Stephen Lias’s Composing in the Wilderness Workshop at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival
By Peter Alexander
The Fairbanks (Alaska) Summer Arts Festival presented an intriguing concert of nine new works by nine composers last Tuesday (July 26) in Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska campus.
The concert was the culmination of Composing in the Wilderness, a workshop led with great success by composer Stephen Lias. Lias is known to Boulder audiences: The Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2014–15 season with the world premiere of his Gates of the Arctic, inspired by the National Park in northern Alaska, and Lias has been commissioned to write a new work for the orchestra to play next year at the Kennedy Center in Washington. That work, All the Songs that Nature Sings, will be premiered by conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Phil March 25 and then performed at the Shift Festival in Washington March 28.
The nine works on the July 26 program were all written under the same conditions: after spending several days getting oriented to Alaska and the wilderness at Denali National Park and Preserve, the composers travel to a remote area in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to write a new work inspired by their experiences in Alaska.
The works were written for and premiered by members of Corvus, ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The limited instrumentation of Corvus—Katie Cox, flute; Andie Springer, violin; Kate Sheeran, horn; and Owen Weaver, percussion—and the short working time imposed both a disciplined economy and a certain similarity of sound to all nine pieces. Nevertheless, the composers all found a way to express their own musical personalities in their necessarily short works, as well as the individual sources of inspiration they found in the wilderness settings.
Little Cosmos for flute, horn and percussion by Cassie To was the composer’s response to what she called “the amazing world of lichens” that she had discovered during the workshop. Opening with noble tones from the horn and pointillistic comments from the flute, the score features wide-ranging themes that effectively evoke both the openness of large spaces and the delicacy of tiny plants. This is a well crafted, carefully shaped piece of music.
Teklanika Twilight by David John Lang calls for the same ensemble. The composer acknowledged two sources of inspiration: the “constant sound track” provided by the Teklanika River, and the perpetual twilight of the midsummer Arctic. Steady rhythms in the melodic instruments suggested the steady flow of the river, while the percussionist added sleigh bells and other subtle sounds for the tinkling of the water over rocks. It all led to a delightful ending.
Out There for violin, flute and percussion by Dylan Labrande was inspired by the mysteries of the world “out there,” beyond the window in the composer’s cabin at Yukon Charley Rivers. The music left it to the listeners to decide what was “out there.” Was there a hint of threat in the building percussion sounds, some danger behind the implacable beauty of the scene? Whatever you hear, the score clearly implies a depth beyond what you can sense on the surface.
Over the High One for violin, flute and percussion by Alondra Vega-Zaldivar describes the rising of the sun over the highest mountain in North America. “I came to Alaska and I found magic,” the composer said in her introduction. For Vega, Denali is a pretty jazzy mountain. Her score puts the percussionist through his paces, occasionally overwhelming the comparatively softer melody instruments.
. . And Water Connects . . . for violin, horn and percussion by Elizabeth Start begins haltingly, as if musical phrases are trying to come together, with a melody first emerging from the horn. Perhaps these are trickling streams that eventually build into a flood as the piece reaches its strong conclusion. Most unfortunately, the intended recordings of water sounds failed to play, leaving an incomplete impression of the composer’s intention. After the performance Start gamely observed that the score was intended to be effective with or without the electronics, but her piece still awaits its full premiere.
Refugium for flute, violin and percussion by Paul Safar is a playful piece that combines music with a text spoken by the players that was written by the composer. The phrase “step by step” becomes a repeated rhythm that invites in the percussion, then the flute, and last of all the violin. The score captures the idea of a journey, or stroll with different views and incidents—the mountains, a stream, flowers, a scampering ground squirrel—that form a pleasurable mosaic of at least the sunnier side of the Alaskan wilderness.
Polychrome for the full quartet of flute, horn, violin and percussion by Gemma Peacocke was inspired by a specific viewpoint within the Denali National Park, overlooking a scene of disparate colors spread across the valley and mountains. Lacking overt melody, the music moves slowly through a spectrum of instrumental sounds, like slowly shifting light across the broad Polychrome vista. This was one of the most original and engaging pieces on the program, inviting the listener to hear beyond the surface colors.
Thorofare Ridge for violin, flute and horn by Sam Young reflects the composer’s observation that during the brief but intense Arctic summer, “all living things go into overdrive.” This is a thoroughly engaging piece, with melodic bits that capture the ear supported by quirky rhythms and accompanying elements. The music has a definite outdoorsy feel that suggests not only a pleasant day in the mountains, climbing Denali National Park’s alpine Thorofare Ridge, but also the sourdough history of Alaska.
Their Name is Yours for the full quartet by Shelley Washington made a strong conclusion for the program. Washington combined her experiences in Alaska with the idea of personal stories that form us all. “Tell us a story,” the players sing, sometimes singly and sometimes as a quartet, adding an additional musical challenge to the score. It is a very lively piece, with fiddling that suggests what kind of story this might be. At points there are slightly wild, slightly mysterious qualities to the composer’s story, suggesting something fundamental, something rooted in American soil.
Two further things need to be added to this report. One can assume that the composers did not bring their own individual cheering sections with them to Alaska, so the hoops and cheers after each piece indicate the kind of support that the Summer Arts Festival, and these new pieces created in Alaska receive in Fairbanks.
And one can not say enough about the players of Corvus. With even less time than the composers had to write them, they had to master nine completely new pieces for their premieres. They played—and sang—exceptionally through the program. How fortunate the composers, and Stephen Lias’s ongoing workshop program, are to have such support in their performers. Bravo to all!
NOTE: A longer report on the Composing in the Wilderness workshop, with interviews with the participants, will appear later this month in Boulder Weekly.