NEW YORK — Dean Drummond, an imaginative composer and musician whose ensemble, Newband, performed on a combination of standard and newly invented instruments, died last Saturday at a hospital in Princeton, N.J. He was 64 and lived in Montclair, N.J., where he was the director of the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University.
The cause was multiple myeloma, said Esther Starry Schor, Mr. Drummond’s companion.
Mr. Drummond’s music was often gently atmospheric, sometimes with subtle touches of humor, and almost always steeped in an otherworldly sense of color, which arose from his peculiar approach to instrumentation.
Like Harry Partch, the iconoclastic composer and instrument builder with whom Mr. Drummond worked as an assistant for several years in the 1960s, Mr. Drummond had a passion for building his own outlandish instruments.
One was the zoomoozophone, which has 129 aluminum tubes and is played with either mallets or a cello bow by one or more percussionists. Another is the smaller juststrokerods, built of 13 solid aluminum rods that a player strokes to produce ringing tones.
The instruments grew out of his search for fresh sounds for his own music. He also needed instruments built to play in the tuning systems he preferred. Mr. Drummond — also like Partch, who died in 1974 — advocated microtonality, a system in which an octave was divided into more than the 12 notes of the standard Western scale. Mr. Drummond was partial to a scale of 31 notes.
Mr. Drummond was born in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 1949, and attended the University of Southern California and the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied trumpet with Don Ellis and John Clyman and composition with Leonard Stein, an associate of Arnold Schoenberg’s.
During his student years, Mr. Drummond joined Partch’s ensemble and played in the premieres of several of Partch’s idiosyncratic works, including ‘‘Daphne of the Dunes’’ and ‘‘Delusion of the Fury.’’ He also performed on recordings that Partch made for Columbia Records in the late 1960s.
In 1976 Mr. Drummond moved to New York, where he and his wife at the time, the flutist Stefani Starin, gathered a group of like-minded devotees of microtonality and founded Newband. Most of Mr. Drummond’s music was written for the ensemble, which recorded several of his works — including ‘‘Columbus,’’ for flute and zoomoozophone (1980); ‘‘Then or Never,’’ for flute, viola, bass, and three zoomoozophone players (1984); and the theatrical ‘‘Congressional Record’’ (1999), which skewered government opponents of arts support, for baritone, synthesizers, and instruments made by both Partch and Mr. Drummond.
Along with original scores by Mr. Drummond and other composers commissioned by the ensemble, including Julia Wolfe and Elizabeth Brown, Newband revived several of Partch’s scores, for which Mr. Drummond acquired the composer’s original instruments, which had fallen into disrepair after his death.
In 1991 Mr. Drummond arranged for the entire collection to be moved from Partch’s studio in San Diego, where they had been looked after by his longtime associate, Danlee Mitchell, to New York. They eventually found a home at Montclair State University.
Mr. Drummond continued to codirect Newband with Starin after their marriage ended. Their children — a daughter, Ruby Stardrum, and a son, Booker Stardrum — adopted a family name that combines parts of Starin and Drummond. Along with his children and Schor, Mr. Drummond leaves two sisters, Aleta and Ilana, and a brother, Barry.