Composer / Flutist / Conductor  Stephen  Dembski

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Stephen Dembski (December 13, 1949 - August 14, 2021) studied piano from an early age, and was reading music long before he could read words. Warned against the clarinet on account of the braces on his teeth, and against the trombone because of the length of his arms, he took up the flute in elementary school. Later, he learned musical illiteracy: in high school and after, both in America and in England, he performed folk and traditional musics on the guitar, banjo, harmonica, and washtub bass, and played a lot of rock and roll, all "by ear." While still enrolled in college, he played flute professionally in Europe for a time, worked in a small band called Kiss that played mostly prisons in Ohio, and in a big band led by Cecil Taylor. By his early twenties, he was composing music back in the old Euro-American tradition, and eventually earned degrees in it from Antioch, SUNY-Stony Brook, and Princeton. His music -- which includes instrumental, vocal, and electro-acoustic works as well as pieces for improvising musicians and for interactive installations of sound and light -- has been broadly recognized by awards and performances in both the United States and in Europe.

At home, his honors include three commission-fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship from the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation, and the Goddard Lieberson Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; his Euro-American concert music has represented the United States at international festivals in France, Germany, Denmark, Poland, and England. In 1990, his orchestral setting of Wallace Stevens' last poem was recognized by the Premio Musicale Citta di Trieste (Italy) and recorded for compact disc by the Polish Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra. Other CD's include one on CRI and another on Music & Arts, both devoted solely to his music, a recording of his On Ondine released in 2001 in Italy, and a recording of Gregory Fulkerson's performance of his violin sonata. Dembski's music has been commissioned, performed, and recorded by such organizations as the American Composers' Orchestra, the Silesian Philharmonic of Poland, The Prism Orchestra, the 20th Century Consort, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Pro Arte Quartet, as well as by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, pianists Alan Feinberg and Ursula Oppens, violinist Rolf Shulte, and cellist Fred Sherry. Bernard Holland, writing in The New York Times, described his work in terms of "the sensuous, ecstatic quality of late Romanticism."

As a flutist, Dembski was featured on the French radio, and played in a variety of European ensembles including the Paris-based l'Orchestre des Grands Concerts de la Sorbonne led by former Schoenberg pupil Max Deutsch. Now as both composer and improvising conductor, he is increasingly involved in working with musicians who come out of jazz, and appears on five CD's with the Scott Fields Ensemble. In connection with his work in compositional theory, he has designed a software package called Circles for composers' manipulation of a generalized framework of scalar and harmonic materials. He has also designed a software-hardware system called VIDI which transforms 3-D video information into MIDI information according to composer-defined criteria, to enable a non-intrusive interactive installation of sources of sound and light. Among other projects, he's currently working on a piece, for percussionist Daniel Druckman, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the New York New Music Ensemble, a CD-length composition for five improvising musicians of the Scott Fields Ensemble, and an operatic setting of a libretto, Crow Soup, written for him by the renowned surrealist artist and novelist Leonora Carrington with her son, Gabriel.

We met in mid-March of 2004, when the composer was at Northwestern University working on Fools Paradise, settings for soprano, flute, and cello of forty-eight of William Blakes Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  [Score to #15 is shown at left.]  It was all part of a virtual reality installation/performance designed by Paul Hertz.  

Bruce Duffie:   Do you find that your music changes when you work with virtual reality, rather than with live instruments?

Stephen Dembski:   In this case, I’m actually working with live instruments.  The virtual reality aspect of this project is one that he’s been developing for a long time, but his idea, roughly speaking, is to have an island on which there are sculptures.  The virtual reality performer, or the person wearing the helmet, will come up these stairs, and then look around this tongue-shaped island, which has on it two large massive sculptures of a man and a woman, and a whole lot of smaller sculptures... forty-eight of them to be exact.

BD:   Are they all the same?

Dembski:   We don’t know.  This is what the virtual reality performer might be wondering as he or she goes exploring.

BD:   The person who’s exploring becomes the performer?

Dembski:   It could be a simple audience member, but in this case, in the production that Paul has planned, he imagines one person who will be a dancer, or a person trained in dance as the performer, the person wearing the helmet and exploring the island.  Paul has not just associated each of these nodes with a pitch class, but also with each sculpture.  He also has associated each note with one of the Proverbs of Hell from the Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  What I am doing is setting these Proverbs of Hell that he has chosen to be associated with each note for soprano and probably for marimba, cello, and flute, or some combination thereof.

BD:   Is it to be performed live, or prerecorded?

Dembski:   It will be live in this performance.  It could, conceivably, be prerecorded later and manipulated in lots of ways, but the way we have it projected to happen in this performance we’ll see what happens as the explorer who’s wearing the helmet is moving around the island.  It ought to be a pith helmet, actually.  That would be better.  If it has the virtual reality part under a pith helmet, that would be very nice.  As the explorer approaches each one of these cultures, the sculpture starts singing, or singing comes out of the area of the sculpture.  It will be a proverb from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that is associated with this sculpture.  I’m having a marvelous time with this, but to answer your question a little bit more, for about the past twenty-three or twenty-four years, I’ve been working in a very large, but in certain basic respects, well-defined, harmonic, scalar universe that I developed about a quarter century ago in response to not finding anything out there that was suitable for me in terms of a framework for thinking about how tunes and harmony are going to go.

BD:   You made your own universe, and then you explored the universe that you’d made?

Dembski:   That is what I’ve been doing up until this spring when I started working with Paul.  He has this elaborate universe which he’s been developing for a very long time, but which, in certain respects is close enough to the way I think about what I’m doing.  It uses certain bunches of pitches, and moves from one to the next by changing maybe one or two.  You could still spread out from them, and you can do really anything you want.  There are certain aspects of distance, and it’s sort of geography.

BD:   Does his universe intersect yours, or overlap yours, or just bump into yours?

Dembski:   His universe may have started from the same concerns that I had in starting mine, but because he comes from the visual arts, and is very also interested in various kinds of patterning, his went in a slightly different direction.  Mine is purely musically based, and although most people don’t think the music sounds that way, in certain aspects it’s extremely conservative.  It’s designed to be completely analogous at a very basic level of the tonal system.  His is rather more closely connected to this large system that he’s developed that emanates from tiling patterns.  Those tiling patterns really reflect, and all these modes, when differently interpreted, can produce different manifestations, such as this virtual reality project.  But there are also other things you could find on his website, and, interestingly, they’re not that different from mine.  However, we never communicated about any of this before a couple of years ago.  His idea developed entirely independently of mine, but it’s close enough that I can get in there and be comfortable.

dembski BD:   Does it surprise you that there would be someone who would be creating a unique universe that is similar to your unique universe?

Dembski:   It is a little bit surprising that Paul’s, in particular, would be as close to mine as it is, but I should say in certain respects it’s not that close.  It comes out of different concerns.  So, in a funny respect, it’s more like convergent evolution than branching evolutionary trees, if you see what I mean.

BD:   Are they at all complementary, or are they antagonistic?

Dembski:   It’s more like two animals in the same kingdom, where one more like a reptile, and one more like a mammal.  In certain respects, one is more elaborate, has temperature control, and hair, and the other can go into little places where the first one can’t.  It can go down into holes, and can burrow, and can live without food or water for a long time, and eat things whole, and has a very elastic type of body that can absorb things, and become those things eventually.  So, they’re very different in those respects, but they are both in the animal kingdom.  They’re not plants.

BD:   Is there any chance that as you continue with your animal, you’re going to want to only work with this other animal, or are you going to seek out other animals, and insects, and birds, and avian creatures, and aquatic creatures?

