Place can be a difficult word to define. It’s a location and a context all in one, but it has other associations too. For example, “what a beautiful place” means one thing, and “know your place” means something else entirely. “What place did you finish?” has a different meaning still. So, what does it mean to have a relationship with a place? And how does the music we make represent that relationship?
I’ve been exploring these questions for the past few years. The mystery will last me a lifetime, I believe. I won’t run out of places here in Alaska to experience, nor do I expect to run out of new sounds to describe them. I hope my own music will become part of this landscape and its people by capturing the give and take of our deep connection with one another and with our environment.
I came to understand that give and take a little better through a recent composition commission. I was asked to write music that focused not so much on the beauty of our landscape as on our responses to adversity. I heard an unstated assumption in the commission: Alaskans' deepest connections with this place, the ones most worth writing about, are grounded in a sense of adversity. To be sure, some of us embrace a frontier mentality of plucky defiance in the face of harsh winters, big wildlife, and existential isolation. But I’d like to offer another perspective.
I was lucky to spend three summers leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic as the sole musician at Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. There, in the middle of a vast expanse of austere wilderness, I made friends and kept in touch with loved ones. I filled my free time with trips through the surrounding backcountry. Some were as short as a quick run up Kesugi Ridge between shifts, and others were as long as 50-mile treks from Petersville to Home Lake then out the Chulitna River. Between trips, I spent more time on music than I ever had before. I was on stage about seven hours per day, I wrote a short album with a friend and producer in Boise plus two concerti for musicians in Bogotá, and I listened to music from all over the world, discovering emerging artists and revisiting old favorites.
In a nutshell, I was grounded in Alaska, challenged by its landscape, and at the same time connected with a musical community that spans the globe.
I would love to hear my concerti performed live. I crave live music, because there is an undeniable benefit to being in person -- a benefit that was mostly missing during the pandemic. Yet the people and places of Alaska still inspired me over the past year and drew me deep into new and meaningful relationships, and the lesson I learned during the three summers prior served me well: it is possible to stay in Alaska, stay in touch with friends elsewhere, and continue to grow as an artist all at once.
Perhaps because of the unique relationships we each have with this place, Alaska is worth visiting for its music. We are each shaped in a unique way that can be heard in our music. Because the sound of it is wrapped up in both who we are and where we are, it’s a sound you won’t hear anywhere else.
And that is cause to celebrate! For those of us who are enamored with the beauty of this place, creative to the core, and connected with so much more than an idea of a frontier, there are ways to continue thriving in community and defining what it means to be Alaskan musicians.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.