In Memoriam: Dean Drummond (1949-2013)

Long-time MSU Associate Professor of Music Dean Drummond was an artist of world stature with a profound passion for teaching. A composer with an international reputation as well as a librettist, a conductor as well as a performer, a curator and inventor of musical instruments—Drummond’s breadth and versatility as a musician was exceptional.

Drummond’s extensive corpus of compositions expanded the sonic possibilities of the unique collection of instruments invented by his musical mentor, the maverick American composer Harry Partch. Combining Partch instruments with more familiar ones from the Western tradition as well as electronics, Drummond established an original musical idiom that exploited both tonal and microtonal techniques. His special gift for combining moments of crystalline intimacy, sweeping grandeur, vernacular directness and comic irony made his composing style so irresistible that it became an important voice in new music throughout the world. He wrote in a broad range of genres from short compositions to huge musical tapestries, including opera (Café Buffé, Gilgamesh), tone poems (The Golden Bird) and film scores (The Last Laugh, Black Lines). A creative force to the end, in the weeks before his passing he was at work on a collaborative project with pop icon Paul Simon for Simon’s upcoming CD.

As curator of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium and conductor of Newband, the contemporary music ensemble he co-founded in 1976 and co-directed with the flautist Stefani Starin, Drummond presented Partch’s own works in a series of important concerts over many years that became must-see events in New York cultural life. These performances, which included unforgettable renderings of such legendary evening-length Partch compositions as The Delusion of the Fury and Oedipus, were greeted with international acclaim and ecstatic reviews in The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine.

Over more than thirty years, Newband also presented countless world premieres of Drummond’s own works. His music was performed around the world in prominent venues that included Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall (New York), the Library of Congress (Washington, DC), Barbican Hall (London) and Podewil (Berlin). Through his work with Newband, Drummond emerged as a champion of new music, performing 20th century classics by Varèse and Stravinsky, as well as music by a variety of living composers, from Eric Moe to Elizabeth Brown and Matthew Rosenblum.

Drummond’s close engagement with the Partch Instrumentarium was not limited to curating. He also invented instruments that complemented and extended the musical universe that the Partch collection first delineated. Most prominent among Drummond’s inventions was the zoomoozophone, a ringing metallic percussion instrument based on Partch’s tuning theory of just intonation. Its unique sound proved so suggestive that many composers, including Elizabeth Brown, John Cage, David Krakauer, Joan La Barbara, Annea Lockwood and James Pugliese, have created musical works expressly for it.

It is not surprising that Drummond won so many accolades over his lifetime. His achievements were recognized by grants, fellowships and honors from an extensive array of important institutions, among them the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fromm Foundation, the Cary Trust, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Drummond was also an extraordinarily influential and effective teacher of composition, the Partch musical system, and music history of the 20th and 21st centuries. His passionate commitment to education transformed the lives of generations of students, first at SUNY Purchase, and then from 1999-2013 at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, where he was tenured Associate Professor of composition, deputy director from 2005-2009, and director of the Harry Partch Institute. For his colleagues, students and friends in academe, he will be remembered as a towering yet deeply humane artist with a seemingly endless creative verve, a twinkle in his eye, and an uncompromising belief in the transformative power of music.

Dean Drummond was also a father, brother and partner. A fiercely independent spirit, he combined immense creative energy with an irrepressible sense of humor, organizational talent, and a contagious joy for living. He was a martial arts enthusiast, a committed vegetarian and a gourmet cook. He is survived by his two children, Ruby Stardrum and Booker Stardrum; his sisters Aleta and Ilana Drummond; his brother Barry; his partner,

Princeton university professor and poet Starry Schor; and his former wife, good friend and artistic collaborator Stefani Starin.

His passing leaves an enormous void.