Dembski:   To tell you the truth, I don’t really think so.  Not that it’s not a really attractive idea, but in the quarter century that I’ve been working in the universe that I’ve constructed, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it.  It perfectly meets my musical concerns and satisfies so many ways those concerns had about other musical systems.  I just didn’t do it for me as a composer.  They just didn’t feel right, and this one just feels so right.  But it’s so big, and so broad, and can do so many things, that I haven’t even gotten anywhere near it.  I’m still looking in wonder at the universe that I’ve created, and I want to explore more of that than any other, and I’m not looking for others.

BD:   When you are looking in that universe you have created, if there’s something about it which you don’t like, can you alter your universe?

Dembski:   I can, yes.  I can alter it.  Probably I would not alter any basic aspect of it, but I can extend it, and re-interpret it in ways that might be very important to me, given a particular musical situation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is most of this music for live performance?

Dembski:   Most of it, yes.

BD:   Then once you have set down the music in this universe, and you’ve made all the alterations and changes that you want, can the performers make some alterations and adjustments?  Or, once you’ve got it set, does it have to stay that way?

Dembski:   They could very well make adjustments.  I like talking this way, about exploring this universe.  It is, actually, music for improvisers, where I give the players certain basic harmonic and scalar materials, usually in the context of some music that I’ve written more strictly, but not too much of it
maybe forty barsand then I just let them go with it.  Often they want me to conduct.  They want a little bit of direction, and they want some assurance that they’re going in a direction that I would like them to go.  But the truth is, what really interests me is what they do with that.  So, off they go, and I’m there, and I’ll give them all the assurance that they’re doing the right thing that they want, that I’m really interested in what they do.  People have done wonderful, wonderful things, and have given wonderful performances.

BD:   So, you are you happy with what they discover in your universe.

Dembski:   Oh, I love this.  People who are used to playing music and then making it their own through improvisation are just wonderful to work with, in these respects, because they’re there in real time in a different way from how performers who are used to working from music which is more strictly notated.  I have been called upon to be an improvising conductor in a number of pieces
none of my own, but pieces that other people have written in the same universeand then we’re all in it together.  I get up with the discipline of not knowing what I’m going to suggest to someone to playwhen, and with whom, and for how longwhen I start the piece.  But if I know that I have to bring it down for a landing at the end of a CD-length time period, then I’m in the same exploratory mode of this geography that is partly mapped out, which hasn’t been exploited or developed.

BD:   In cases like that, your time-span gives you a little bit of flexibility?

Dembski:   Yes, it does, and it’s a flexibility that in these cases I desperately need, because once you get into the time-span of about an hour or so
of pieces that could last 10 minutes or 10 daysit is just trying to account for what has happened in the period so far.  You have to remember it, of course, and imagine where you’ve been, where you’ve come from, and think about where you might end up.  That is a musical challenge, an intellectual challenge, a performance challenge unlike any I’ve ever had before.  It’s wild.

BD:   You have to keep all this in your head, and the performers have to keep a lot of it in their heads.  What about the audience?  Do they have to keep this whole landscape in their heads, or do they just go wherever you are taking them, or wherever the performers are showing them?

Dembski:   Ideally, in my view of listening to a piece, an audience would gradually develop in listening to and interpreting the piece.  I understand audiences always act as interpreters themselves, not of some sheet music, or tune that somebody gives them, but rather of what the players are playing.  I can’t understand an audience that doesn’t interpret anything.  While finding the places that are explored and following the path that the players stay in an improvised piece, they’re going to develop their own geographies, each one differently because of their own different interpretations.  What they’ll be following is the path that the players, and the conductor, and the composer are taking through this geographical space.  However, they will know it from an entirely different perspective, and they’ll have to extrapolate from what they know.  They don’t have the information that the players, and the conductor, and composer have, so they’re going to have to imagine their own, and go on less information.  Therefore, they will make extrapolations through which they can understand and interpret what’s coming out of in terms of music.  They’re going to do just what they might be doing when listening to a Mozart symphony, which, I would imagine, is exactly the same thing except they might know the geography, or think they know certain aspects of it a little better because it’s a little more like a whole lot of other pieces that were written before that, which are within the tonal system.

