Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

While many composer-led musical organizations reflect the image of their creators image, Newband embodies the spirit both of its founders, composer Dean Drummond and flutist Stefani Starin, as well as Drummond’s mentor, Harry Partch.

Partch, whose legendary refusal to be constrained either by traditional tuning or instrumentation, cast a long shadow on many who encountered him, but few more so than Drummond.

“I had the good fortune to meet Harry Partch when I was 16, and being exposed to his sound world at such an impressionable age changed me for life,” he says. “I went on to study Webern and post-Webern serialism, but after Partch I just couldn’t return to music with a box of only 12 crayons.”

And like Partch, Drummond knew if he wanted his music heard, he had to arrange for it himself. One year after founding Newband in 1977, Drummond invented the 31-tone zoomoozophone and led Partch’s microtonal theories through an innovative and eclectic repertoire influenced by jazz, rock and world music. The nine-member ensemble’s combination of musical precision and circus-like theaticality has moved into theater dance and film as well. Besides premieres by Partch and Drummond, Newband has premiered works by John Cage and Zorn, Ezra Sims, James Pugliese, Elizabeth Brown, Anne LeBaron, Lois V Vierk and Julia Wolfe.

Outside of New York, Newband has performed at New Music America in Houston, The Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus OH and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. They have recorded on Mode, Music and Arts, Point and Aurora.

In 1990, Newband received custody of the original Harry Partch instrument collection from Partch’s longtime companion Danlee Mitchell after performing with the collection on a Bang on a Can Marathon in New York. The collection was in residence at SUNY Purchase from 1993 until its eviction in 1998. Currently, the instruments are being stored in a warehouse in upstate New York awaiting a permanent home. Sort of fitting, actually, given the stretches of homelessness in Partch’s own transient life. The aura of Partch, though, is something Drummond acknowledges without obsession.

“I loved Harry Partch as a person, and from the time I got the instruments I could almost feel his presence there,” he says. “But to tell you the truth, he gets further and further away all the time. He provided theories as a learning tool, not dogma, and even he as a practitioner used his ideas very freely. The best thing about him was that he opened whole new ways to become a self-made person.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox