John Stafford to debut first original symphony piece at Pops at the Post

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 27, 2018

By Andie Foley

John Stafford says that, to him, music is just like any other language.

There are letters and sentences, words and phrases and paragraphs, he says. And anyone who knows the language can look at a piece of music and know exactly what it sounds like.

As it happens, Stafford is one of these people.

Stafford checks many boxes of music aficionado. He graduated from Catawba College with a degree in piano performance. He’s accompanied vocalists and choirs and played along with symphonies.

This year, he’s checking another box thanks to Maestro David Hagy of the Salisbury Symphony: he’s composing a completely new piece of music for this year’s Pops at the Post.

It’s called “Bell Tower March,” commissioned through a donation from local philanthropist Fred Stanback — in a roundabout way, at least.

According to Hagy, Stanback has an affinity for orchestral marches. As such, he contributed enough monetarily for two extra snare drums at this year’s Pops, a Salisbury Symphony piece held annually on the loading dock of the Salisbury Post.

There was just enough left from the donation to commission the march, an homage to Stanback and Pops’ future location: the Bell Tower Green, a soon-to-be park built around a like-named Salisbury landmark.

Stafford was chosen to compose the piece for two reasons. One, he and Maestro Hagy had a long working relationship, with Stafford responsible for many symphonic arrangements for the symphony over the years.

Two, Stafford is the director of music at First Presbyterian Church. The Salisbury Bell Tower is a remnant of the church’s third sanctuary, he said.

“David said somebody had commissioned a piece for Pops at the Post and they’d already given it a name,” he said. “When he said it was ‘Bell Tower March,’ I knew I had to write it.”

Developing the piece

Stafford said that, for years, his work with the Salisbury Symphony has gone unnoticed — and for due reason.

“What I have done is give the symphony opportunities to provide performance venues for people that would never have had the chance,” he said.

This meant rearranging precomposed pieces for a symphony setting, and it started with a local jazz trio.

“They had been performing in Salisbury for years,” he said. “But they didn’t read music. They performed their music the same way every time and this was just what they knew.”

So someone in connection with the symphony recorded them on a cassette player. The tape was given to Stafford, and he was tasked with writing a symphony around the group’s developed style.

Since that time, he has arranged anywhere from one to seven pieces each year for the symphony.

He’s yet to compose a completely original piece until now.

“All the times I’d written before … I had to fit what I was doing around something else,” he said, recalling how he felt as he began the task just four short weeks ago. “This was just cold.”

The concept was initially daunting, he said.

“I thought, ‘I don’t have a melody. Where do I start?” he said. “I didn’t even know where to begin.”

He said realizing where to start was an ‘aha!’ moment. He simply needed a melody and a bass line, the same as he’d had for any other piece he’d arranged before.

Then all he had to do was write the parts around it, he said.

This began a quest for inspiration and exploration of what would adequately tie in a theme of a bell tower and march.

There was only one melody he could think of that was absolutely associated with bells, he said: The Westminster Quarters, the time-chiming melody of grandfather clocks and Big Ben alike.

Those simple musical intervals were where he started.

“I’d tweak it and mess with it constantly. If I wasn’t doing something else, I was trying to sing this,” said Stafford. “Finally, I got it. I got that first opening melody and I was done.”

With a simple tune ironed out, Stafford said he next moved on to a process with which he was much more familiar: arranging orchestration around the notes.

He was limited, of course, to orchestrations in the style of a march. So he sought another inspiration. This time, it was master of marches John Philip Sousa, the mind behind “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Stafford said he looked at the original, handwritten manuscripts of ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ “just to look and see how Sousa voiced things in a march.”

Why? Because in all his music career, Stafford had never considered writing a march. It just wasn’t his cup of tea, he said.

But he said an exploration of a different musical genre was nothing new in the context of his musical career.

In 30 years as a musician, Stafford said he’s done everything from pure, high classical shows to grunge, heavy metal, rock and “everything in the middle.”

“Every time I expand my experiences of working with a style of music, I just increased my language,” he said, harkening back to that original analogy. “Everything outside of my normal that I do makes me better at what I do on a daily basis.”

According to Stafford, this includes even the most minute of daily tasks. If he can compose a symphony, he said, how long should it now take him to put together a page of music for his church?

“I can do it like that,” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.

Counting down to the debut

As Stafford sat and looked at the completed “Bell Tower March,” his fingers pointed to two lines of text underneath the title.

The lines spelled out what the composer said made the piece special: it was composed specifically for the 14th Pops at the Post, to be played for by the Salisbury Symphony.

“At Pops, you always got to hear great music, but it was always something that was written by somebody else for some other event somewhere else,” said the composer. “That doesn’t make it sound any less wonderful to us, but it was done for somebody else.”

Not so with this piece, he said. This would instead be a debut of something by here, for here.

“No one asked me to put that there, but I did,” he said, fingers tracing those lines of text. “… This is going to be a piece that was written by someone in our community for our community.”