stuart dempster

Preview: Stuart Dempster: Playing It by Ear

Legendary Seattle composer, improviser and sound gatherer brings music from the “Cistern Chapel” to Portland.


I climbed down the ladder’s narrow rusty rungs, sunlight stabbing the clammy black hole just large enough for me to fit through, the only way in. Everywhere else, darkness, as I surrendered to this sudden night 14 feet underground — deep inside an empty two-million-gallon, 186-foot-diameter defunct cistern.

Once my eyes adjusted, I could see the bell of a trombone, and then another, and another, until I could make out all ten of them. The cistern’s cement walls and rows of pillars recall the weight of water in their damp grip—and release a 45-second reverberation. Here, in June 1995, Stuart Dempster and nine other players blew their slow tones, the harmonies undulating in braided currents.


Stuart Dempster performs Saturday in Portland.

Stuart Dempster performs Saturday in Portland. Photo: Claire Sykes.

The cistern, at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington, is among the many acoustically unusual spaces around the world that Dempster has found, from caves to cathedrals. They represent just one of the ways this 78-year-old Seattle improviser and composer, humorist and healer has transported the trombone beyond the traditional. He was one of the first to take the instrument onstage as a soloist, without accompaniment. He has expanded its sound palette, coaxing out tones and textures that few before have performed or recorded with a trombone. He has included dancers and theatrics, whacky costumes and children’s toys. Often, he has made more than music, when his playing — on trombone or didjeridu, conch shell or common garden hose — invites us listeners to give ourselves over to a meditative state, one that he assures us can restore our physical, emotional and spiritual energies.

We’ll get our chance with Dempster this Saturday, September 6, 2014, 7:00 p.m. at Yale Union, 800 SE 10th Avenue in Portland. In the main space there, he’ll perform solo trombone works,  Didjeridervish (1971-72), Dream Timepiece (2002) and YUbone (2014), the last named with a nod toward this center for contemporary art. Within earshot in other areas of the building, he’ll wander the sonic with conch shell, didjeridu and what he refers to as “little instruments.” He says we should feel free to move about the main space during the performance, turning our tympanic membranes in directions we may be surprised to discover.