Musical Innovations – The Subtlety of Sound, Lucia Dlugoszewski, Composer

Updated: Aug 9

Lucia Dlugoszewski: Musical Innovator and Inventor, Composer, Poet, Choreographer, and Performer

Erick Hawkins, Lucia Dlugoszewski,  and Dana Madole (1964)  Photographer: Michael Avedo, LoC
Erick Hawkins, Lucia Dlugoszewski, and Dana Madole (1964) Photographer: Michael Avedo, Library of Congress

The arts and sciences are often broken into two distinct limbs. We have the arts on one hand where human creativity and culture thrive, and on the other, we have the sciences where we study meticulously and draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos. However, just like the limbs of a dancer, the arts and science are both limbs belonging of the same body. With this idea in mind, we can understand how invention, technology, and engineering, all of which are often consider to belong to the sciences as equally important to the arts. And, we can also consider how creative, out of the box thinking, is essential to invention and scientific exploration. In today's post, we are going to become acquainted with the works and inventions avant-garde composer and inventor, Lucia Dlugoszewski.

Dlugoszewski with her instruments. LoC
Dlugoszewski with her instruments. LoC

American musical innovator and inventor, composer, poet, choreographer, and performer Lucia Dlugoszewski (June 16, 1925 – April 11, 2000) forged a life-long career for herself as a nontraditional composer for dance, experimental or underground films, and the theater. Like another American avant-garde composer Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – Sept. 3, 1974), she composed for instruments of her own design on which she also performed. Unlike Partch, her instruments and compositions were not focused on microtonality (pitches less than one semitone or half-step apart), but rather her music emphasized dramatic dynamic effects and timbral color. Both composers, however, did use underlying mathematical concepts in their work.

Lucia Dlugoszewski. Black Lake, timbre piano with composer’s annotations, undated. Box 145, folder 2, Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers, Music Division.
"Black Lake" Timbral Piano Score, LoC

Dlugoszewski was born and raised in Detroit to Polish immigrants. (Some sources give the year of her birth as 1931 or even 1934.) At six, she began studying piano with the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts. She continued her musical studies at Wayne State University, where she also took physics courses. She originally intended to study pre-med. However, receiving a scholarship to study piano in 1950, she moved to NewYork to study at the Mannes School of Music of the New School with pianist Grete Sultan (June 21, 1906 – June 26, 2005). She also studied music theory and analysis with Felix Salzer (June 13, 1904 – Aug.12, 1986) and composition with French avant-garde composer and electronic music pioneer Edgar Varèse (Dec. 22, 1883 – Nov. 6, 1965).

Dlugoszewski's early works were piano preludes and sonatas, but she was also attracted to the suds of household objects. She even performed an entire concert using pots and pans and other objects found in a kitchen! Like fellow musical innovator, John Cage (Sept. 5, 1912 – Aug. 12, 1992) also experimental with the sonic capabilities of the piano, using ivory, wood, metal, mallets, wire pulled through the piano strings, dust mops, and other objects on the strings inside the piano to make the most of the piano's percussive capabilities. She also used bows and plectrums (guitar picks) to create sounds with the piano's strings. Listen and watch a performance by pianist Agnese Toniutti of one of her timbral piano works in the video above.

Barbara Morgan, photographer. Martha Graham, May O’Donnell (?), and Erick Hawkins in Letter to the World, circa 1940. Box 134, folder 4, Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers, Music Division.
Martha Graham, May O’Donnell, and Erick Hawkins, by Barbara Morgan.LoC

Also, similar to Cage, she worked with her life partner American modern dance choreography Frederick "Erick" Hawkins (April 23, 1909 – Nov 23, 1994) to create sound experiments to accompany modern dance. [Cage's partner was modern dance choreography Mercier "Merce" Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009).] In 1957, she became of musical director for the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, and the two married in 1962, continuing to collaborate for until his death in 1994. She did not only compose music for the dance performances, but she performed onstage with her instruments during them. The act of playing the music was part of the performance just as much as the movements of the dancers.

During the last 1950s, Dlugoszewski began designing a percussion orchestra consisting of 100 instruments and composed many scores for this ensemble, including 1958's Suchness Concert (1958), commissioned by Hawkins. The instruments were constructed according to her specifications by American sculptor Ralph Dorazio (b. 1922). Some were rattles and gourds, and others were made of plastic. Dlugoszewski's percussion instruments differed from others in that they were not meant to be played with crashes, bangs, and booms, but they were meant to explore subtle sounds. These subtle sounds include soft sounds, low dynamics, and to create ambience. Her ideas often began an abstract concepts or descriptions and were influenced by Eastern aesthetic practices such as Japanese Noh theater and haiku poetry. For example, the notes for her 1982 piece Cicada Terrible Freedom include this poem:

locust passion

wild extravagant nature

of the spurt insect

for that presence

of cicada weights

on my shoulders

for the scent of the desert

for being so in the clustering thick

of things

Besides dance and theater pieces, Dlugoszewski also composed music for experimental filmmakers, such as Marie Menken's (née Marie Menkevicius, May 25, 1909 – Dec. 29, 1970) Visual variations on Noguchi [clip below] and Jonas Mekas' (Dec. 24, 1922 – Jan. 23, 2019) Guns in the Trees.

Although Dlugoszewski received awards and honors in her lifetime, including becoming a Guggenheim Fellow, a grant recipient from the Rockefeller Fund, and commissions from major orchestras, she had little mainstream success in her lifetime. She also received Tompkins Literary Award for Poetry in 1947. Besides works for percussion and timbral piano, she composed for solo trumpet, unaccompanied voice, orchestra, and chamber ensembles. Listen to her winds and percussion chamber work, Tender Theatre Flight Nageire (1971, revised 1978) in the video below. [In this performance, Dlugoszewski performs that percussion.] She taught to New York University, the New School for Social Research, and the Foundation of Modern Dance. Besides works for percussion and timbral piano, she composed for solo trumpet, unaccompanied voice, orchestra, and chamber ensembles. She taught to New York University, the New School for Social Research, and the Foundation of Modern Dance.

Although she may not have achieved widespread fame, her work was considered notable enough to be included in fellow composer