Composer James Stephenson to Write a Symphony for Synthesis

NCEAS Portrait: 2018 Artists in Residence

By Tia Kordell and Jenny Seifert

Composer Jim Stephenson is always interested in trying new things. As a case in point, when he was nine years old, he picked up a trumpet that his brother had forgotten to put away and, on his first try, played an actual note (which, if you’ve never tried playing a trumpet, is pretty impressive) – thus began his lifetime passion for music.

Stephenson first tried his hand at composing years later as a trumpet player in the Naples Philharmonic in Florida, (re)arranging existing songs for orchestras. Arranging other people’s music eventually led him to compose his own, driven by the idea of creating emotional, unique pieces that “make the moment we are all existing in meaningful.”

“I initially start by just writing whatever music comes to me. It might be good, or sometimes it is quite bad, but getting started is the important part. Then I start editing, and the music begins to take care of itself,” he said.

Stephenson eventually laid down the trumpet to be a full-time composer and conductor, but his years of playing in an orchestra have greatly influenced his work. Having been able to hear all of the instruments together in close proximity and sensing what each enjoyed playing, he strives to write pieces that allow musicians to express their personality, which he says is key to creating music that truly connects with the audience.

In a way, writing symphonies has resonance with conducting synthesis science. In fact, in the video at the end of this story, he tells NCEAS director Ben Halpern that he often “puts instruments together that typically wouldn’t go together” – a veritable musical representation of interdisciplinary science!

Stephenson came to NCEAS as an artist in residence to explore the ties between science and music, and to talk to scientists about their experiences conducting research.

“My normal life would never allow for the chance to meet a bunch of scientists and to discover what makes them tick. So, to me, this is all about enrichment: to explore paths in life that I would have never otherwise seen,” he said.

And he knows his music will be different for it. He says his music is always dedicated to, and dictated by, the subject matter.

“As a creative person, the thought of a different sound to my music as a result of this or any new experience is quite luring and, to be honest, almost addictive,” he said.

The result of Stephenson’s residency will be a new orchestral composition to debut in summer of 2019. Learn more about his work.

Meet our other 2018 Artists in Residence.

NCEAS Portraits feature the people behind our work and impact.