stephen lias

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.

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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?

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