Composing in the Wilderness 1: tundra tapestry

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings. They are then flown by bush plane to the remote Coal Creek Mining Camp in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve where they spend four more days in intense composition. Finally, they are flown to Fairbanks where they join the other participants at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, where their pieces undergo a few days of intense rehearsals, and then are premiered in Denali National Park and in Fairbanks.

The final concert included Brent Lawrence’s On Distant Hills, Christina Rusnak’s Tundra Tapestry, and Jennifer Wright’s From the Darkness, We Sing the Mighty Land into Being. The three pieces, composed in less than a week, focused on the vastness of the mountains, the tiny detail of the tundra plant life, and the magical nature of the wilderness. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Stay tuned for Brent Lawrence and Jennifer Wright’s reports next week.

When I decided to attend Composing in the Wilderness for a third time this year, many people asked me why. Mostly, I was going again because I needed to.

Portland composer Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

At age 12, I wrote a song titled “A piece of Wilderness.” Who knew how prophetic that song would become for me? In college, a field botany class in Big Bend National Park literally changed my life. I gained a greater appreciation for nature and became a passionate hiker. So, when I met composer Stephen Lias in 2009 and heard his presentation of his first National Parks piece, River Runner – about the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, I realized that a significant part of my compositional path would be to compose for, and about, nature, wilderness and place.

When Lias launched Composing in the Wilderness in 2012, I eagerly signed up. Actually, I may have been the first to sign up. My blogs for that trip and for my second foray in 2013, are filled with nearly daily details of the my awe and adventures, of the weather, the scientists, their stories, and of the challenge to compose something meaningful in such a short time span. In 2012, only eight days separated our first step in Denali and the concert! The compositional process, with such a tight time frame, is arduous. Fortunately the Alaska summers are accommodating. (Editor’s note: Listen to Rusnak’s first CitW composition, Flow.)

Since then, I’ve composed for a National Monument, four National Parks and Preserves, a National Forest, a Wild and Scenic River and Oregon State Parks. My personal ethos and actions match my creative output. I’ve written articles and given presentations at the Intertwine Alliance and at the University of Iowa on the importance of Music, Place and Nature. Our public lands are a treasure that requires our care. But going to CitW for a third time? What was I looking for?

On this third adventure, I was still in gleeful awe of the vastness of Alaska’s landscape, the complexity of its geology, and the intricate details of its flora and fauna. Yet subsequent visits to any natural area vary from previous trips — Alaska more so. On each trip, the natural experience changes. 2012 was cold, wet and foggy; in 2017, we hiked in short sleeves. The people who self-select for this experience usually get along – maybe thanks to the weather, this year exceptionally so!

Our scientific experience changes each year, too. While soundscape ecologist Davyd Betchkal works with us each time, the perspective of his information changes – we are privy to his latest research and understanding of the park’s sonic ecosystem. Previous years have also included a biologist and a geologist.

Libby Meyer, Jennifer Wright, Sarah Stehn, Corinna Hogan and Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness.

This year, Sarah Stehn, a botanist, led us on a hike to a high outcropping overlooking the Teklanika River. We examined the tundra, especially the non-vascular plants like moss. Those of us from Oregon perked up. WE know about Moss! Or so we thought. During that hike, I decided that my piece would be about the small plant life of Denali. And I figured out why I came a third time.

Depth and Diversity

The resulting pieces from each of these trips sound incredibly diverse in spite of our experiencing the same hikes, scientific interactions, and similar and/or overlapping instrumentation. After all, the composers who participate in Composing in the Wilderness come from a variety of places, mostly in the U.S. but also from as far as Sweden and South Australia. We possess a wide range of musical experiences and preferences, as well as different worldviews and ways of understanding what landscape means, and what wilderness means — which manifests itself musically in numerous ways.

I participated a third time because I sought depth – depth of understanding of this place more fully, to get past the obvious grandeur to the minute details of the tundra landscape. What appears as a lush green carpet covering the mountains is in reality a mosaic of bushes, flowers, moss and lichen. A square meter could contain 70 different plants upon a permafrost foundation. I sought to create a piece with more depth that matched my understanding of Denali as a place.

Lichens at Denali. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Tundra Tapestry begins beneath the surface with the lowest pitches of the bass clarinet. Adding the alto flute and eventually the violin, the piece features a counterpoint of motives interwoven to represent this diverse plant life. The pitches rise as the flowers and its seeds wave in the wind.

I sought to immerse myself in this seminar and in this landscape to understand, at a greater depth, the world and my place in it and my art, which emanates via sound waves. Musically, unlike the first year, I believe my piece succeeded both conceptually and in connection with the audience. While still fuzzy, my musical direction is clearer.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work.

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