Stubblefield: Composer’s Corner Q & A

Roger Stubblefield

In this edition of “Composer’s Corner,” we introduce you to Roger Stubblefield – one of many composers represented by Subito Music Distribution (SMD) (a division of Subito Music). The SMD program is Subito’s distribution service for independent, self-published composers. Stubblefield is a New Jersey-based composer, conductor and active tuba player in the New York Tri-State area. His works have been performed by the New Jersey Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Michigan Opera Theatre, the Palisades Virtuoso Trio, and internationally by Venezuela’s State Orchestra of Merida. He chatted with us about: setting texts by finding “the pulse of a poem;” “returning to live performances;” telling young composers “to bring humanity to their work,” and as he writes his own music, he reminds himself “of the experience of discovering classical music for the first time—listening to a vinyl record on a small turntable.”

S: Covid-19 brought about a long pandemic; but, in 2020, musicians worldwide found new and alternative methods to continue to create and connect with each other. Are there any tools or resources you used that were helpful to you?

Stubblefield: Before the pandemic shutdowns began, I was already interested in matching music with visual imagery. In 2020, I turned to YouTube as a place to share new content and connect with potential viewers. For example, I created a video called “Nature, Buildings, and Machines,” and used excerpts from my chamber work Four Vignettes for Flute and String Trio as the soundtrack. Part of the fun was taking photos and shooting video of things happening around us in everyday life that we usually do not take the time to process—rivers, trees, high-rises going up. I collected these images to create a narrative that could only be expressed musically. After putting the music and videos together, it seemed like an organic match of storytelling. It also helped me realize how interested I am in creating music for film and television. [To view Stubblefield’s “Nature, Buildings, and Machines,” visit YouTube here.]

S: It’s 2021 now, and as we continue to cautiously open up again, people are gathering together. Moving beyond “Zoom” and other on-line platforms to in-person performances and meetings, is it exciting for you to work on current projects what you’ll see come to fruition?

Stubblefield: I’m excited at the prospect of moving beyond virtual concerts and returning to live performances. It’s a relief to know that performances by larger groups will be possible very soon. The backlog of three postponed concerts of my music from 2020 will hopefully happen in the 2021-2022 season, with newer works to be scheduled soon.

S: Back in 2019, the Orpheus Club Men’s Chorus commissioned you to set Walt Whitman’s “I hear America Singing” (from Leaves of Grass) for their spring 2020 concert. Your choral work America Singing (Opus 23) was scheduled to premiere in April 2020, but unfortunately, due to Covid, it was postponed. Has a new premiere date been set? Please tell us about your experience setting Whitman’s poetry.

Stubblefield: John Palatucci, Orpheus’ music director, is cautiously optimistic that he’ll soon announce the start of a new season; but that announcement date has yet to come. However, Maestro Palatucci informs me that the men enjoyed learning the piece and they are looking forward to the premiere. Whitman’s poem, from 1860, connects individuals in a song of solidarity. It provides a vision of what the country could be. The phrasing and language during Whitman’s time was so different from ours. It took me a while to understand Whitman’s free verse. Once I found the pulse of the poem, it became part of the Americana sound that I was creating with the music. Throughout, repetition of the phrase “America Singing” gave the piece direction and a sense of structure that made it fit better into song form. America Singing is an anthem and a picture of men and women doing their work joyfully and bringing forth the American dream. The piece seeks unity through work of all kinds, across different walks of life and celebrates work and freedom through song.

Practicing in winter

S: During 2020, you produced a collection of ASMR Christmas videos with pianist Martha Locker. Was this the first time you worked on a musical project related to the condition known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response? Can you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?

Stubblefield: This fun project started with a commission from pianist Ron Levy to write Christmas music for his forthcoming EP. Again, COVID stalled the project. After hearing that news, for the first time during the pandemic, I began to feel dread. Would our country ever return to “normal?” As a result, I began thinking about ways to showcase my solo piano piece Christmas Sweets without producing a simple video of someone playing the piano. I wanted a “feel good about Christmas” video. I came across a New York Times article about a woman named Jennifer Allen. She first coined the term Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) in reference to an intervention that can improve sleep, relieve stress, and induce head-to-toe euphoria. ASMR purports that you feel better when you are triggered by soft speaking voices and certain sounds, sights, and smells. If you suffer from chronic anxiety and/or depression, ASMR could be a fix. In my YouTube “ASMR” Christmas Sweets videos, not only are you hearing pianist Martha Locker’s world-class performance, but you’re also watching a yule log. You’re hearing the crackling of the wood. You’re hearing the howling of the wind outside. With any luck, the viewer will become overwhelmed with a sensation of calmness and happy thoughts about Christmas. With ASMR, there are many more sounds and sights beyond Christmas that also trigger good feelings. There is much more to explore in the world of ASMR. Travel down that rabbit hole if you dare. [View Stubblefield’s Christmas Sweets, here on YouTube.]