BD:   Will they know your piece better the second or third time they hear it, especially if it’s on record rather than a live performance?

dembski Dembski:   It depends.  If we’re talking about the pieces that I was mentioning where the conductor is not so much improvising, then yes.  If we’re talking about pieces where there isn’t anything that we usually understand, and improvisation is involved, then I say that in those couched terms.  I would imagine every time a performer isn’t really playing, where they’re improvising some aspects, the rubato and various dynamic shadings touch.  All the material is improvisation as far as I’m concerned, so it’s just a question of the extent and the domains in which you’re improvising.  However, if we’re talking about a kind of piece where the conductor is actually improvising, then they would have to listen to at least three performances before they get an idea that they were even listening to the same piece.  In fact, that’s one reason that when we put out one of these pieces, it was a 3-CD set [shown at left].  This was the biggest of them, which was actually not written by myself, but which I conducted as an improvising conductor.  That really makes me, in a sense, a composer, because I’m determining how the piece goes as opposed to what is being made from the ideas.  The piece itself was written by Scott Fields, and was done by his ensemble and produced by him.  Most of these improvisation projects that I’m talking about are due to his production and instigation.  But in those cases, and in this case in particular, we insisted for a commercial CD that it came out on three CDs.  We put it out on CRI, and their catalog has now been moved over to New World, but should still be readily available.  I talked administrators at New World just a few weeks ago, and they said things are going very well.

BD:   But one shouldn’t look for it under your name, they need to look under Fields

Dembski:   They’d look under Fields’ name as the composer, and they could probably find it under my name as an interpreter, or a player, however that’s listed.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Co-conspirator?

Dembski:   [Laughs]  Sure, co-conspirator.  I give Scott the compositional credit for this, which is really an unusual and original vision.  I’m not formally a co-composer, but I feel like a co-composer when I get up there and I don’t know what’s going to happen to this piece... even though I know most of its materials, and I’m going to point to three people and say, “You play this, you play that, and let’s go.”  That’s the way the whole rest of the piece goes.  In this case, the playing group was about a dozen people, a very large ensemble including a couple of pianos, and two percussion.  I have to keep telling them who they’re going to play with, for how long, and how long they’re going to improvise.  Sometimes they’ll make requests visually, because of course we can’t make any noise.  The will indicate to me not just they want to play, but who they want to play with.  So, I will try to honor them if I possibly can, and try to build them into the way the piece is going, and still bring it down for a landing at the appropriate CD-length.  It’s really a wonderful experience, but it’s very, very intense.

BD:   Are we getting technically advanced enough that perhaps you could be replaced by each individual listener?  In other words, if I buy the CD, instead of having you conduct it, could I do the manipulation?

Dembski:   That’s a wonderful idea, but we’re not in a position where we can do that with any of these CDs at this point.

BD:   Perhaps eventually, though?

Dembski:   Yes.  What we could do eventually would be to store a whole lot of musical bits with a certain framework for putting them together, which could be defined by software and also altered by software.  You could call it a computer game.

BD:   [Wistfully]  Music in an Xbox.

Dembski:   There you are.  A person could do that.  What they couldn’t do is simultaneous improvisations, each with its own character by different people.  So, in that respect, no, you could never entirely replace us via some sort of automation even if it’s controlled by the listener.

BD:   We have machines that play chess against you.  Why can’t we have machines that play violin against you?

Dembski:   They can play it, and they can improvise it according to certain rules.  But the way composers are doing something new, the best players are also doing something that’s genuinely new when they are in the music and thinking the music.  I do not mean thinking about the music the way a programmer always would, and not thinking of older music the way a programmer always would, but being fully inside the piece.  They are not thinking about anything anymore, but just thinking music, and that is a different state, which is under-appreciated.

