Putting the “play” in playing

Caleb Stellmach

Stuart Dempster put on a very untraditional recital last Thursday night. Photo by Minh Nguyen (minh nguyen)

Few students probably noticed the slim, white-haired man eating in Andrew Commons with Dean of the Conservatory Brian Pertl last week. This is not surprising. In person, trombonist and didjeridu player Stuart Dempster is quiet and unassuming. When he takes the stage, however, this pioneering musician transforms into an energetic and whimsical performer.
Dempster came to Lawrence this week for a brief residency, starting with an hour-long master class Wednesday. He filled Harper Hall for a memorable recital Thursday evening. The concert began with the Lawrence trombone studio encircling the room and Dempster smack dab in the middle of the audience.
For the next 10 minutes, Dempster went around the circle giving each player a note or riff to play. He took a short solo in the middle of the song before dismantling it as carefully as he had created it. The sound Dempster concocted was both beautiful and strange.
After the opening jam session the performance became more straightforward. Pertl gave Dempster a brief introduction, saying Dempster likes to “put the ‘play’ in playing.” On the first song, titled “Soy Noodle, Toy Poodle,” Dempster began by playing a pink plastic tube.
Throughout the performance Dempster was joined onstage by Pertl, percussion professor Dane Richeson, and several others, playing everything from Tibetan long horn to didjeridu and accordion.
After playing a piece composed by Pertl called “I C U 2” involving a didjeridu with light-up eyeballs on the ends, Dempster ended the concert by running through the audience barking like a dog and asking them to bark back. One confused audience member left Harper asking, “What just happened?”
Dempster departed for Door County Friday evening for a weekend with the trombone studio and a few curious tuba and euphonium players at Bj”rklunden. They spent most of Saturday learning the various techniques, both on trombone and didjeridu, that Dempster employs to imitate speech and animals.
Through clinics such as this one and his book “The Modern Trombone,” Dempster attempts to elevate the status and to expand the repertoire of the orchestral trombone. He has commissioned more works for trombone than any other person in recorded history, and he sees these weird playing styles as opportunities for the trombone to garner the respect it deserves.
The weekend ended with a concert Sunday afternoon featuring the Lawrence University Trombone Choir and Stuart Dempster himself. The concert opened with classical works by Mendelssohn and Schubert for trombone choir.
But, soon enough the audience, this time in Bj”rklunden’s great hall, was surrounded by trombonists, with Dempster making magic from the center. Next, Dempster was joined by Marty Erickson, teacher of tuba and euphonium, and Pertl. Together, they gave a similar performance to Thursday’s recital.
The audience of Lawrence alumni and aging classical music buffs was decidedly comical to watch. Some were shocked, some were horrified and others were so amused by the display of Dempster’s inner child that they literally could not stay seated.
With many of the 20th century’s great pioneering musicians, such as John Cage and Leonard Bernstein, now gone, it was a great treat to have Dempster at Lawrence for five days. If he passed on some of his great talent and creative genius to a few Lawrentians, then we will can look forward to a lot of weird music.

Stuart Dempster put on a very untraditional recital last Thursday night. Photo by Minh Nguyen (minh nguyen)

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