Composer Profile: Tamar Diesendruck

Tamar Diesendruck
Tamar Diesendruck


Tamar Diesendruck’s favored compositional medium for many years has been virtuosic chamber music; in recent years however her focus has shifted and opportunities to compose for larger ensembles are embraced. In addition to mixed chamber ensemble, string quartet, duos and trios she has also composed solo, orchestral, choral, wind ensemble and vocal works. Her music is often characterized as having a very wide range of expression. Works from the1990s found common ground between disparate musical cultures. Works in the last decade avoid references and in recent years, guided freedom for the players has been incorporated to produce complex webs and networks of sound fashioned from fragments of individual “utterance”. DAGGER/the night has been unruly  (String Quartet No. 3) layers intense individual “readings” of text (from MacBeth) creating a string quartet of passionate, individual expression, simultaneously performed, instead of the “one organism” of group interpretation.

Strange Parade for large wind ensemble and percussion has layered musical spaces and passages in which the listener dwells in texture, meanders amongst voices which branch and wander, focuses on elemental shapes, or gets carried along by eddies and currents. In Still Telling (2010), microtonal “tinted” colors add further subtlety; almost all the sections of the piece are fashioned out of “DNA” derived from a striking melody from the middle of the piece, the connections not audible on the surface of the sound, but deeply felt.

Works have been performed throughout the U.S. and Europe, in the Middle East and Asia; performers include the Pro Arte Qt., Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Escher Qt., Eastman and New England Conservatory Wind Ensembles, Callithumpian Consort, Volti, The Crossing, Firebird Ensemble, Lions Gate Trio, Speculum Musicae,  New Millenium Ensemble, Earplay, Empyrean Ensemble, Dinosaur Annex, Phantom Arts Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, New Century Players, League of Composers-ISCM, and other ensembles, as well as such soloists as pipa virtuoso Wu Man, avant-garde violinist Carla Kihlstedt, pianist Donald Berman.

Important recognition, awards and honors include: the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome; Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study; the Guggenheim Fellowship; a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Composition at N.Y.U.; the Bunting Fellowship; the Ives Fellowship, Goddard Lieberson Fellowship and the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as grants from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Meet the Composer and ASCAP. Recordings have been supported with grants from the Copland Fund, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and American Women Composers. Work is available on Centaur Records, Stanley Records and Bridge Records.

She has been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, Fromm Foundation, a consortium of wind ensembles, NYSCA, Stony Brook, Christine Schadeberg, Meet the Composer/Readers Digest,  San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Dinosaur Annex, Arts, Humanities Iniative at USC, Phantom Arts Ensemble, Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, Wu Man, San Francisco Chamber Singers, Volti, and Richard Lalli among others.

She has been awarded residencies at the leading artist colonies and foundations in the US and Europe: MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Copland House, Djerassi Foundation, Bellagio Center, Bogliasco Foundation, Camargo Foundation, Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation.

Currently Ms. Diesendruck is on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music.

Recordings are available on the Centaur, Bridge, and Stanley labels.



What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I’m at a loss to pinpoint an early experience I can identify as particularly significant to my development as a composer. I always reacted powerfully to music, would wake up early every morning as a kid and dance around the living room. I was thrilled by the percussion we had in kindergarten. I grew up studying piano and violin (later switching to cello), always loved playing, wrote little pieces when I was 11, always liked “fooling around” (later found out you call it improvising), did a little jazz arranging, wrote pieces for dancers, but came late to identifying myself as a composer, even after having some compositions performed. For a long time I was equally involved with visual art. I started grad school later than most. I still think of my life writing music as “my so-called career”.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

So many! Sorting it out is difficult. At different points I was taken with different approaches and sound worlds. However, I think an early passion for Bach keyboard works must have had a deep effect. My first attempts to compose were keyboard pieces trying to mimic the two part inventions which i loved playing. The core of my musical background being Western classical music, I know the music of the canon has had a profound effect. Beyond those obvious iconic masters, up through Stravinsky and Schoenberg, since high school I have had a passion for jazz and blues, classical Indian music, and field recordings of world music. You can sometimes identify these influences, but most of the time I think they aren’t audible on the surface of the music.  I played folk music and jazz in my twenties, and played for modern dance classes, which all has fed me as a composer. Of course, I also have been deeply affected by the contemporary masters of concert music. No surprises – in no particular order, Berio, Ligeti, Feldman, Birtwistle, Carter, Cage for starters. I am very interested in Donatoni’s structures and systems, as well as the kind of formal experimentation of Earle Brown.

Very important for me are the instructions for the wall drawings of visual artist Sol Lewitt. More of that in the note for Still Telling.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

I am most happy when I can look forward to writing every day and can move in and out of concentrating in my own rhythm. Alas, most of the time that’s not possible since I teach during the academic year, but I still try to set aside entire days when possible.

