Incredible Time (to live and die): Remembering Dean Drummond

Incredible Time (to live and die): Remembering Dean Drummond

Dean Drummond’s musical universe is a sublime architecture of numbers, ratios, and rhythmic patterns. Throughout an insanely busy life, he steadily built a body of complex, beautiful music that reflected his acute social conscience.

Written By

Elizabeth Brown

Drummond and Brown

Dean Drummond and Elizabeth Brown at the premiere of Seahorse (2008)

The first time I heard Dean Drummond’s Incredible Time (to live and die) I was floored. I listened to it over and over. As a lover of glissando and reverb, the zoomoozophone (which he invented) was like a dream. I was completely smitten with Incredible Time‘s intricate flute part, played by Dean’s wife Stefani Starin. The microtuned synthesizer, triggered by both a keyboard player and percussionist, tied it all together. Like all of his music, it made you aware of your place in the world at the present moment. Dean’s musical universe is a sublime architecture of numbers, ratios, and rhythmic patterns. Throughout an insanely busy life, he steadily built a body of complex, beautiful music that reflected his acute social conscience.
On April 13, Dean died of complications from multiple myeloma. He led a multi-dimensional career as composer, instrument inventor, conductor and musician through hundreds of performances and numerous recordings with Newband. As director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium, he honored Partch’s legacy by preserving his instruments and performing his compositions—and he kept that legacy alive by writing and commissioning new pieces, and by building and adapting new instruments. Dean also inspired a generation of students as director of the Harry Partch Ensemble at Montclair State University.

My friendship with Dean developed through my deepening involvement with the instruments that defined and propelled his music. We shared a passion for timbre and microtonality, though mine is more instinctual and based on harmonic gravity. Over the last twenty-five years, I wrote three pieces for the Partch instruments, hands-on, in three different studios. What was it like to work closely with Dean, and with the original Partch instruments? His sense of humor really helped in dealing with tedious technical and logistical issues. I saved some of our email exchanges:

DD: The boo is being repaired and is unavailable Friday evening, Nov 16. The marimba eroica is being repaired and is unavailable from Friday morning, Nov 16, until Monday morning, Nov 19. Beginning Nov 23, most instruments will be at Japan Society in NY for a couple weeks. The instruments will be set up by Dec 11, but used all day Dec 12 by students. Beginning Dec 13, the studio is very free until Jan 21. You can still reserve time after that, but classes begin Jan 22 (my birthday). We should meet briefly the first time, at 5pm on Dec 12. Then you can stay at the studio as long as you want. You need to reserve the times you will use with me 48 hours in advance in order to guarantee having exclusive use.
EB: We’d better synchronize our watches on 12/12 (which is my anniversary, as well as Virgin of Guadalupe day). I assume you mean I should reserve other times at least 48 hours in advance, not exactly 48 hours in advance of each visit.
DD: no, I meant exactly. if you want to use the studio at 3:30 on Dec 13th, you must reach me by phone (voicemail is unacceptable) at exactly 3:30 on Dec 11th. There’s a grace period of 45 seconds before and after. I’ve invested in a very sophisticated satellite timer which will prompt me to call you at precisely the right time to reserve the studio.

Dean’s sense of organization was legendary. Colleagues say his budgets had the rigor of a CPA’s. Numbers were effortless for him. The exchange below concerns tuning only one of the instruments:

EB: Dean – I tuned harmonic canon 1 yesterday, and had trouble getting to a couple of the pegs (I gave up on the 41st string on the left side)…
DD: I didn’t know that you were using HC I. fyi, there are two different tunings happening on a weekly basis. It gets tuned to the standard tuning on Thursdays and gets changed to my tuning for MS Genitron on Fridays, although some weeks, if someone comes in to practice the changes might be made at other times. So it was probably on my tuning when you came in. My tuning changes X strings 41-44 plus the Oak bridge setting.
EB: I thought I’d told you I was using canon 1! Will try to keep your schedule in mind when tuning it. Have a feeling I tuned it to the standard tuning with the oak bridge in place for MS Genitron, apologies!
DD: The high X bridges don’t move for the tuning, but the Oak bridge must or the string tension is wrong. You actually erred towards loosening the strings so no harm done…

Writing Archipelago (1990)
I first met Dean through cellist Ted Mook, who was playing with Newband in the late 1980’s. Ted asked me write a piece with cello for a Newband concert. The concert’s repertoire was limited to the instruments in Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes, plus zoomoozophone and synth. Dean gave me hands-on access to the instruments in the Partch studio, which was near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. I was just a fledgling composer, and this was a very big deal! Not understanding the math, I composed by ear (using a Yamaha DXVII2 Synthesizer loaded with Partch’s 31- and 43-note microtonal scales at home). I taught myself to read and write the tablature notation for each instrument. In the studio, I reveled in the funkiness and tactile nature of the Partch instruments, and the amazing reverb of the zoomoozophone. If the instruments were tuned correctly, they would play EXACTLY the pitches I wanted! The wobbly sound world in my head came to life under Dean’s direction.

After Newband obtained custody of the Partch Instruments in 1990, many presenters wanted all-Partch programs, but Dean continually advocated for other composers to be included on Newband concerts. I was lucky—Archipelago was performed many times, and included on the Music and Arts CD Dance of the Seven Veils.

