Composers go into the wild and come home transformed

By Peter Alexander

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Composers in the Wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve

There is a wildness in the natural world that most of us never meet. But when we do, we are likely to be transformed.

“I definitely feel changed as a person,” Alondra Vega says after brushing against the Alaskan wilderness. “The experience almost seems like it was too extraordinary to have happened,” Cassie To writes.

13690752_594538287385367_7602763590110916242_nFor Sam Young, an ex-Boulderite living in Los Angeles, touching the wild was an epiphany: “Whenever I come to a place like this, I re-evaluate my entire life and think, ‘Is it all wrong, what I’m doing?’”

Vega, To and Young were three of nine participants in “Composing in the Wilderness,” a workshop led by composer Stephen Lias in Alaska this past summer. The goal of the workshop, Lias says, is to give composers the transformative experience that comes from stepping into the natural world.

“Going into the backcountry of Alaska, I know the experience will change people,” he says. “I wouldn’t presume to guess in what way, but the art that they create will be a manifestation of whatever the change was.

“My favorite thing is putting these composers in that environment and just watching Alaska do its thing on them.”

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Composer Stephen Lias

Lias is known to Boulder audiences for his orchestral piece Gates of the Arctic, premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014 — a product of Alaska doing its thing on him. He will be back this year, when his All the Songs that Nature Sings will be premiered by the orchestra and conductor Michael Butterman March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., March 28.

Working in cooperation with Alaska Geographic, the National Park Service and the Fairbanks Arts Festival, Lias has presented the workshop every year since 2012. It is designed as both an outdoors and an artistic adventure. The composers gather in Denali National Park, where they hike and explore the backcountry. They learn about the wilderness environment from rangers and naturalists.

After Denali, the composers transfer to the remote Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to compose a new piece inspired by their experiences. Written for performers from the Fairbanks Arts Festival, the pieces are all trios or quartets, but adding to the musical adventure, the composers don’t know in advance what instruments they will write for.

The pieces have to be fairly short and simple, because they have to be written quickly and learned even more quickly by the performers. That forms the third and final segment of the workshop: in just a few days the completed pieces are rehearsed and performed, first in Denali National Park, and then as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The workshop takes nine participants on a first-come, first-served basis. This year there were five women and four men, ranging in age from early 20s to AARP-eligible. They came from all over: two from Australia, one from New Zealand by way of New York, one from Cuba by way of Canada, the rest from around the U.S.

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The author in Alaska with sons Michael (l) and Ivan (r): Kenai Fjords National Park

As it happens, I had my own Alaskan adventure this summer, driving, hiking and flightseeing in the state with my two oldest sons. I timed my trip to hear this year’s workshop concert, “Sounds of Nature: Alaska Premieres,” July 26 at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I saw glaciers larger than counties, and stretches of boreal forest larger than several states. And like the composers in the workshop, the vast land profoundly moved me.

When you face such an overwhelming immensity of nature, full of life but devoid of visible human presence, it’s hard not to be affected.

. . . . .

We are often told that nature is cruel, but that is not really true. Nature understands neither kindness nor cruelty; it is indifferent. That is the great lesson of the wilderness, as I was reminded in Anaktuvuk Pass and the composers, well cared for as they were, encountered in Denali: When we leave our well insulated lives to venture into the real world of nature, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.

13718714_594543404051522_4074485623699253369_nWashington, very much a city-dweller from New York, had an experience that captures just what Lias hopes the composers will discover in their brush with nature. “We hiked up this high mountain pass and we were given space to go out on our own and just sit quietly and reflect,” she recalls. “I felt like an intruder in some ways — like my breathing was too loud.

“A moth came and landed on my hand, and I didn’t want to move because I was interrupting its space. It was really peaceful, and really real because everything has been undisturbed for so long. Being able to trespass there for a couple of days has been really calming.”

13718623_594538980718631_7012257335267384579_nOf all the participants, David John Lang may have captured the power of wilderness most eloquently. After returning to his home, in Adelaide, South Australia, he writes: “I took my journal, in which I often write letters to God, but I was surprised at how little I wrote while I was in Alaska. It was like I was too busy being a listener for once, hearing and seeing and loving God’s creation.

“I felt really, really small, and it was awesome.”

Read the entire article in Boulder Weekly.

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Nine intriguing premieres in Fairbanks

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.

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Davis Concert Hall at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, site of the Composing in the Wilderness concert at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Photo by Peter Alexander.

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.

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Composer Stephen Lias. Photo by Peter Alexander

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.

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Composers in the 2016 Composing in the Wilderness workshop: Shelley Washington and Cassie To (seated); Elizabeth Start, Paul Safar, Sam Young, Alondra Vega-Zaldivar, Dylan Librande, David John Lang and Gemma Peacocke (standing, l-r). Photo by Peter Alexander.

. . 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.

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The Great Hall, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Photo by Peter Alexander

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!

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NOTE: A longer report on the Composing in the Wilderness workshop, with interviews with the participants, will appear later this month in Boulder Weekly.