Music Preview: PNME debuts percussionist's piece about suffering a stroke

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A composer often explores internal landscapes -- emotional and mental -- in a piece of music. But for Brett William Dietz, the process behind his latest commission for Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble was especially personal and intense.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble rehearses at the City Theatre on the South Side in June.
Click photo for larger image.

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble


When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, [July 21-22].
Bermel, "Tied Shifts"; Van der Aa, "Passage"; Davidovsky, "Synchronism 9"; Dietz, "Headcase."
Concert 5 (July 28-29): Little, "Soldier Songs."
Where: City Theatre, South Side.
Tickets: $20 (Seniors $10; students, pay-what-you-can, first-time visitors free); 412-431-CITY.

"Headcase," which has its world premiere tomorrow as part of PNME's month-long summer concert series, chronicles Dietz's experiences dealing with and recovering from a stroke.

The Pittsburgh performance marks a homecoming for the Robinson Township native. Dietz, a percussionist and composer, attended Duquesne University School of Music for his undergraduate and master's work, then went on to Northwestern University for his Ph.D. He now teaches at Louisiana State University School of Music.

His works have been performed by ensembles around the world, and locally by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, River City Brass Band and the Duquesne University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

When he was 29 and studying at Northwestern, Dietz suffered a stroke that damaged his left frontal lobe and left him paralyzed and unable to speak for several months.

"That's pretty much the emotional core of your brain," Dietz says. "That's where all of your expression and feelings come into play. That part was very hard -- there's a lot of depression and anxiety that follows.''

His doctors were pessimistic and gave him little hope for recovery, but he made a full comeback and has been able to return to his life as a musician, composer and teacher. The stroke hit in June 2002. With the help of speech therapy and sheer will not to let it beat him, he was able to go back to classes that September.

Out of this devastating and life-altering experience came "Headcase," a composition that combines music, spoken-word and visual images to give audiences a sense of the experience its creator went through.

"Headcase" is a firsthand account -- through sound and image -- of what it was like being unable to speak. The composition incorporates recordings of electronic sound and Dietz talking, along with his composition to be performed by PNME.

There are projected images of Dietz's MRI scans, showing the areas of the brain that were damaged, and pieces of paper given to him in the hospital to write on in an attempt to communicate.

The period following the stroke brought back childhood memories -- things that "I hadn't thought about in years," he says.

"When your brain loses a part of itself -- everything has to get rewired in some other part of the brain so that you can remember things. I was trying to go back and forth and remember all these things.

"It's a very weird, surreal experience that I don't want anybody else to have to live through."

But in some ways, the process of writing "Headcase" was also part of his recovery, the composer says. "I was able to go back and remember these things, and deal with what had happened."

Dietz is happy that the piece is debuting here.

"The only group that can really do this and do it well would be the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble."


Adrian McCoy can be reached at amccoy@post-gazette.com .


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