The music on Heather Stebbins’ Olney marks something of a departure for her. A composer of electroacoustic music as well as a performer on cello, Stebbins ordinarily works within scripted or otherwise preconceived musical structures. The music on Olney, by contrast, was the product of a process of exploring modular synthesis that she describes in the liner note as more intuitive than deliberative; they are experimental in the true sense of the word in that she made them through trial and error, testing out patches to see what worked and what didn’t. The nine tracks on the album presumably are based on the survivors of the experiments, the ones deemed worth keeping.
The music is refreshingly euphonic and with enough allusion to conventional harmony and rhythm to keep it well-grounded. Even when Stebbins uses rough-edged timbres, or on louder and noisier pieces like Marie, Marie, the essential musicality of the underlying material, much of it implying a major modality, comes through. There are the abstract oscillations and swoops of sound one might expect of modular synth music, but also repeated and varied pianistic motifs, as in the two Fragments and the closing track, Gloaming.
Two months before the December release of Olney, Stebbins gave her first public performance on modular synthesizer. The piece, played under the dome of the DC World War I Memorial, was a deeply moving, quasi-choral work entirely appropriate to the setting.