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World Listening Day Celebration with Heather Stebbins

July 18 is World Listening Day, organized by the World Listening Project (WLP), in partnership with the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology (MSAE). “The purposes of World Listening Day are: to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology; to raise awareness about issues related to the World Soundscape Project, World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, World Listening Project, and individual and group efforts to creatively explore phonography; and to design and implement educational initiatives which explore these concepts and practices.”

In celebration of the complexities of sound, we connected with artist and composer Heather Stebbins, a DMV-based educator and musician whose work focuses on the properties of sound.

Celebrate World Listening Day with Heather Stebbins
Heather Stebbins

Born and raised just outside of Baltimore, Stebbins started playing cello at 6 years old. In middle school, she delved into guitar and percussion, and “took strings outside of school” when she began playing in a basement punk rock band. “I really loved that energy,” she said, “while also still playing traditional Western classical repertoire on my cello. And when I was in high school, those worlds kind of merged when local bands to Baltimore and D.C. started asking me if they needed strings on their album, could I come play? And so I worked a little bit as a session musician, recording for various bands and local producers started recognizing me and asking me to play on albums.”

Stebbins went on to pursue a music scholarship in college, where she played cello in the orchestra and also found an interest in working for the on-campus recording studio, where she continued to be fascinated by sound’s possibilities. This job led her to a particular course, titled something along the lines of “Computer Music.” “I thought it was going to be like a recording techniques class, but it wasn’t,” she said. “It was a composition class, but using computers to write music.”

This course opened her ears to aspects happening contemporaneously rather than playing repertoire by mostly dead white men. This excited Stebbins, along with helping technically produce a yearly electroacoustic music festival where performers and composers would come and share their work. She pursued composition lessons and was taught by notable composition faculty members such as Benjamin Broening and Joshua Fineberg. “I got to have music that I was writing played by world class musicians that could work with me and teach me how to get the ideas that I had in my head onto paper or, you know, on the computer,” she said. 

“It was really valuable in the sense that I knew I wasn’t going to become a professional cellist, but I got to experiment with what could be done, both with digital audio, but also writing for acoustic instruments,” Stebbins said. “And I felt most myself when I was writing for acoustic instruments combined with some sort of electronic element.”

After this enriching experience, she decided she wanted to pursue graduate school for composition, and ended up finishing a doctorate in composition in Boston where she was fortunate to work with amazing performers and find friends who were also composers. As a teaching fellow for electronic music classes in graduate school, she loved working with students to “bring some sort of sound idea that they had to a musical reality.” She then landed a job teaching music at The George Washington University, where she is currently still teaching. “I wouldn’t call myself an introvert, but I’d lean way more introverted than I do extroverted, so I realized I love teaching,” she says. 

Stebbins says that teaching has made her a better musician. “There’s a lot of similarity between writing music, especially for other people to play, and teaching, because it’s figuring out what’s the most effective way to communicate an idea to somebody,” she says. 

Heather Stebbins with a student and synth - Celebrate World Listening Day Celebration
Heather Stebbins with a student and synth. Photo Courtesy of The George Washington University

The pandemic hit seven weeks after she started teaching, but “during the pandemic, I sort of fell into the world of modular synthesis,” Stebbins explained. “I was really excited to find this space where I could compose music that I could perform, because even though I love writing music for others, I miss playing,” as that was her first engagement with music and she hadn’t been performing much during graduate school. “Playing with synthesizers has been incredibly meaningful and empowering for me, both as a technologist, but also as a musician and teacher,” she said. 

So, what does the electronic music that Stebbins composes and performs consist of? “I feel like there’s two camps of music that I write,” she says. “One is notated music for acoustic instruments with some sort of electronic component where the electronics are usually sound files that I make that are played back, or sometimes there’s interactivity in the sense that an instrument will play something, a microphone will capture it, the computer will process it, and then it will be spit back out from the speakers.” The other new camp of music that she makes uses synthesizers, which does not include a notated element, and consists greatly of improvisation. “But in both worlds, I think the music that I’m writing is rather crunchy at times and sometimes a little sparkly, and sometimes slow and droney, and other times intense … I have a sense of the sound world that I’m going for and just the two camps have different means to get there,” she says. 