Writing Delirium (1997)
When Newband commissioned Delirium through the Cary Trust, the studio had moved to SUNY Purchase, and I don’t drive. Typically, I’d get up early and travel several hours on public transportation to the studio. Once there, I’d spend a long time tuning the string instruments I was using, then have maybe an hour to work before it was time to head home. This took the entire day, which Dean thought was both pathetic and funny. I vowed to never again write for Kithara II, with its 12 sets of hard-to-access strings tuned to bizarre hexads. If it wasn’t perfectly in tune, what I wrote sounded awful. But, Newband performed Delirium deliriously well under Dean’s direction, quite a few times.

At Dean’s memorial service on April 20, each person described him as fiercely individual and principled, and passionate about music—but also nutty. Lois V Vierk said that Dean was her very first composition teacher, during her freshman year at California Institute for the Arts. She wrote a piece for flute, cello and teapot (Dean played teapot). Pianist David Witten remembered Dean saying that the only use for a (well-tempered) piano was to fill it with warm milk and take a bath in it.

The many percussionists at the service were in awe of Dean and his music. Gary Kvistad remembered helping Dean build the zoomoozophone in his barn. Gary Schall recalled that the very first live performance on zoomoozophone was at his Manhattan School of Music percussion jury. Jimmy Pugliese spoke about learning Dean’s “Columbus” on the top two registers of the zoomoozophone, while Dean was still building the lower registers—because Dean was always creating something.

If we had been out of touch for a while, I was always astonished when we reconnected by what he had accomplished during that time. In 2009, I saw a terrific, insane concert version of his comic opera Café Buffé.

DD: Thanks for coming out the other night! The last couple months have been crazy. The night before the first rehearsal of the opera I finished editing a film project….which is going to be shown every Friday I think as part of the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim. Next I’m composing MacBeth music for Martha Clarke. I think I’m finally going to learn a little theremin for that!

He’d gotten a theremin years before, and we were both obsessed with the instrument. After I married my long-time partner Lothar Osterburg in 2003, he wrote:

DD: Do you know about this?!!!! It’s a theremin band!
EB: Yes, all the theremin players are jealous I married somebody named Lothar. It’s an old band; Lothar was the name of their theremin.
DD: I figured your marriage had to have some sort of sleazy career-building aspect!
EB: Having a husband with a volume control antenna is extremely useful.

Writing Seahorse (2008)
Through Dean, I was commissioned to write a piece for the Montclair State University’s Harry Partch Ensemble. He wanted me to play in the piece, and help coach it, so I wrote a theremin concerto. I figured that if I could play each part, the students could too – so I made a recording for the students by playing and overdubbing all the parts.

DD: We all listened to your CD this morning. I should say attempted because your piece, or at least the CD, has the remarkable ability to put people to sleep. No matter how many times we tried to start it, everyone was out by the zoomoozophone entrance. We tried the beginning of “Drunken Waltz,” too, and it got the same effect before the theremin was to enter. We’ll just have to hope it’s different when we try to rehearse.
EB: Great! that’s exactly the response I hoped for! So many people have trouble getting to sleep nowadays that audiences will flock to hear Seahorse, possibly wearing pajamas!
DD: Well that explains why there’s line of people wearing pajamas outside of our house. On the other hand, over in Montclair, thousands of students are in front of the president’s office protesting the performance of Seahorse. Campus police confiscated all copies of your music and said only a licensed anesthesiologist could play the CD of Seahorse. Now I’ll never know what it sounds like.

But then, he also wrote:

DD: It’s fantastic….really mean it. I think it’s going to be amazing. The parts are very playable so great possibility for a great performance. It’s a piece that I’d like to also do w. Newband asap. The students loved the mock-up tape. They all feel very lucky to have this piece. I do, too.

And I was lucky to work with those students! Seahorse was premiered in December 2008. Last year, I received a New Music USA CAP award to record Seahorse with Newband for New World Records. Dean let me use his theremin so I wouldn’t have to schlep mine, and even arranged for parking reimbursement.

EB: I doubt if I’ll have time to learn to drive until after the Seahorse recording, and Lothar won’t let me use our car until I do. He seems to think that if I can play theremin I should be able to drive. So unfortunately I cannot take advantage of the free parking.
DD: Your theremin doesn’t drive? I have the model that does. It parks anywhere.

The Seahorse recording was wonderful! Newband sounded great, and Dean played Adapted Guitar 1. He looked terrific and seemed healthy. I chose to believe his multiple myeloma was in remission, because the alternative was unbearable. Afterwards, he said he was feeling pretty good because he’d scheduled his chemo around the recording. He was receiving heavy chemo for three weeks, with one week off. He said he had no idea how long he had left to live. In the meantime, he was enjoying every single day.

Seahorse Recording Session

Dean Drummond and Elizabeth Brown (center) with the members of Newband at the recording session for Seahorse

He never heard the final edit.
There would have been a Newband Concert at Heidelburg University in Ohio on April 13, the day Dean died. The program would have included pieces by Partch, Drummond, and Cage, plus Dean’s arrangement of Bach’s Es Ist Genug for 4 zoomoozophonists.


From Charles Bernstein’s libretto for Dean Drummond’s Café Buffé:

The world swirls around me
It’s a mystery I’m here at all
The world swirls around me
It’s a mystery I’m standing here at all
Got a telegram from eternity
Said it was time for me to call


There’s no time like the present
And the present’s already gone
No time like the present
And the present it’s already gone


Thanks for the company
Thanks for the music


What an incredible life!