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An Alaskan Premiere in Colombia

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

A scenic view of Bogotá, Colombia from the mountains just outside of town

There is a wrinkle in the mountains to the east of Bogotá, Colombia called Quebrada Vieja. The name comes from the word quebrar, which means to break. The place didn’t seem broken to me, so I’ve called it a wrinkle–an irregular fold in a sheet of rock whose contours throb green with the veneer of life.

The wrinkle is gradually deepened by a trickle of water that flows into Bogotá. The water is slowed in its course from cloud to city first by leaves that interrupt its fall from the heavens, then by detritus that changes its direction as it slides downhill, then by the roots, microorganisms, and animals that drink it in and hold it for a while. One plant in particular, called frailejón, is so efficient at collecting water and sending it slowly to the city, that it is protected by law.

Water seems to be the link between the rock, the biome, and the people below.

Not long ago, I hiked from the city gate up through Quebrada Vieja and into the páramo where the frailejones thrive. A friend found the website where we could sign up for a trail pass while we were both in Bogotá for the premiere of one of my compositions. At 7am the following morning, we met just below the gate to the mountains, where access is restricted because of the political unrest that disrupts the mountain communities. Armed groups have occupied the mountains outside Bogotá and have occasionally carried out kidnappings from their cover.

Most visitors are steered away from the more dangerous trails toward a place called Altos de la Cruz, but we got lucky. A police entourage happened to be hiking into the páramo the morning we arrived. We were allowed to hike with them up to the highest point around, nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. From the summit, we could see most of Bogotá. It’s a city of about seven million people – almost ten times the population of Alaska in about a thousandth the land area. I could also see the more sparsely populated terrain of mountain communities when I turned my back on Bogotá and looked the other way. The scenery in that direction reminded me more of home.

When I came down from the páramo, I prepared for a rehearsal with a Colombian string quintet (including members of the Cuarteto Femenino Filarmónico, the Filarmónica Bogotá, and the associated youth orchestras). We had been preparing all week for a concert presented by the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art and the Bogotá Philharmonic. Some of the musicians in the ensemble had never hiked Quebrada Vieja, and I may have been the only one to have hiked up into the páramo, yet they were the locals. The knew much more about the city than I.

Rehearsals were efficient, almost rushed, but not unpleasant or unfriendly. We had come together to make music and to share it with people we cared about. I had a vague idea that there would be other audience members with opinions about my music not shaped by personal relationship, but their opinions were far from my mind. In a way, travel to a foreign country had brought me closer to home, further into the thoughts and emotions of my closest friends and family.

Rehearsals continued up to the last minute, interspersed with time spent in the company of my travel group. We visited some of the world famous restaurants of Bogotá, walked the city parks, bought handmade goods in the Christmas markets, and drank lots of coffee. Conversations lasted long over meals and even longer into the nights. We swapped ideas we had brought with us and observations about our destination. We rehearsed our unique signs of affection for each other.

The concert itself went well. Music I had written in response to Alaskan landscapes and histories for Alaskan performers somehow made sense in the hands of Bogotanos in a museum of modern art. For about an hour the sound of strings echoed off the walls of an intimate space and drew on the styles of Copland and numerous contemporary American popular musicians. It wasn’t until shaking hands afterward that I fully realized the gravity of the moment. There were some present whose favor can open doors for musicians in Colombia and beyond. During the concert, I heard both the sounds I had attempted to transcribe and those that resonated from the musicians in front of me, but everyone else heard only the latter. I think we were all engaged in our own ways.

After the concert, my travel group left Bogotá for Cartagena to relax on the beach, eat tropical fruit and fried fish, and wear short sleeves in December. I didn’t realize until I stuck my feet in the sand how tired the excitement of Bogotá had made me. My friends and family took care of the details I no longer had the energy to deal with, as though paying me back for the preparations I had undertaken in the preceding weeks and months. We all breathed easier in a city full of tourists like ourselves.

There is an island about an hour’s boat ride from Cartagena called Isla Grande that adds a respite of green to the intense Caribbean blue. There are virtually no engines on the island–no roads, no industry, just an ecological preserve and some beachside hotels. Amid the mangroves and iguanas, charcoal grills and palm-thatched pavilions, you can hear the sound of waters that have finally gathered in the ocean. On the day I listened, it was a gentle shushing that spoke of many places.

Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange, a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and a 2021 Connie Boochever Award recipient.

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