I often ask opera singers, when they’re on stage, if they become the character or are just portraying the character.  So, are these people, then, just playing the piece, or are they becoming the piece?
Dembski:   The piece is, in very strong senses, a reflection of them.  But I would say for that period of time, yes, they’re with their personalities all together, and all of us are the piece, but then the piece becomes a reflection of us.  In virtually any really-engaged performancewhich is the kind of performance I end up caring aboutthe player in those senses becomes the piece, whether the player is playing a hurdy-gurdy, or playing a Bach solo partita, or is playing Salt Peanuts for the thousandth time, and finding that at that moment, on the thousandth time, they finally lost themselves, and could somehow do something besides what Charlie Parker did so well, that nobody could ever imagine doing better.  Any of those situations, and to that degree, that’s becoming the character, although I don’t know what the current dramatic theoretical stance is on this.  [Laughs]  I’m happy to just throw caution to the winds.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   From all of this, you’re looking at music differently than most.  So for you, what is the purpose of music?

Dembski:   It’s interesting that I should say it in this circumstance, but for me, talk has always been very cheap compared to music.  I have found that through music, through this personal connection, I can feel an extraordinarily direct connection to people whom I
m not in the presence of.  I can feel like I know them in many ways better than the people I see every day.  There are some people I see every day who I think I know really well in some aspects, but in most of my daily interactions with people, I don’t feel as though I have occasional flashes of the kind of connection like that.  But if I’m following the music, and then losing myself in the music, and just thinking that music instead of thinking about a composer who’s been dead for a hundred years, I often feel as though I have a much more direct connection personally to that composer in a certain domain than I have to most people I’ve known personally.  There’s something about the intensity of first following someone else’s thought, and then not thinking about that thought anymore, but just being there in it.  I may be just imagining this, but it gives me the impression of having a very direct line right to the way this person is.  I dont mean the way they think, but the way they think Music, which, because it doesn’t refer to anything else, is something that’s extremely basic in the way people are.  I would say for musicians, particularly composers, it’s different for each of them.  What we value about their music is how different it is from others, not how it’s like others.  Therefore, when we finally get to the point where we can actually follow that different thing, we’ve made a connection with that person through the work of gradually getting into it.  This can take years, but once you’re there, you have it, and once you sense it, nothing replaces it.

BD:   Then, where is music going?

Dembski:   Music is going so many different places.  I’m actually a little bit more optimistic these days about the future of the kind of music that I do, which is generally very speculative and has, at any given time and any given place, a relatively small audience.  But I like to think that over a long period of time, or over a very broad geographical area, the audience may be substantial.  Luckily these days, with the mechanical and digital reproduction of music of various sorts, over a long period of time that audience can be cultivated.  It doesn’t depend upon the life of the person who started it being sustained.

BD:   You just want to go on forever?

Dembski:   One could conceivably make oneself available in this mode forever, or for a long time
at least for as long as these media last.  The old media, which were much more primitive, have lasted in certain cases pretty long.  But in the other respectthe respect in which I’m much more optimistic this year than I was maybe five years agowith the web we have now access to the music of a whole lot of people who would never have been on the commercial radar.  You can find them. You can get some kind of access to what they’re doing just by virtue of them having somehow stuck up a website and stuck an mp3 on it.  You can hear what they’re doing.

BD:   Once you can be Googled, you’re all set.

