Pamlico Sound Sketches





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Pamlico Sound Sketches ... Liner Notes

In this series of musical portraits, I have attempted to portray impressions of the Pamlico Sound, a body of water that lies between North Carolina's mainland ("Inner Banks") and the barrier islands ("Outer Banks"). This is a region of dramatic waterscapes and wetlands that are home to abundant wildlife, with a rich historical heritage including a proud tradition of independent watermen and contemporary popularity with the sailing community. Although the ten individual pieces in this orchestral suite were composed between 2006 and 2010, they represent a lifetime of cumulative musical influences and many years of developing my own compositional voice. The music of Pamlico Sound Sketches reveals my fondness for the Romantic, Post-Romantic and Neoclassical musical styles of the late 19th and early 20th century, but the range of contrasting musical moods and orchestral timbres in this suite also reflects my own compositional voice and mirrors the variety, scope and character of the Pamlico Sound landscape.

The suite begins, geographically speaking, near the mouth of the Neuse River. In Winds of the Neuse, solo bass trumpet and woodwinds offer gentle themes backed by the restrained power of a large string orchestra to evoke a sparse, languid atmosphere. Tryon Palace Gardens, drawing inspiration from the reconstructed colonial Governor's palace in New Bern, provides immediate contrast with the more precise, formal and regal air of a quartet of solo instruments alternating with a full chamber orchestra. Heron features a lyrical solo clarinet accompanied by string orchestra to portray the grace of a solitary great blue heron against the lush, serene background of the salt marsh. Town Dock envisions, with sprightly character, a sailing day trip originating from the town of Oriental, in Pamlico County, and draws its title from the public dock in the Oriental marina and the community spirit that this structure embodies. Nor'easter, with its pervasive staccato rhythmic figures and full dynamic range of the symphony orchestra, conveys the relentless energy and immensity of the storms that all too frequently impact the North Carolina coastline. Intermezzo is a respite after the storm, with reflection on the damage it has wrought, expressed pensively by piano accompanied by subdued strings and brass. The mood shifts with the scherzo Mosquitoes, a vigorous but lighthearted interpretation of this inescapable coastal insect element. Regatta reflects the majesty and drama of a sailing competition. At First Light depicts watermen working their nets and crab pots at dawn, amid the still wind and glassy water of sunrise. A journey from the Inner Banks to the Outer Banks barrier islands brings the suite to a close both geographically and musically in Passage to Ocracoke, with a dark, solemn opening section and unsettled middle sections leading to safe arrival in the form of a hymn-like theme approaching the conclusion of the voyage.


Pamlico Sound Sketches ... Background

My family has enjoyed many memorable times on the shores and in the water of the Pamlico Sound, beginning with my childhood visits to Tryon Palace and my wife's experiences learning and teaching sailing at Camp Seafarer during her teenage years. We cherish the wildness that remains in many parts of the Pamlico Sound region's creeks, bays and marshes, and we appreciate the bounty of seafood that the wetlands and open water provide. Our experiences in and around the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound have ranged from the thrill of sailing and calm pleasure of kayaking to the silent contemplation of a pastel winter sunrise, and from frustration with mosquitoes in droves to the heartbreak of property damage from a hurricane storm surge (in our case, Hurricane Isabel in 2003). 

The Pamlico Sound, therefore, was a fitting source of inspiration and a cohesive topic around which to develop a symphonic work. Although I often have images of the Pamlico Sound in my mind's eye, I had not yet decided to follow this theme when I began work on the pieces that would become the nucleus of the orchestral suite. Over some time I gradually developed a concept of geographic movement through the Pamlico Sound region that offered a template for placement of the pieces within the suite. Gustav Holst's best-known orchestral suite, "The Planets," by has for many years been one of my favorite orchestral works for its diversity of emotional atmospheres and orchestral textures. My goal for Pamlico Sound Sketches was to capture a similarly wide range of effects with respect to orchestral timbre, and to experiment with greater variety in instrument density.


Pamlico Sound Sketches ... Technical information

The process of composition and arrangement depended heavily on music notation software (Sibelius 5), except for a few pieces that either began as an piano improvisation (Intermezzo) or were composed and arranged completely by ear without reference to the written score (Passage to Ocracoke and Winds of the Neuse). Music notation software with its immediate playback functionality was a new compositional tool for me at the inception of the project. I had become accustomed to working out the fundamental structure, melody and harmony of a piece of music at the keyboard (piano or synthesizer) and subsequently using a solo keyboard recording as the foundation of the final arrangement, with other instruments and tone colors added by multitrack techniques. This tended to keep a particular instrument, usually either piano or strings, quite dominant in the final arrangement. A music notation software approach helped me to create a much more balanced and interesting arrangement from the outset and facilitated deliberate manipulation of motifs and textures. Once I was satisfied with the composition and arrangement of a piece in Sibelius, I transferred it as a MIDI file to a digital audio workstation (Cubase 5) for more detailed manipulation of note duration and other parameters, to apply virtual instrument orchestral samples with more lifelike and detailed performance articulations (Vienna Instruments), to further refine the balance among instrument groups, to capture the performance and to generate a final mix with the addition of concert hall reverb as well as some delicate equalization and compression to optimize sound quality. The tracks were recorded and mixed within Cubase, and were subsequently transferred to an Alesis Masterlink master disc recorder as 24-bit, 44.1 kHz material.


Pamlico Sound Sketches


1. Winds of the Neuse 6:14

2. Tryon Palace Gardens 6:43

3. Heron 6:10

4. Town Dock 6:29

5. Nor'easter 5:47

6. Intermezzo 3:37

7. Mosquitoes 4:11

8. Regatta 5:36

9. At First Light 5:41

10. Passage to Ocracoke 6:54

Total time: 57:22


Composed, arranged and produced by Craig Steffee.

Pamlico Sound Sketches was performed utilizing Vienna Instruments (instrument samples courtesy of Vienna Symphonic Library, Vienna, Austria) and was recorded and mixed digitally (24-bit). 

All music published by Craig Steffee (BMI).

Tracks 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 copyright 2009 Craig Steffee.

Tracks 1, 2, 8, 9 and 10 copyright 2010 Craig Steffee.