Heather Stebbins : fascination with the inner structures and intricacies of sound

Heather Stebbins is an internationally performed composer of acoustic and electroacoustic works with a background as a cellist. At the core of her music is a deep fascination with the inner structures and intricacies of sound. Whether they emanate from an instrument, an object, or a computer, Heather uses sounds that strike her viscerally and intellectually as the germinating elements of her music.

Heather’s music has been performed at festivals and conferences in North America, Australia, Asia, and Europe, including SEAMUS, FEMF, NYCEMF, ICMC, BEAMS, MANTIS, and the Third Practice Festival, where she has been a technical assistant since 2005. She has worked with ensembles such as eighth blackbird, loadbang, Ensemble U:, the JACK Quartet, the Wellesley Chamber Ensemble, Dal Niente, Sound Icon, Ensemble L’Arsenale, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and the SUNY Purchase Percussion Ensemble.

Heather’s principal teachers include Benjamin Broening, Joshua Fineberg, and Helena Tulve, with whom she studied during a Fulbright Fellowship to Tallinn, Estonia, from 2014-2015.

Heather completed her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 2016 at Boston University, where she was a Center for New Music Doctoral Fellow, and taught classes in electronic music, MaxMSP, and aural skills. Heather graduated from the University of Richmond with degrees in Music Theory /Composition and Cello Performance in 2009. She has participated in masterclasses with such composers as Beat Furrer, Tristan Murail, Philippe Leroux, Salvatore Sciarrino, Olga Neuwirth, and Mario Davidovsky.

Working in music and composition has led Heather to teach and tutor students from grade 3 to graduate school. She is passionate about helping others explore new modes of creation. In addition to composing and teaching, Heather enjoys running, yoga-ing, reading, knitting, and exploring new places and spaces with her partner Mike, their son Elliott, and their four-legged companion, Rowan.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I was very fortunate to begin taking cello lessons at age 6. My first teacher blended the Suzuki method with learning basic music theory. Some of my earliest theory exercises included composing little pieces for the notes I could play on my cello. My very first ‘piece’ included only two pitches – A and D. I had a ‘time is a flat circle’ experience during my freshman year of undergrad when, during my first semester intro to composition course, I had an assignment to compose a piece using only two pitches.

While this was definitely a formative experience, my most salient early ‘compositional’ memories deal not with music in the standard sense, but with my response to sounds in my environment. I grew up in the middle of the woods, about a mile from a paved road, and my sonic landscape included all sounds of Mid-Atlantic deciduous forest wildlife and nature, CSX trains that ran on the old Baltimore and Ohio line, and airplanes overheard, as our house was right in the landing path of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At a very young age, I began to love the way specific sounds and combinations of sounds could spark memories and feelings. While this may seem trite, I strive to create that spark in every piece I compose today.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

I spent my adolescence as a cellist steeped in the standard repertoire, and as a guitarist in an indie-rock band. I had no concept of ‘living composers’ when I began studying composition during my undergrad years – at that point, my biggest influences were musicians like Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), Radiohead/Thom Yorke, Tim Hecker, Shostakovich (I thought both the Cello Concerto and Sonata were incredibly powerful), Bach, Sigur Rós and Amiina, and Broken Social Scene, to name a few. When I began learning about the world of living composers, especially electroacoustic composers, I felt such a sense of excitement and potential. My first composition teacher, Ben Broening, did an amazing job of showing me and my fellow intro-to-composers a wide array of composers. I felt most at home with the so-called post-spectralists. The first time I heard Saariaho was monumental, as was when I first heard the works of Helena Tulve (so much so that I spent years working on a Fulbright application in order to study with her in Estonia). Tulve is still very relevant to my writing, along with composers like Rebecca Saunders and Ashley Fure. Just as relevant are composers that I have met through school and festivals, such as Davide Ianni, Lesley Hinger, and Matthew Ricketts. These musicians may compose music in a different language than my own, but they are my friends and the connections I have with them as people make me value my understanding of their music so much more. I also still listen to a lot of indie rock and electronica, and this informs my composing to this day.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

Form is very tough for me, especially for longer works. I feel very comfortable creating textures and lines, but form can be difficult because I get caught up in details. Prior to 2014, I used to work heavily with pre-compositional sketches to help guide my formal structures. I would draw shapes on giant pieces of paper, outlining timings and densities. This was a very visually pleasing process, but not always the most helpful musically. Those drawings were more of a crutch and/or meaningless justification to formal decisions. When I moved to Estonia in 2014 to work with Tulve, she had me let all that precomposition go and just write left to right, start to finish, in a way that allowed me to breathe through phrases and feel structure. I learned to trust my musical gut, and I think this has helped my forms tremendously. I will never be a composer who can write complicated formal structures in a meaningful way, but I am ok with that – when I listen I don’t really focus on form, anyway.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

Throughout grad school, I was a very strict pencil-to-paper kind of composer. I used technology like AudioSculpt and OpenMusic to generate some material, but most of the work was done in my head. I am a dismal pianist so never could test things out at that instrument. While I was a student, I would spend hours per day working, either with paper if I was writing something acoustic, or on the computer in the studio if the piece involved electronics. I love working with particular musicians, and whenever I had the chance I would test ideas with musicians. Violist Sam Kelder and trombone player Juna Winston were two such muses.

I graduated in 2016 and my process has had to change out of necessity – I am a mom to a young toddler, and I teach math part time at a college-prep high school in Boston. I don’t have the luxury of hours to think about music anymore, but in some ways this has helped me because I don’t have the time to second guess myself anymore! I generally get hit with an idea during mundane activities – washing dishes, commuting, knitting, etc., and I try to write these down as quickly as possible because these days I will forget most everything. My recent pieces have all included electronics, and I’ve started writing this part first so to have something ‘tangible’ to work with (this is how I used to write during my nascent years of composition!). I also skip the painstakingly slow process of hand-notating before engraving on the computer. I write in shorthand and then make score/parts – these are sometimes hand written and sometimes engraved in Sibelius.

Please describe a recent work.

I wrote the piece URSA MAJOR in 2017 for the Spanish group ‘Vertixe Sonora’ using my new-ish methods. One thing that Helena Tulve taught me was to not be afraid to recycle material. In this piece, I recontextualized certain sounds, phrases, and ideas that I’ve been toying with for the past few years (I have a piece called Ursa Minor for piano and two performers that is a little microcosm of MAJOR). VS did an amazing job interpreting this score, which was done by hand with a mix of graphic and standard notation.

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