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Demby, Constance

Constance Demby

Composer, musician

New age recording artist Constance Demby is known for her innovative sounds, which are produced on giant metal instruments she invented, as well as for her use of ethnic instruments and synthesized classical music. Demby believes that the universe is made of music, and incorporates her spiritual beliefs into her compositions.

Demby began studying music when she was eight years old, and first performed publicly when she was twelve. Always interested in a variety of instruments, she taught herself to play various ethnic instruments such as the tamboura, harpeleck, hammered dulcimer, ch'ung, and gamelan, and included them in her performances. In the early 1970s, Demby founded a group called Central Maine Power and Light. The group toured the East Coast from 1971 to 1975, performing light-and-sound and planetarium shows.

In the late 1970s, Demby became interested in the spiritual teachings of Surat Shabd Yoga, a discipline that emphasizes "inner light" and "inner sound." As she wrote on her website, "Sound and Light are the building blocks of the universe, the very framework upon which all of creation is hung. Every molecule of matter is intoning its tone. Every leaf, atom, particle, planet, galaxy, every cell in our body is humming its own tune. Even as we were being born, as our bodies were being formed a chord was being intoned, our own individual chord." Demby began playing the hammered dulcimer and turned her prayers into music; these spiritual songs became her first album, Skies Above Skies.

In addition to her interest in music, Demby was also interested in art, and took up metal sculpture. One day, as she was applying a blowtorch to a sheet of metal, it gave off a thunderous roar. This sound gave Demby the idea of creating new, massive steel instruments: the Whale Sail and the Space Bass. Both are gigantic bowed instruments that produce deep, resonating sound. The instruments have been used by Luke Skywalker Studios for film scores; they have also been filmed by the Discovery Channel for a special titled The Power of Music.

The Space Bass is a ten-foot-high sheet of mirror-finished stainless steel that has five octaves of tuned steel and brass rods bolted to a bar. The rods can be double-bowed for a resonating sound or struck to achieve a percussion effect. In addition, the large metal sheet can be rubbed to create unique sounds. The Whale Sail is an eight-foot sheet strung with steel and brass wires. The wires are bowed, like violin strings, to create sounds similar to whale and dolphin songs. On her website, Demby noted, "These instruments were not something that I planned, preconceived, or consciously designed beforehand. Rather it was a time of being willing to remain for long periods in the 'I don't know' state while the instruments designed themselves." She added, "As the instruments came into being, I became their mother-guardian, watching these curious metal creatures give birth to themselves."

In 1980, Demby, whose family has lived in California for five generations, returned to Marin County, California, where she founded her own record company, Sound Currents. She released Sunborne, a five-part tone poem that used her Sonic Steel instruments, a wide variety of ethnic instruments, percussion, synthesizer, and vocals. In 1982, she released Sacred Space Music, which featured Demby playing her hammered dulcimer. Her dulcimer, though similar to those played in Appalachian music, was custom made and included an extra octave in the bass range; this extra octave was suggested to her by her friend, musician Dorothy Carter. This extra octave adds to the instrument's resonance. On her website, Demby commented that in the 1970s she used to play the dulcimer on the street in Harvard Square in Boston, and that a crowd would collect to listen. "One time the crowd gasped and pulled back.... A bat had landed right next to the instrument. I guess maybe to hear those high-pitched sounds better. So I played a song just for him. He stayed there listening, and at the end of the selection, flew off."

In the mid 1980s, responding to changes in musical technology, Demby began to compose classical music using synthesized and digitally sampled instruments. As always, she based her music on her spiritual practices and beliefs, and released Novus Magnificat: Through the Stargate, in 1986. This album was one of the first produced by the new age label Hearts of Space, and it received wide acclaim and comparisons to classical composers.

Since the 1980s, Demby has written music for a synthesized symphony orchestra using a Kurzweil keyboard. On her website, she noted that there is a delicate balance between the music and the electronic element, and that the composer must be careful not to let the music become too computerized: "It can make the music automatic, soul-less and heart-less sounding." She added, "The point here is the equipment is there to serve. The computer only takes over if I let it."

In the late 1990s, Demby moved to Los Angeles because she thought that meeting people in the film and music industry would be a good idea, but after a year and a half, she realized it was not the place for her. Some friends from Spain visited her and remarked that in Spain, she was considered the finest of the New Age artists. This inspired Demby not simply to visit Spain, but to move there. In the fall of 2000, Demby moved permanently to Spain and signed with a new label: Scott Hartley's First Light Music. She told Carol Wright in an interview posted on Demby's website, "I had been in Los Angeles for a few years and though it was great for the industry contacts, I never felt completely at home there." She commented, "Loud rap music poured from every doorway in the malls and from the windows of passing cars. People are numb to this sonic assault, and they don't seem to notice that their sonic atmosphere is being polluted." She also commented that American culture seemed defined by these extremes, and by the artificiality and phoniness of many pop performers: "Music is being written for 'non-musical' reasons, to sell something or to jump aboard the latest youth-pop groove or style. You can't count on your talent, sincerity, and authenticity being recognized."

Demby moved to a village called Sitges, about a half-hour train ride from Barcelona. She told Wright, "After hours of recording, I walk out on the terraza, and see the whole town, the cars and the trains going by. And the Mediterranean is all blue and sparkly. I drink in this sight and think, "God, I'm glad I'm here!" She began working on a remake of a previous album, Faces of the Christ, but soon found that she wanted to write a completely new version of it. That album was eventually retitled Sanctum Sanctuorum.

Since moving to Spain, Demby has found her career opening up. She told Wright, "It's always said that if you want work, just leave town. There is no place more unappreciative than your own hometown."

For the Record …

Born in Oakland, CA.

Founded and toured with Central Maine Power and Light, 1971-75; released debut album, Skies AboveSkies, 1978; founded Sound Currents record company, 1980, and released Sunborne, 1980, and Sacred SpaceMusic, 1982; moved to Hearts of Space label and released Novus Magnificat, 1986; released Light of thisWorld, 1987, and Set Free, 1989; released Aeterna, 1995, and Attunement, 1999; moved to First Light label and released Sanctum Sanctuorum, 2001, and Faces of the Christ, 2001.

Addresses: Record company—Hearts of Space, P.O. Box 5916, Sausalito, CA 94966. Website—Constance Demby Official Website: http://www.constancedemby.com.

Selected discography

Skies Above Skies, Sound Currents, 1978.

Sunborne, Sound Currents, 1980.

Sacred Space Music, Hearts of Space, 1982.

Novus Magnificat, Hearts of Space, 1986.

Light of this World, Sound Currents, 1987.

Set Free, Sound Currents, 1989.

Aeterna, Hearts of Space, 1995.

Attunement, Sound Currents, 1999.

Sanctum Sanctuorum, First Light Music, 2001.

Faces of the Christ, First Light Music, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 9, 2000.

Online

Constance Demby Official Website, http://www.constancedemby.com/ (August 3, 2004).

—Kelly Winters

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