My work typically starts without elaborate precompositional planning. I might sketch “speckled” music, or the evolution of a squiggle. Contour, color, density, articulation, dynamics, or resonance can become primary. I have expanded my use of microtonal elements to create what I refer to as “tinted” melodies or backgrounds,  further splintering and extending the elements at hand. 

Here are some sample drawings for Still Telling (click to enlarge):




Here’s a piece which incorporates some graphic approaches with scrolling score.

8 —–> ∞ for 8 cellos:

I’m low tech. I sketch and draw gestures and textures especially in the early stages. Once I’m using notation, I have multiple sketches/experiments going simultaneously, on large format pages, that I need to compare side by side –  ideas jotted down in margins, multiple possibilities notated on top of one another to facilitate comparison, etc. I often use a variety of notations which are difficult to duplicate with notation programs. So all that gets left until the end. Even with traditionally notated passages I avoid going to computer – I don’t like to be on screen all the time, am not fast with notation programs, prefer my sonic imagination to playback, etc. It gets in the way.

One way I do use very basic technology is to record myself improvising. Sometimes I  transcribe ideas quite carefully. At other times I test out how densely layered passage might be structured, recording each layer and putting them in an editor to play with possibilities.

I have had the opportunity to make sound for two video projects and look forward to doing more. I have no training in computer or electronic music and use my own field recordings which I edit in a free editor I downloaded. Last year I had assistance with processing which added another dimension, but it’s amazing how much variation and depth is possible if one is willing to use many layers of sound and make many edits.

Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.

Did I mention I don’t follow the rules? Here are two pieces.

Still Telling (2010) was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation for the Callithumpian Consort, an ideal ensemble for my work, exploring “the crossroads between composition and improvisation”.

The title refers to the different “tellings” of a particular source material; the word “still” is used in all its meanings and allusions.  Still Telling employs a variety of notation and guided freedom along with fully notated passages. I am inspired by Sol Lewitt’s instructions for wall drawings, for which  realizations are conceptually identical but vary in each incarnation.  Primarily based on a single type of mark, or small repertoire of basic shapes, complexity comes from the overlapping, crowding, and bunching of such simple marks as “performed” by different draftsmen. In Still Telling, the “marks” from the more freely notated sections and the source materials for improvised combining by the players  are derived from the “DNA” of a haunting piano passage.

I have delighted in exploring the kaleidoscopic possibilities I could create from a particular strand of musical “DNA”. Still Telling combines this principle with the practice of providing for the voice of performers (i.e. beyond interpretation).  It is another step in my quest to construct elegant concepts which guide players such that their choices and contributions will sound inevitably expressive and right in the larger sonic shape.

But, whatever questions I can verbalize, the work itself seems to answer an unformulated question which moves the piece into a more interesting realm, providing clues to a possible question.

You can hear it here:

Currently I am embarked on a series of works inspired by the processes of evolutionary biology entitled Variant Scenarios. I am experimenting with using these concepts to structure a collection of “organisms”  (or proto-organisms at the moment) and drifting “populations”. The concept of genetic drift is particularly intriguing to me.

I use a variety of notational techniques from completely notated passages to more open sections that have guidance on articulation, dynamics, intervals, etc.

ORIGIN STORY: Other Oceans, Other Air for piano trio is the first piece of the project.  The second piece which I am working on currently is scored for orchestral winds, percussion, piano and harp and has been commissioned by a consortium of ensembles.

[Note: if you experience problems playing the audio clips, try using a different browser (Chrome or Firefox) other than Internet Explorer.]

As befits the first piece of the project, ORIGIN STORY is inspired by theories on the origin of life on earth. How did life emerge on the primitive earth from a prebiotic soup of chemical elements? How did the inanimate become animate? This question is still unanswered but all theories must account for the bonding of chemical elements, the creation of molecules and cells, the development of primitive mechanisms, and ultimately a process of self-replication.

The progress from a soup of individual elements to functioning organisms, however simple, seems profoundly musical to me. In ORIGIN STORY, I decided to use the simplest shapes or figures as my elements, projected simultaneously, colliding, bouncing off each other, in a chaotic texture, occasionally fusing (as one theory has it the chemical elements were fused by the energy of random lightening strikes, or bursts from volcanoes), sometimes in forms that can endure to develop into simple mechanisms.

I used randomly generated  sequences to order the permutations of shape, and randomly generated orderings of the smallest musical intervals to project the shapes. The results are notated as simple streams of short figures with instructions for the players regarding general tempo and dynamics. Further iterations of the material evolve to increase the range (pitch space) and incorporate a “fusing” process (material is looped to form a composite sound differentiated from the surroundings).  As the piece progresses, the material is combined and sequenced in various ways, ultimately forming a series of primitive mechanisms which seem poised to form larger, more flexible musical structures; the last panel in the series of mechanisms presents a sophisticated development of the material, the sequences branching into nuanced phrases. The final two sections of the piece  again explore the flux and ebullience of earlier stages of development.

ORIGIN STORY is very much an experiment.  I created numerous passages based on my collection of processes; the piece is created from the experiments  and mechanisms I found most musically compelling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s