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Composing in the Wilderness

Composers and the naturalists guiding them sit on a green hillside with a view of the Alaska Range in Denali National Park. Photo provided by Stephen Lias for Composing in the Wilderness.

Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes wrote: “If you love something, give it away.” Composer Stephen Lias is doing just that here in Alaska. He found a love of composing in the wilderness, and he’s giving it away to other composers through the aptly named program Composing in the Wilderness.

Steve and I met recently to talk about what it means to compose in the wilderness. I asked him, What do you mean by wilderness? and Why write music there? For Steve, wilderness is what lies outside his comfort zone, inspires him, and stimulates change. In a word, wilderness represents adventure. Denali National Park and Preserve, where Steve was the park’s first composer-in-residence in 2011, is indeed a place of adventure for many – its remoteness, extreme climate, and rugged topography can be daunting, and understanding its geology and ecology takes time and study.

The program Steve has put together in collaboration with the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Alaska Geographic, The National Park Service, and the US Forest Service provides an opportunity for composers to spend time in wild places, learn about them, and respond to them through music. The participants range widely in age, compositional experience, place of origin, and musical style. All come away from the field courses and direct experience with unique impressions from which they compose their own responses.

Steve does not ask for a specific type of response, and the creative products of Composing in the Wilderness reflect a wide variety of thoughts, feelings, and approaches to music. For example, Scott McIntyre noticed that his location in Denali National Park was as far north of the equator as his Australian home was south. He wrote a piece of music that made use of latitude as a number, linking the two. Nerissa Campbell wrote I Am A Braided River whose graphic score assigns instruments to the strands of a braid drawn on paper, allowing them to cross and uncross as performers interpret the shape of the river in sound.

During our meeting, Steve and I talked about John Luther Adams, a composer recognized worldwide for his musical responses to wilderness. As Steve put it, his music “eloquently embodies the voices of glaciers” and seems to answer the question: if this mountain could speak, what would it sound like? Although neither Steve nor I write with that question in mind, John Luther Adams’s music is a touchstone for programs like Composing in the Wilderness. It is a representation of Alaskan wilderness that has contributed, in some way, to the brand of this place.

As we discussed John Luther Adams, I also recalled a collection of field recordings made by John Coray in the 1950s in a place called Quizjeh Vena or Lake Clark. The collection, titled They Sing The Songs of Many Peoples, documents songs from Tanilen also known as the Tanalian Point area. Gabriel and Wassilie Trefon, once local leaders, sang several of the songs in the collection in an improvisational style. Their songs are haunting compositions that come to mind with remarkable clarity when I think about the time I myself lived by Quizjeh Vena. These songs, too, could be touchstones for composers interested in the wilderness.

However, Coray’s recordings gave me questions for Steve. Was Quizjeh Vena a wilderness for the Trefons, who may have felt comfortable there? More broadly, when people come from a place designated as wilderness and call it home, what inspiration do they draw? I asked Steve if a big city could be wilderness for the Trefons – could Anchorage, for example be their wilderness instead? Steve’s answer was that different people are challenged to grow by different experiences, different places.

If that’s true, it’s worth asking why some iconic Alaskan landscapes are called wilderness, whereas big cities are not, except in figurative speech. Is it an exercise in branding, selling Alaska as wild and inspiring? And what’s music got to do with it?

As we wrapped up our conversation, I realized that Composing in the Wilderness provided tentative answers to those questions. Wilderness is a brand, and one of Alaska’s best recognized. As a brand, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: when people come here for adventure, they often find it, even if for others this place is home. When we promise visitors an experience of our home as an adventure, we promise inspiration, and if the wild is what lies beyond our limits, then stepping out into it means stepping into questions.

And music? Music is how some people reflect on experiences and share them with others. If Alaska has inspired us, no matter where we are from, then it is only natural that we write music in response.

Composers and naturalists hike in silhouette through Denali National Park, against a backdrop of the mountains of the Alaska Range. Photo provided by Stephen Lias for Composing in the Wilderness.

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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