me. When I first heard him in a 1971 recital at NYU, I was quite pleased to find a recitalist presenting new music in such a creative and careful way, but I was quite discouraged to realize that work of this caliber would draw only a minuscule audience and attract no interest whatever from the press. It was, in fact, this concert which induced me to write a letter to the Village Voice offering my services, and which led me into a critical avocation.

Hearing Dempster’s latest New York concert, at the Kitchen on December 13, was doubly gratifying, then, because I could observe the immense maturing in the artist’s work as well as simply hearing more first-rate music. At 44, the fine trombonist now has much experience to draw on. He spent a year in Australia, where he learned how to play the didjeridu, and continued grappling with this Aboriginal wind instrument for a long time, mastering the circular breathing required, and gradually figuring out how to make his own personal music with it. He worked out computer applications to trombone sound during a residency at Stanford. He came across a remarkable space with a 14-second echo in the Pope’s Palace at Avignon, which he made excellent use of when he decided to record his ‘Standing Waves’ and ‘Didjeridervish’ on the 1750 Arch Street label. In short he was able to apply everything he’d learned to his own music, which seems deeper and more personal all the time.

Technical problems unfortunately made it impossible to fully understand what Dempster’s computer controlled music is all about, but the rest of his recent program went quite smoothly. In ‘Standing Waves’ he played live trombone sounds along with the lovely, sustained harmonies I was already familiar with on the recording, and added several new dimensions to the piece. ‘Didjeridervish’ has also developed noticeably since the last time I heard it. Now he varies the deep tone of the didjeridu with a great variety of vowel sounds, tonguing effects, and colorations, and he also somehow preserves the integrity of the instrument. The piece never seemed disrespectful to the Aboriginal people who invented this instrument, or to the religious significance they attach to it.

But Dempster has not abandoned the work of other composers. His interpretation of John Cage’s ‘Solo for Sliding Trombone’ was presented with many mute changes, very long silences, and healthy good humor of a sort that would no doubt have pleased the composer very much. Dempster also played William O. Smith’s ‘Session,’ an effective recent work reflecting the soloist’s ongoing concern with developing new trombone techniques in collaboration with other composers. He concluded with the same piece he concluded with the first time I heard him play, Robert Erickson’s ‘General Speech for Trombone Solo.’ Here Dempster costumes in military regalia and presents General Douglas MacArthur’s ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ speech in a semi-comprehensible trombone version. This witty little satire is now a classic, thanks mostly to the countless performances Dempster has presented over the years.

Stephen Scott’s music has also interested me for some time. I first heard his work by chance, on a radio broadcast in the early ’70s. It was a repetitious piece in steady eighth-note rhythms, a style that many younger composers were using at the time, but it had a harmonic finesse, and an appealing, smooth flow. This piece, however, turned out to be only the beginning of a search that has since gone deeper and deeper.

Scott’s recent ‘Arcs,’ performed by a New England Conservatory group at Carnegie Recital Hall on December 8, has the same rich harmonies as the earlier work, but the composer has now developed a completely new instrumental technique to go with it. He calls it ‘bowed piano.’ To bow the piano strings, one threads heavily rosined monofilament line through the strings and pulls the line steadily back and forth. At times the player may also work with a small bow, really just a popsicle stick with an abrasive surface, which can be inserted between strings in order to produce rhythmic articulations. The resulting sounds are quite special. At first they reminded me of organs, though later the somewhat reedy qualities seemed closer to accordions. Ultimately, of course, the bowed piano is not much like either of these instruments, or any others. Certainly its colors have no resemblance to any sound I ever associated with the piano.

Scott’s new instrument has a theatrical side as well. Since almost every note has to have its own bow, it takes 10 people to handle all the notes used in ‘Arcs,’ and it is quite appealing to watch 10 players all huddled around the guts of a grand piano, intently pulling their bows back and forth. I also liked the idea that no one was reading any music. The score is strictly defined, but Scott found ways of working out the individual parts so that they could be memorized in the course of a few rehearsals. In short, the composer has worked out a very special kind of ensemble playing that is not quite like any other.

I had the feeling that Scott’s new musical instrument, and the new kind of ensemble playing that it engenders, had both evolved out of the composer’s basic harmonic language and his desire to find the most sensitive context for it. But they have also led him to many formal discoveries. ‘Arcs,’ and a similar work called ‘Music Three,’ are quite concise as minimalist works go. In a matter of 10 minutes or so, these pieces can move through three or four completely different sections, a number of modulations, and a variety of rhythmic textures. In one case there is even an old-fashioned melody, which repeats over and over as a coda, and which seems uniquely appropriate to the context. It also seems light years away from the more obvious developmental procedures Scott started out with.