Dembski:   That’s it.  It’s not so much that you are all set, but it’s that the whole field all of a sudden can have its own sub-network that has defined itself.  People who are interested in the same kinds of things, or who are interested in each other, can find each other.  That audience used to have to bring its individual bodies into a particular place, to be with other people they might not particularly like being with at a particular time, on a day that might or might not be convenient for them, or even possible for them.  It could have been scheduled on a day where they might be risking their lives through some snowstorm to get there, and not having eaten very well beforehand, and so they would have been in a bad mood anyway.  Those people can now, at any time they want it, have access to a whole lot of this music over and over and over again.  This has a downside, in that the people’s attention is not cultivated in the way it used to be.  In the Nineteenth Century, people were used to concentrating on music, and just hearing it at that time.  The audience had to be extremely intense and intent.  That is now probably gone forever, but it’s been gone for a long time.  It’s been gone since the habits of television and radio came along, and being able to hear something more than once, and not being dependent on that unique performance experience.  We might as well go all the way, and instead of forcing them to be so intent, and being with people they don’t want to be with, allow them access to this music however they want, whenever they want, wherever they want it.  Most people have that now.
BD:   You don’t worry about trying to get rid of the downside.  You just utilize the upside as much as there is.

Dembski:   Yes.  What a fabulous thing.  The web is made beautifully.  The whole design of it is for these tiny little niche phenomena, and in certain respects, most music has always been that.  There was a period of time
which is very much romanticized nowcalled the Romantic Period, when apparently for a while a few composers made a living as composers in the Euro and occasionally the Euro-American tradition... but only due to very special social and economic circumstances.  Prior to that time, composers always had day jobs, like Kapellmeister.  For those who weren’t involved in religious music, it was much more difficult to get going.  They always taught, and the most interesting of them did that.  The less interesting of them were able to make a living somehow.  Many more people want to hear music that is familiar to them, and they got what they are expecting.  Those are the composers, generally with very few exceptions, who can make a living in music these days.  However, it seems to me that things are really in a very good position for a whole lot of people who want to make music in a whole lot of different ways to do that, and not only on a completely lonely basis.

BD:   As long as they’re bricklayers, or shoe salesman, or something to support their habit...

Dembski:   Yes.  You have to do something.  I haven’t been a bricklayer, or a shoe salesman, but I’ve been a tree surgeon, and a mental hospital attendant, and a record salesman, and a restaurant waiter.  So, I have some idea of what the possibilities are with that kind of work.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Being a composer of complex music, are you still really kind of a mental hospital attendant?

Dembski:   [Smiles]  I would say no.  It’s a lot of fun to make jokes about that, particularly when you’re dealing with your friends who are performers who inevitably have spent a whole lot of their lives in practice rooms by themselves.  They get pretty crazy.  However, to be serious just for a moment, the metal hospitals that I worked in, and the mental diseases that people had are so profound, that the general romantization of mental illness
such as we find in movies here and therereally doesn’t appeal to me.

BD:   I’m thinking of being a little bit touched, rather than profoundly affected.

Dembski:   Right.  In all areas of the arts
and in a lot of other fields, alsoif you’re doing original work you are constantly negotiating that line of whether anybody can understand what you’re doing or not.  Most of the time, most of us want people to understand what we’re doing, whether we’re buying shoes or crossing the street.  We want to make sure the cars that are coming our direction can see us.  But the same desire of wanting the people around you to understand what you’re doing is strained when you do something speculative in the arts.  However, the more you give in to that desire, and if you give in to it to a certain point, what you’re doing may become almost indistinguishable from what everybody else is doing.  There was a point, back in 1981, when every single disco tune sounded exactly like every other one.  It was a perfect moment.  It only lasted for a few seconds, but I was there and I listened.  I went through all the channels, and they were all exactly the same.  It was a wonderful moment because at least for those few seconds of time there was a convergence, and my theory was proved by a single example.  All of a sudden, people found out, even with the disco tune, that what they really valued was how they were different, as opposed to just being able to settle into it, and bathing in the sweet bliss of it all.  The more arts get speculative, the more they distinguish themselves from others, and from other works of art.  Then, more works of art become speculative enterprises.  But it’s just those enterprises that we end up caring about in the long term, and it’s those enterprises that negotiate very carefully the boundary between something which nobody could possibly ever learn to understand, and something which maybe someday, if someone came to it with a lot of energy and a lot of imagination and a lot of knowledge, might be able to get a glimmering of understanding of, just enough so that they come back to it again the second time.  Those are the things that actually end up changing the shape of these worlds that we live in, and they’re very important.  Then, if you go just a little bit too far over that line, nobody understands it, and you’re lost.

