Stephen Dembski has taught composition at UW-Madison for over three decades. Exposed early on to Euro-American concert music, he later took up Anglo-American folk music, and then Afro-American improvisation. Eventually, work with Cecil Taylor and Milton Babbitt bolstered the integration of neo-platonic formalism and abstract expressionism that has long informed his compositions. While the Penguin Guide to Jazz refers to his work for improvising musicians, under his “conduction,” as “exquisite,” his Euro-tradition music was praised by the NYTimes as “sensuous” and “ecstatic,” and by Pacifica Radio as simply “moving and beautiful.”
Although he has primarily trod the path of that European concert-music tradition, he’s also often wandered — for example, to work as an improvising conductor of others’ long-form modular works released mostly on “jazz” labels. Presenters ranging from solo performers to the United Nations have programmed his music throughout the world, and much of it can be heard on about a dozen commercial recordings, several devoted entirely to his work. That work has received substantial recognition, notably via three commission-fellowships from the NEA, a major fellowship from the Howard Foundation, the Premio Musicale Citta di Trieste, and the Lieberson Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Along with continually expanding his extensive catalog of concert music, Dembski also composes for improvising musicians, and for sarod, and also creates musical material for interactive installations, sometimes involving virtual-reality systems. Dembski’s other activities in music include publishing and software design; his name can be found on the covers of several books, and from time to time at the heads of articles — usually on the work of other composers, or on compositional theory. A frequent juror for competitions held by a variety of arts-oriented groups, he continues to serve on the boards of directors of a wide spectrum of not-for-profit music service organizations and foundations, both regional and national. While still tending to many smaller projects, he’s currently working on a monodramatic setting of a libretto by Zhang Er and Martine Bellen derived from the ancient Chinese myth of the demigoddess Chang E, as well as on an operatic setting of a libretto entitled Crow Soup, written for him by the renowned surrealist artist and novelist Leonora Carrington, and on an oratorio setting of 13th century Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti’s notorious canzone, ‘Donna mi prega …’ .”