Since joining Settlement’s faculty last fall, Mike Stambaugh has been busy, and not just because he splits his teaching time between three different community branches - Mary Louise Curtis, Germantown, and Wynnefield. Every spare minute outside of the classroom, he’s been working on composing original music for the Philadelphia new-music ensemble Relâche. On Sunday, Jan. 25, Relâche will play his music as accompaniment to a silent film, “The Eyes of the Mummy,” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Stambaugh calls the film “a psychological, magical-realism thriller” – lofty terms for a movie produced in 1918 and not shown in the United States until 1922. “It’s kind of a serious movie, but it’s also kind of goofy,” he says. “There are parts that seem especially silly 90 years later.”
He says his music leans toward the serious side, with leitmotifs, or recurring themes, that represent the movie’s main characters, as well as the “mummy’s curse” that looms over the entire film. There are still some moments of levity among the 60 minutes of music: one character’s theme is “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
This outstanding opportunity for a young composer – a large-scale piece, performed by a notable ensemble – came about through Relâche’s oboist, Lloyd Shorter, who was one of Stambaugh’s professors during graduate school at the University of Delaware. Shorter is part of an unconventional lineup of instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, viola, piano, bass and percussion – that presents unique challenges to composers.
Though piano is Stambaugh’s main instrument and the instrument he first composed for – he started writing pieces for piano starting at age 8 – this composing assignment forced him to get away from the piano. He had to keep from “thinking pianistically” and focus on the sounds, colors and combinations possible in the ensemble’s instrumentation. “I’m used to writing for small groups or for solo piano,” he says. “This is the second-largest group I’ve ever composed for.”
Like taking any big step in music, it has been a challenge, similar to ones Stambaugh faced during his musical upbringing. “I never thought I would go to college for music – I never thought I was good enough,” he says. But years of devoted practice led to studying music theory at Temple University's Boyer College of Music and discovering a love for composing while there, further studies in music composition at Delaware, and now to opportunities in Philadelphia for playing, composing, and sharing his knowledge through teaching.
Faculty member since 2014