US composer is found dead

US composer is found dead


norman lebrecht

August 19, 2021

The remarkable composer Stephen Dembski has died at the age of 71. UPDATE: We are informed by his family that he died of natural causes.

Dembski was one of the foremost apostles of the modernist Milton Babbitt.

Born in Boston in 1949, Stephen Dembski studied piano from an early age, and later (in elementary school) took up the flute. As a teenager, he played a lot of rock and roll and folk music, then became more involved with long-form improvised music, such as the jazz of Cecil Taylor. To support himself, he worked in mental hospitals and as a tree surgeon. While in his early twenties, the composition of strictly-notated music began to supercede his work as an instrumental performer.

In the early 70s, Dembski migrated to New York from Antioch College where he studied composition with John Ronsheim. After six months as a record salesman and two months as a tour guide, he began composition studies with Bülent Arel at SUNY-Stony Brook. From there he went to Princeton, where he received an M.F.A. and a Ph.D., and where his primary teacher was Milton Babbitt.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Terrible story, must have been quite a shock for the student. But that is all on the human level. What about the music?

    This is a mono drama by Dembski:

    Very musical, very expressive with a minimum of means, freely tonal, and so different from Babbit’s aesthetics:

    • Scott Fields says:

      Steve, who I knew well, decided that Babbitt had taken serialism as far as it could go. As an alternative he developed a post-serial tonal system that he used for most of his work.

      Steve conducted three of my modular compositions as well as a more linear suite. All were released as CDs (in one case a three-CD set). He also wrote an hour-long piece for my ensemble, also released on CD.

      Perhaps somewhere there was someone who didn’t enjoy Steve’s company but I never met that person.

      • Paul Hertz says:


        I was happily listening to a recent recording of your music that Steve conducted just a few months ago, at his recommendation.

        I also collaborated with him on a virtual world, Fools Paradise, which would never have happened but for Steve’s delight in experimentation–he wrote and conducted the music, I created the architecture and interaction, but we tried to lay out a formal scaffolding that would let us move compositional structures between media. We started a new collaboration this summer.

        Like you, I found his company a joy.

  • Nosema says:

    Much as I enjoyed his company I must admit that his teaching of basic music theory was close to incomprehensible. But that was at Dartmouth in the late 70’s. Perhaps his teaching skills developed.
    In any event a sad loss. R.I.P.

    • Alphonse says:

      Was that little dig necessary? Were you waiting 40 years to say that? The body’s not even cold yet for crying out loud.

  • David Leibowitz says:

    This is incredibly sad news and I am heartbroken. Steve was not only a good friend but a much-valued colleague. His orchestral piece “Raven-year” (which I had to coax and cajole him to write for us) is a wonderful work – colorful, dramatic, emotional, and profound. As was much of his music.

    My memories of him are all joyful – going to concerts of his music (and the inevitable after-party), having drinks on his Greenwich Village rooftop, coffee and pine-nut cookies at Rocco’s. Our catch-up phone calls. Rest in Peace, Steve. You are missed.

  • Jeanne Swack says:

    I just heard this and am totally shocked. He was a wonderful colleague and a great and caring person. I was just thinking about him as I drove past his house the other day. May his memory be for a blessing.

  • Vance Koven says:

    The review strikes me as damning with faint praise. Dohnanyi was a superb composer, and though I’m more familiar with his chamber than his symphonic music, the string trio, two piano quintets, and the sextet for mixed instruments are all first-rate.

  • Paul Seitz says:

    Like so many others, I am also in shock at this news. He was my major professor for my DMA in composition and a wonderful, generous, encouraging friend over the years. His death is a huge loss but his memory is surely a blessing for me and everyone who had the joyful experience of knowing him.

  • Anonymous says:

    I worked with Steve for a few years at UW-Madison before he retired. I always admired his warmth and wit, and I especially loved his impish smile. Sending my condolences and respect to his family and friends.

  • Matan Rubinstein says:

    This is the only place on the web that has mention of his passing (I am not on Facebook and can’t therefore access any activity there,) does anyone have information re. the socially oriented activities surrounding Steve’s passing? Funeral arrangements, memorial concerts, etc.?
    I find myself without avenue to grieve properly…

    • Scott Fields says:

      Someone close to Steve has said he will message me with such details. When the information comes I will share it here, with his permission.

  • Steve Bruns says:

    I remember Steve Dembski most fondly from my years as a PhD Theory student at UW-Madison. He was an insightful member of my doctoral committee, and I am forever grateful to him for leading a course (along with Joseph Straus) on Milton Babbitt’s music. Babbitt himself was in residence for two separate weeks of unforgettable lectures, which Dembski and Straus later edited for publication. Steve was a brilliant man and elegant composer. He was also unfailingly kind. It’s hard to accept that he is gone so prematurely.