Composing in the Wilderness 2: on distant hills

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

by BRENT LAWRENCE

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, then over the next few days, compose new works premiered in Denali National Park and at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Here’s Brent Lawrence‘s account. Read Rusnak’s report here and Wright’s next week.

Brent Lawrence, Christian Dubeau, Libby Meyer, Jesse Budel, Aaron Keyt, Christina Rusnak, Sarah Stehn, Dawn Sonntag, Corinna Hogan and Jennifer Wright at 2017 Composing in the Wilderness.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that three Oregonians happened to participate in this year’s workshop. In fact, I chose to participate in Composing in the Wilderness at the recommendation of three other Oregon composers that had been in years prior.

I’ll admit that I’m a pretty new to Oregon; I’ve only lived here a year. But one of the things I love about this state is the deep connection people have with the outdoors, our public lands, and the existence of wildernesses. Don’t get me wrong, Alaska is impressive no matter who you are, but from my view, as a new Oregonian, this trip gave me a lot of perspective on why people feel so connected to the wilderness. True wilderness, not something I experienced growing up on the east coast, where there are less protected areas.

Brent Lawrence at Composing in the Wilderness.

People seek out wilderness for a variety of reasons. Being a musician, I’m always interested in how things sound. What I found most striking is the silence. Upon moving to Oregon, the first time I got out of the car near the McKenzie Pass, I was shocked at the quiet—and also realized how noisy daily life is.
I found the experience in Alaska to be similar. Although this wasn’t my first wilderness experience, it was my first time traveling to Alaska. But as we spent more time in the wilderness, the silence began to fade. Not because of outside noise like planes, cars, or even voices. But because the wilderness invites you to listen. The wilderness is alive with an entire system of plants and animals that all breathe and exist together. It isn’t a busy sound, like a city. Rather, it’s layered, yet intricate and subtle, and composed into perfect polyphony.

Scale and Perspective

While we were composing our pieces, I was bothered that I didn’t have a specific inspiration in mind. There were almost too many inspiring things to write about, but I felt I wanted to try and capture the essence of my Alaskan experience. The piece I wrote, On Distant Hills, was mostly a reflection on the vastness of Denali, how small it makes me feel, and the innate desire I feel to climb every single mountain I see.

But it was also a reflection on scale and perspective—which got me thinking about the Pale Blue Dot, a picture taken by Voyager I as it left the solar system. The Earth in this photo is only shown as a tiny pixel in the corner.

Then, I was thinking about the lichen on the ground and the decades they spend crawling, inching, over a single fallen tree. If the Earth is a speck in the distance, then a lichen is a speck within a speck within a speck. But it’s always there, just waiting for someone to look down and notice it exists.

After experiencing the Alaskan wilderness, I better understand the depth is the landscape. It’s easy to interpret these places as trite, artistic scenes—as if one had wandered into a Bob Ross painting. Taking this view, however, is a disservice to this land that begs us to look more closely — to understand that for each exponentially large mountain, there is an equally small lichen or insect. It begs to listen deeply, to absorb everything at once, then carefully, peel back the layers of sound, and examine each source, like a stream, or the birds, a cricket, or your own breath.

Most important, just stop, take a look around. Notice how small the mountains make you feel. Look towards the ground and “Hi” to your lichen friend. And then let your mind be blown about how enormous and beautiful the universe is.

Brent Lawrence is a composer and guitarist native to Salem, Virginia. As a creator of both instrumental and vocal works, he is noted for his use of lush harmonies, earworm melodies, and genre–bending compositional style. Recent activity has included premiers by soprano Estelí Gomez; clarinetist James Shields; and participation in the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Brent released his first guitar-song cycle, Songs About a Move, in August 2017.

Listen to Portland composer Justin Ralls‘s Aeolian Music, written during the 2012 CitW.


Eugene composer Paul Safar wrote Refugium at the 2016 Composing in the Wilderness.

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