Composers go into the wild and come home transformed

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Composer Stephen Lias in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Courtesy of Stephen Lias

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.

For 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.”

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.

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.

The day before the concert, I was standing in the Arctic tundra a few miles outside Anaktuvuk Pass, an Nunamiut village of about 350 souls on the north slope. I could see three other humans and the eight-wheeled Argo we rode out on. Beyond us, the tundra extended hundreds of uninhabited miles north to the Arctic Ocean and south through the Brooks Range to a few tiny villages on the Koyukuk River.

The grandeur was monumental, but so was the sense of isolation and fragility. It was humbling to know that the Nunamiut had survived here for thousands of years without the technology we take for granted. And that the timeless immensity around us was unconcerned with our presence or our survival. This, I thought, is the real world we insulate ourselves from, but one well known to the bear and the caribou.

The largely urban-dwelling musicians knew they were in a different world as soon as they landed. “I got to Alaska at 2:30 a.m., and it was bright, it was daytime!” Vega says. “Since day one, even before going to the wild, I was inspired.”

But that was only the beginning. As soon as they stepped into the wilderness, they were stretching their comfort zones. “We got hailed on, we got rained on, we walked in rivers, we walked in mud, we had to wait for a bear,” Vega recalls. “Every single day I had wet feet.

“At first, it’s like ‘No! My feet are wet!’ But by the third day, (I thought) ‘I’m just going to own it. I’m just going to walk through the stream.’ It is so amazing to feel part of it, and you don’t feel that in the city.”

During the Denali part of the workshop, the composers have the opportunity to hike beyond the roads and tourists and come face-to-face with the wilderness. Some stay in groups, while others prefer to be alone on a ridge or a hillside. Here they are free to write journals, to jot down musical ideas or simply to absorb the wild country around them.

The immensity of Alaska helped several composers get in touch with deeper feelings. “Alaska gave me back a sense of wonder that I hadn’t felt for a very long time,” Gemma Peacocke says. “At the moment, I hope that writing a piece that has at its core a sense of awe at the incredibly complex and interwoven beauty of our world will help me hold onto what I felt in Alaska.”

Like Peacocke, Vega is trying to hold onto her wilderness experience. “Alaska has been the most inspiring place I have ever been,” she says. “I am constantly reminding myself to remain the open-minded person that Alaska brought out of me.”

The time spent composing in the isolation of Yukon-Charley Rivers is transformative in another way. On the one hand, four days is not a very long time to write a piece of music, but at the same time the isolation allows a focus the composers can rarely achieve in the midst of busy lives. Several commented on that discovery, and what it could mean for future work.

“Disconnecting electronically from the world was incredibly peaceful, and made composing a lot easier,” Peacocke says. “In New York I’m constantly bombarded with news and technology, and [when] I didn’t get any cell phone coverage it was wonderful!”

Unsurprisingly, the isolation also brought the composers close together. Shelley Washington observes that “You’re put out somewhere with people you don’t know, and we’ve been able to form close bonds in such a short period of time.”

Vega saw the humorous side of the experience. “You’re put into this environment with these people you just met, and you’re forced to brush your teeth together outside, not shower and be stinky for four days — there’s something about it that makes these big connections. When we got back to Fairbanks and each one having our own rooms, every time I went to brush my teeth I felt kind of lonely!”

As a product of the wilderness experience, the Fairbanks concert was fascinating on many levels. Because all of the works were short and written for some combination of the same four instruments (violin, flute, horn and percussion), they all sounded somewhat alike. But the surface similarity cast the differences in relief: the individual character and style of each composer, and how each responded to the Alaskan environment.

The pieces were variously inspired by tiny lichens, the sounds of the Teklanika River, the sun over Denali and the mysteries of the world beyond the composers’ cabins. The percussion parts ranged from delicate tinkles to jazzy licks. One piece included folkish tunes that suggested Alaska’s sourdough past, while another included spoken texts. (My review of the full concert can be found here: sharpsandflatirons.com/2016/07/31/nine-intriguing-premieres-in-fairbanks/)

Amidst this diversity, one theme appeared at the concert, and in thoughts the composers shared after returning home: a wish to make their music more genuine and less self-consciously “modern.” Paul Safar writes, “The Alaska experience has reaffirmed that I need to just need to be true to my voice all the time. That integrity is very important.”

Young had the same experience: “I think most of the music I’ve written since participating in the ‘Composing in the Wilderness’ workshop has been a more authentic expression of what I want to write. Being in that environment allows you to let go of some of the filters that you develop over time and just write music.”

Lias is the linchpin of the workshop. In the past seven years his music based on outdoors experiences has established his identity as an “adventurer/composer,” but before that he was already a serious wilderness hiker, backpacker and kayaker.

He first had the idea of combining his work as a composer with his love of the outdoors around 2009. A year later, he says, “I was kayaking in Big Bend National Park and ended up writing a piece about it. That was the first of what has now become a string of between 15 and 20 pieces” inspired by national parks and the outdoors.

After that first piece, he went on to land several artist-in-residence grants in the parks. After his 2011 residency at Denali, he decided to start the workshop in order to share his two passions — music and wilderness — with other composers.

“[Lias] has planned this out so carefully, and the whole experience is so carefully put together by him — that’s what makes it so great,” Young says. “We just get to show up and have this experience.”

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.

Washington, 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.”

Of 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.”