Heather Stebbins – minim

Heather Stebbins’s work “minim” is a recollection and reimagination of sonic elements from prior works.  From her program notes:

“minim (2014) is an exercise in excavation. I recently began going through old files and recordings from early projects and happily discovered that many of the sounds captivated me in both new and nostalgic ways. I felt as if I was excavating bits of my compositional past that revealed how I have thought about sound and also explained current habits. minim is a way of revisiting this past. All of the samples used are from various projects, but have been processed in new ways to reflect my current musical language”

Please listen to the piece here (and consider purchasing it):

This work contains a relatively smooth undulation between low-density and high-density textures.  The only jarring event is the opening gesture, a “hook” that serves to draw the listener in.  The remaining sound slowly shifts pitch, sometimes in single and sometimes in multiple voices, pans from speaker to speaker, and uses high drones and medium-pitched noise.  These create a sense of complacency–a calmness that allows the listener to explore what they are hearing and become comfortable with it.

Having established this background, Stebbins introduces other elements–bass frequencies, metallic-sounding objects, rotating and shifting sonorities, and what appear to be extended techniques on low string instruments.  However, the fundamental underpinnings in this piece remain the same:

  1. Establish a sense of unity, to make the listener acquainted with their surroundings.  Use pitch shifting, cross-speaker panning, oscillate between low and high pitched frequencies, and include a bit of noise
  2. Interrupt this world, but not abruptly, to introduce new material
  3. Incorporate this new material into this same structure, in a new way

The itemization above may make this appear to be formulaic, but I caution against this interpretation.  This piece is not formulaic, but has certain structural and timbral supports that help form its core.  This is not a rondo undulating between new material and old, or between comfortable listening and new sonorities.  Rather, it is an exploration of space, panning, pitch, noise, and listener expectation.

So, with this all said, what can we composers take away from Stebbins’s work?

  1. You can re-use your old material.  Good artists borrow, great artists steal, and I would add that cunning artists steal from themselves.  As noted in her program notes, Stebbins has recycled multiple projects’ worth of material to create something fresh, but also nostalgic and personally meaningful to her as the composer
  2. Form doesn’t have to be strictly through-composed or formulaic.  This piece is technically through-composed, but has elements of structure that, while on the surface are not a classical structure, can be thought of as a somewhat-structured piece.  This is achieved through changes in timbral and volume density.  Even though there are no clear sections as in common practice period works, I think of this piece as a suspension bridge, with peaks and valleys of sound:22076-004-99b50a2d
  3. Timbre matters.  Using a wide array of timbres at various pitch/frequency levels, Stebbins achieves a sound world that is not tiresome nor excessively succinct.  The use of pitch, panning, and amplitude are made much more intriguing and satisfying through her use of timbral diversity.

Here is Heather’s website; the album with this track on it releases on June 26.


Happy composing,


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