To hear composer Donald Martino describe his music is to hear a playwright discuss his scenario. Pitch, tone color, rhythm and dynamics are the dramatis personae; their organization reflects a "statement of some sort of emotional life parallel."

To hear Martino's music is to marvel first at its absolute craftsmanship, at the powerful, expressive way in which fresh sound combinations create a theater of the absorbed -- emotionally linked to Brahms, but spoken in a contemporary 12-tone language.

Tomorrow night the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater will stage a tribute to Martino as part of the "Meet the American Composers" series. Martino will discuss three of his better known pieces, which will be performed by Speculum Musicae, renowned specialists in new music.

Martino is no stranger to the Kennedy Center. In October he was there as a first-place winner of the prestigious Friedheim Award for his String Quartet, premiered by the Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress in 1984.

Martino is quick to admit that the quartet is rough going. "It's a 30-minute piece, but it crams into it almost a lifetime of feeling. It's not easy to play and not easy to listen to." The Juilliard players, two seasons and many performances later, concur, according to the composer. "I just got a call from (cellist) Joel Krosnick saying, 'Hey, we really understand the piece now.' "

The virtuosic aspect of his music has been present since the beginning, when, as a devoted clarinet student, he was convinced by his teacher that anything was playable through practice. Practical application carried over into the jazz bands he played with as a young man around his home town of Plainfield, N.J., and years later in New York with another Plainfield native, pianist Bill Evans. Frequent exposure to Charlie Parker's performances in Manhattan reinforced the idea of stretching an instrument's capabilities.

Once fully committed to composition, Martino began writing works that were uncompromisingly demanding, though not for showiness' sake. "Virtuosity has been a built-in aspect of my writing," he says. "I've expected it from other people, yet at the same time I've tried to use it as a way of expressing feeling."

That a composer walks a fine line between feeling and thinking is a valuable lesson Martino learned from his composition teacher, Ernst Bacon, who told him, "Writing music is hard work, and there's a lot of intellectual activity, but you must never let the listener hear that."

Of all his pieces, "Notturno," commissioned by Speculum Musicae and on tomorrow night's program, best follows this advice. A chamber sextet of percussion, strings and winds, it weaves a mini-drama of earthy and unearthly sonic colorations into a midnight ride across the imagination. It's a rigidly designed work in three movements without pause, but the continuity of ideas makes the structure virtually undetectable. Martino's "directed journey" is immediately accessible.

"It clicks for most people who listen to it, and for most people who play it," he says modestly. "Notturno" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

Martino, an academic (he's taught at Princeton, Yale, the New England Conservatory and now Harvard) using the most academic composing system, adopted the 12-tone technique (an outgrowth of Scho nberg's atonal music)in 1958 only after exhaustive involvement with tonal music. Twelve-tone music is written using a strict organization of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

"I didn't wake up one day and say, 'I want to be a 12-tone composer' or listen to Scho nberg and Webern and say, 'Gee, that's wonderful stuff, that's what I want to do.' " The 12-tone method, at least superficially, completed the progression from bebop to Barto'k to Berg in Martino's harmonic interest.

And he's still opening up new directions within the 12-tone guidelines. "The constraint is almost a way of forcing expansion," he says, "but it's an ordered expansion. I have not felt locked in. It's only restrictive if you allow your mind to see it in a single way."

One path he's explored since the early '70s is integrating traditional chords that are theoretically justifiable within a 12-tone format. Martino calls this adaption "12-tonal music" claiming that it sets up "a foreground effect of a very strange kind of tonal music." His "Paradiso Choruses," a large-scale oratorio based on Dante's "Divine Comedy," relates consonant harmonies in an unorthodox manner. So does "The White Island," a choral work set to texts by English poet Robert Herrick, and scheduled for its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra late this year.

Regardless of the approach he takes or the genre he writes for, Martino never loses sight of the interconnections with his past, a quality shared by some of the most intellectual composers, like his former teacher Milton Babbitt, who also started out with an interest in jazz and pop music.

"When listening to my music I sort of feel at this moment, 'Well that reminds me of a tune from the '40s,' or 'This reminds me of Charlie Parker,' though I'm not sure it would remind anyone else of it."