The daughter of Polish immigrants, Dlugoszewski was born and raised in Detroit. She studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and was a pre-medical student at Wayne State University, where she also took physics courses. Surprised and disappointed by an unsuccessful application to medical school in 1950, Dlugoszewski spontaneously moved to New York City, where she would spend the rest of her life. In New York, Dlugoszewski took piano lessons from Grete Sultan and studied analysis with Felix Salzer and composition with Edgar Varèse. Apart from a handful of piano preludes and sonatas, Dlugoszewski had written little music prior to 1950, but once in New York, she quickly became a prolific composer of experimental music, including several open-form works.
Dlugoszewski’s compositions have been recorded for Nonesuch Records, Folkways, CRI, and other important contemporary music labels. Her 1975 piece Abyss and Caress, for trumpet and small orchestra, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and premièred by Pierre Boulez. In 1977, she became the first woman to win the Koussevitzy International Recording Award with Fire Fragile Flight, for 17 instruments – the work became a signature piece for the Philadelphia ensemble Orchestra of Our Time. The recordings for Nonesuch and CRI released in the 70s were reissued by CRI in 2002 as Disparate Stairway Radical Other along with new work for string quartet and timbre piano.
Beginning in 1957, Dlugoszewski cultivated a professional and personal relationship with the dancer and choreographer Erick Hawkins. Dlugoszewski, a dancer herself, wrote chamber and orchestral scores for the Erick Hawkins Dance Ensemble as well as for the Foundation for Modern Dance. Her music for dance includes Journey of a Poet, written for and executed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Taking Time to be Vulnerable, for Pascal Denichou. She also contributed music for chamber ensemble to the soundtrack of the 1962 avant-garde film Guns of the Trees, directed by Jonas Mekas. A very early performance of her timbre piano can be heard in her music for Marie Menken's1945 film "Visual Variations on Noguchi.," a score perhaps added later in the early 50s when the composer had arrived in New York.
During a conversation with Cole Gagne in the early 1990s, Dlugoszewski expressed ambivalence at having composed so many collaborative pieces, pointing out that while writing for film and dance allowed her music to be heard by enormous numbers of listeners, those audiences could not give her music their undivided attention.
Like that of Pauline Oliveros, Harry Partch and Moondog, Dlugoszewski’s music was animated by the invention and construction of new musical instruments, many of which she performed on. In her interview with Gagne, the composer estimated that she had constructed or designed at least a hundred instruments during her career (a frequent partner was the sculptor Ralph Dorazio, who built instruments to Dlugoszewski’s specifications). She was inspired, she told Gagne, by her teacher Varèse, who used electronic tools to create disorienting and exciting new sonorities. “It’s not that I was out to invent instruments,” said Dlugoszewski, “but that I wanted to create an ego-less sound possibility, a suchness possibility, so that you would help the ear just to hear the sound for its own sake.”
Most of Dlugoszewski’s invented instruments are percussive: pianos, drums, rattles and gourds. She created dozens of new instruments, many made of plastic, for a single 1961 work, Eight Clear Places. Dlugoszewski retreated from invention after the early 1960s, preferring to explore the possibilities of the huge array of instruments which she by then had at her disposal.
Dlugoszewski, like other composers of her generation, claimed a wide and varied assortment of influences, many of them Eastern in origin (Noh drama and haiku, for example). She was exceptional, though, for her belief in the power of subtlety in music. Virgil Thompson described hers as “music of great delicacy.” Dlugoszewski's music is remarkable for its use of silence and of gentle, muffled sounds, especially considering that much of her repertoire is for percussion instruments.