Stephen Dembski studied piano from an early age, and was reading music long before he could read words. Warned against the clarinet on account of the braces on his teeth, and against the trombone because of the length of his arms, he took up the flute in elementary school. Later, he learned musical illiteracy: in high school and after, both in this country and in England, he performed folk and traditional musics on the guitar, banjo, harmonica, and washtub bass, and played a lot of rock and roll, all "by ear." Although he eventually earned degrees from Antioch, SUNY-Stony Brook, and Princeton, and played flute professionally in Europe for a time, even while still enrolled in college he continued working in bands such as a small one called Kiss that played mostly prisons in Ohio, and a big one led by Cecil Taylor. But by his early twenties, he was becoming devoted to writing music in the good old Euro-American concert tradition again, and that music -- which includes solo, small ensemble, orchestral, vocal, and electro-acoustic works, as well as extended works for improvising musicians -- still gets around, most recently in Chicago, Prague, and New York, sometimes to extravagant notice.
His honors include three commission-fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship from the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation, and the Goddard Lieberson Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; his concert music has represented the United States at international festivals in France, Germany, Denmark, Poland, and England. In 1990, his orchestral setting of Wallace Stevens' last poem was recognized by the Premio Musicale Citta di Trieste (Italy) and recorded for compact disc by the Polish Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra. Other CD's include one on CRI and another on Music & Arts, both devoted solely to his music, a recording of his On Ondine released in 2001 in Italy, and a forthcoming recording of Gregory Fulkerson's performance of his violin sonata. Dembski's music has been commissioned, performed, and recorded by such organizations as the American Composers' Orchestra, the Silesian Philharmonic of Poland, The Prism Orchestra, the 20th Century Consort, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Pro Arte Quartet, as well as by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, pianists Alan Feinberg and Ursula Oppens, violinist Rolf Shulte, and cellist Fred Sherry. Bernard Holland, writing in The New York Times, described his work in terms of "the sensuous, ecstatic quality of late Romanticism."
During the past few years, he's seen his music premiered in Florence, New York, Bologna, and in Madison, Wisconsin, but earlier decades found him elsewhere, making his living as a tree surgeon in New England, as a food service worker in Brooklyn, and as an attendant in mental hospitals at home and abroad, while in the record industry he worked as a traveling salesman. For now, he manages the graduate composition program at the University of Wisconsin, and advises a variety of musical organizations in New York City. He also occasionally writes words, and he's worked increasingly during the past decade as a conductor of ensembles of improvising musicians. His current compositional projects include music for an interactive installation of sources of sound and light, settings of words from Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell for a virtual reality environment called Fool's Paradise, and an opera entitled Crow Soup, on a libretto written for him by the classic surrealist painter, author, and sculptor, Leonora Carrington.