BD:   And you don’t know how far is too far until you’ve gotten there.

Dembski:   Right, you don’t.  That’s part of the enterprise of speculation.  However, if you have enough experiences of no one understanding what you’re doing, and thinking that what you’re doing is fine if you understand it, then it’s easy to become increasingly lonely, and with that loneliness is a questioning of whether you’re really a part of the society or not.  Then, with that questioning, it can gradually become a withdrawal from that society, which could presumably, ultimately, lead to a kind of behavior that might be interpreted as mental illness.  That is potentially a danger for certain people who are inclined in that direction, and who are vulnerable to this.

BD:   The fact that you recognize it hopefully means you can stay away from that precipice.

Dembski:   Oh, I myself have enough fun with other people on a daily basis, and I like playing with that precipice a bit.  If I occasionally do something that somebody doesn’t understand, that’s a good piece of information for me.  However, a long time ago
and part of the reason I imagine this universe that I’m now exploringI wanted to make a music that was not restricted in structural material, that wasn’t made of major scales and major and minor chords, but that would go, in certain basic respects, the way that music was made of major scales and major and minor chords went.  In certain respects, it is much easier to understand than some other kinds of musicsome pieces of which I like very, very much , but that you have to come to with great, great energy and enormous persistence.  At least I had to come into them that way in order to really feel as though I could understand them as music.
*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Dembski:   I’m actually very happy.  I have a difficult time these days in my academic position because I’m all alone managing three degree programs at the University of Wisconsin, where most comparable institutions have between four and six people doing the job that I’m trying to do.

BD:   [With a grin]  It’s because you’re so brilliant!

Dembski:   [Laughs]  Please...  It’s because I haven’t brilliantly managed the politics of my university.  But it means that for this particular year I’m having Paul’s project, which I’m working on collaboratively.  It’s a perfect one for me because I can come into it. I can set one line, and I don’t have to really prepare for it in the way that I would if I was working on a much larger piece, where, if I left it for two days, it would take me three days to get back to it.  I am actually working on several much larger pieces, but I can’t work on them at all this year for that reason.  So, with the exception of the enormous responsibility that I have this year, I hope I’ll be aided in that responsibility in the future, maybe even next year.  In general, I’m doing all kinds of things that I really, really want to do, and we haven’t even talked about half of them, or three-quarters of them.  But I’m also able to live a fairly bourgeois life.  I have two small children, and we live in a house in Madison.  It’s very pleasant.  I also spend a lot of time in New York, and have a very lively professional life there, and a very stimulating social and intellectual life there.

BD:   It sounds like you’re able juggle everything at once.

Dembski:   Yes, and I’m having just a wonderful time.  I can’t imagine, when I was working in the nut house thirty-five years ago, having done in these intervening years as many of the things that I’ve wanted to do, and found them as satisfying and enjoyable... quite apart from being able, at this point, to look forward to another few decades of doing them.  I’m really very, very happy.  There are people who have much bigger careers than I do, but they have to play all kinds of games which really don’t appeal to me at all.  They have to live certain kinds of lives, and they have certain kinds of pressures which don’t appeal to me.  The challenges that appeal to me are those of imagining new musics, and imagining new ways of doing things in the performing arts more generally, but the musical aspect of them particularly.  I have so many projects going in those respects, and so many different domains, and the fact that I’m actually able to realize them it’s really fabulous.

BD:   That’s what being a composer is.

Dembski:   It is fantastic.  So, really, I’m very, very happy in the circumstance.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 13, 2004.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following year.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.