Her synth compositions are unique because they are almost purely improvisatory. “I’ve become comfortable enough with the sort of tech side of it that I can use my musical gut to follow the sound path or if in the process, I need something to be louder to modulate in this way. I now have a sense of how to do it,” she says, describing it as a “controlled improvisation.”

“In December, I put out my first album of synthesis music called Olney, and it’s named after the house that my grandparents grew up in,” she said. “I grew up right next door to them and they were very influential both in my upbringing, holistically, but also musically.” She then released another album in May called new forms, old selves where she used a lot of material that she had generated over the last 15 years and completely recontextualized it. “I’ve been really proud of that because I used to agonize over putting music out into the world,” she says. “But something about the pandemic, maybe this time of my life, where I have less time and I’m starting to be maybe a little less self-conscious about my creative output, I just want to share things more now.” 

Stebbins’s performances are also quite unique because of their immediacy, compared to others that could take a full year or longer at times. She benefits from the payoff of making direct connections with the audience. “If it’s just a synthesis heavy sort of environment, I’ll just bring my modular rig and those sets are ‘planned improvisations’ in the sense that I have a general sense of the type of material I want to play with, but in the moment it can vary pretty significantly,” she describes.

Concerts of her work are different, however, where she also brings her cello. “What I’ve been doing in the past year is doing these synthesis improvs, but then I will play back a track from one of the two albums that I just put out and do a live cello improv alongside it.” This adds another dimension to her work. “Basically the music on both albums, if you asked me to recreate it, I couldn’t right now because you have to engage with the synthesizer in the moment because the patch that you build might not work the next day,” Stebbins said, which is another reason why she loves her work that is one-of-a-kind. 

In these performances, she plays back the sound file from her album and adds her cello on top of it, and has even recently experimented with running her cello through a guitar pedal in order to add another layer. “I think that kind of practice will keep evolving,” she says. “There’s a little bit of being self-conscious about the fact that my cello chops are gone. I mean, I haven’t really practiced since I was an undergrad, but I can still get around the instrument enough in a way that makes for an effective performance.”

Heather Stebbins performing with cello and synthesizer at Slingshot Festival - Heather Stebbins with a student and synth - Celebrate World Listening Day Celebration
Heather Stebbins performing with cello and synthesizer at Slingshot Festival

Stebbins describes that, in some ways, seeing her compositions performed by someone else is even more nerve-wracking than doing it herself. “Partially because communicating an idea in any art form to another person is hard, but especially an art form without semantic, meaning like music where in Western music we have this established notational system, but that notational system is best for music that has clear a clear sense of pitch and a clear sense of rhythm,” she explains. “And the music I write is more concerned with texture and timbre tone color, and so the traditional notation system actually isn’t really effective for communicating what I’m trying to do.”

In this case, she has to rely on nontraditional notation techniques. “I have to rely on description or give trust to the performer that they can sort of put themselves into the music in a way that’s going to still convey a similar idea,” she says. “I’m very fortunate that I get to work with a lot of super talented performers that can usually take my ideas and make them better than I could even imagine, but it’s still relinquishing control in a way that can be anxiety producing … And for some reason, when it comes to my own personal like synthesis practice, I have less of that anxiety that I do with my notated music.”

Stebbins’s work certainly goes hand-in-hand with World Listening Day, which she is particularly fond of because she is influenced by the work of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, whose birthday World Listening Day falls upon. 

She acknowledges that her relationship with music began at an early age learning cello, but she argues that the sound of her natural environment influenced her even earlier. She remembers how she would hear the B&O trains that ran right behind her house and the rivers and birds that surrounded her around Patapsco State Park.

As the mom of two young kids, Stebbins recognizes that sometimes it’s difficult to take a reflective sonic walk, but she encourages others to quiet distractions and listen deeply to their surroundings to develop their own relationship with sound and explore how it can be used, because our environment can be so loud.

Alchemical Records contributor Emma Page

Emma Page

Emma Page, a recent Journalism graduate of The George Washington University, possesses a passion for music journalism and storytelling in all its forms. Originally from Baltimore, MD, when she is not writing, she can be found at a local concert or making music of her own.

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