S: You were recently commissioned to write Three Attitudes, a work for solo cello. Who commissioned it and was it for a specific performer? Is there a special story attached to it?

Stubblefield: Frederick Brodie commissioned this work as a birthday gift for his father, Dr. Donald Brodie. Early in his career, Dr. Brodie was a professional cellist with the Air Force band for several years before leaving music to become a physician. This was the first time in my career that I so emotionally connected to a commission. The love and respect that Frederick had for his father was without a doubt; and when I met Dr. Brodie for the first time to present him with the work, we became instant friends! He was so surprised and thrilled about the new piece that he sat down while I was there and sight-read it for me on his Francesco de Emiliani (circa 1724) cello! I was touched. Months later, I asked cellist Louise Dubin to perform and video-record the music from her studio to surprise Dr. Brodie again. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could share Dubin’s performance. Nonetheless, Dr. Brodie was an amazing spirit, and I am honored to have known him and that this piece memorializes his life. [View Stubblefield’s “First Attitude” (from Three Attitudes) via YouTube.]

S: Can you tell us more about your compositional process?

Stubblefield: When I start to write a new piece, I remind myself of the experience of discovering classical music for the first time, listening to a vinyl record on a small turntable. From Stravinsky’s Firebird to Smetana’s Má vlast, the awe I felt as a child hearing the right notes at the right time continues to motivate me. It reminds me that I wish to write music I enjoy hearing, not just once but over and over again. From there, I look for an inspiring theme and work in counterpoints and surprising harmonic twists and turns.

S: You’re also a conductor. Do you have a favorite composer or piece you enjoy conducting? How does conducting inform your own compositions?

Stubblefield: Yes, I’m a conductor, but I don’t have a favorite composer or piece. I simply enjoy the art of conducting. Furthermore, I do believe that being a good conductor helps a composer fully understand and conceptualize their own work.

S: Do you often get to see and hear your works in performance? Do you have a favorite or a most inspiring moment in your career during a concert of one of your works?

Stubblefield: Every opportunity to see my work performed on stage is still very thrilling to me. I compose each piece as if it will be my last. However, there have been a handful of moments in my career when I happened to compose the right piece for the right virtuoso. When a virtuoso understands a piece and “gets” my musical language at all levels, from the main theme to all of the secondary and tertiary elements, it feels like they know and embrace it as much as I do. That is quite gratifying.

S: You have a large work-list. Do you have a favorite piece, and if so, why?

Stubblefield: Mercurial Dances is a piece for 13 instruments. I used the same instrumentation Aaron Copeland used for the original “Appalachian Spring” (flute, clarinet, bassoon, double string quintet, double bass, and piano). This 20-minute work has one theme with several variations and each theme evokes a specific emotion (happy, sad, angry, contemplative, etc.). When I wrote this piece, I enjoyed stretching the boundaries of my musical language.

S: As the world continues to open up, do you have any plans for the summer and fall? Will you travel and attend live performances this year?

Stubblefield: Yes! I cannot wait to attend live performances. I’ve been living in New York for a few months this summer, and I’ve been focusing on creating a new vocal work for mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Farnum. I look forward to incorporating the City’s kinetic energy in that piece, as well as write a new quintet using the instrumentation of Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” (violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano). Also on my list is completing the symphonic band arrangement of Christmas Sweets.

S: The music world is always evolving, and in this virtual era, what advice do you have for young composers and musicians going forward?

Stubblefield: In this age of technology, short attention spans, and the ability of our audiences to multi-task during performances, young composers need to bring humanity to their work. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we create music that directly relates to the way we live and work. Young composers and musicians must bring all of their imagination to capturing the fast pace of our time and engaging listeners quickly and keeping them interested, because our potential audience has so many other entertainment options.