Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness
Composing in the Wilderness takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.
I moved to Phoenix in 2008 to start my master’s degree in music composition. Almost every year since then, I have made it a mission to escape the heat at least once during the summer. I have made these efforts in spite of my financial situation and—although I am ashamed to admit it—in spite of my relationships. This year, 2019, has been my “year of doing less”—so far a grand and failed effort to take stock of what I have, get to know my Phoenix-based friends and musical companions better, and dig a little deeper into what it means for me to have a very full day job and do music “on the side.” To alleviate my annual wanderlust, I applied to Composing in the Wilderness, a program founded, built, and coordinated by composer/adventurer Stephen Lias. CiTW takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.
I was woefully unprepared.
Before I left, I described Composing in the Wilderness as this:
It’s a program where you hike during the day in Denali National Park in Alaska, then after a few days of outdoor observation, you are thrown into a cabin to write some music, then you get a performance. Pretty cool, right?
I knew we would be interacting with scientists and park rangers, but I had no concept of the scope of that interaction. It is a similar situation to people who come to Phoenix and decide to hike Camelback Mountain in the summer, thinking it will be an easy climb. From a distance, it looks like a good day hike, but if you are not familiar with your new relationship with the sun here, it is a far different experience than expected.
While my casual summary is technically correct—the CiTW experience is hiking in Denali for four days, composing in cabins for four days, then rehearsals and performances in Fairbanks and Denali with Corvus, the new music ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival—it is not what I expected. When I arrived at our campsite and saw the diversity of our group and the intense knowledge of our leader Christina Rusnak and Alaska Geographic educator Suan Adams, I knew that my usual trajectory and internal compass for being in a group of composers for an extended period of time would no longer work.
Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?
A: “The creativity of exploration and motion. The incredible calm and sharpness found in wilderness. The fuzzy joy feels of humans.” – Andy Israelsen
Observation and Reevaluation
I have been to a number of summer music festivals and experiences. My plan was to keep my engagement to a minimum so I could have my quiet and my solitude. My much deserved respite in nature from screen time and nonprofit administration. How I thought this would be feasible with nine other composers (eight participants plus our Christina Rusnak) is a mystery in hindsight. I came with prejudgements about the loose factions that would form based on who took what too seriously.
At first, I tried to experience Alaska in the way that I thought I had earned. I was quickly plucked from my ego and reminded that the earth does not belong to me, it is not here for my pleasure or artistic exploitation, and taking joy in discovery is far more fun than worrying about my musical knowledge and professional trajectory seeming more noble or interesting than another’s.
When I challenge why I would come in with such childish assumptions, I know it was out of fear that I would not belong or be taken seriously. I am now on the older side of the typical summer music experience participant and I want to say it doesn’t affect me, but that would not be the truth. As the group skirted around icebreakers and “where are you from?”-s, the flow of my attitude began to echo that of Anchorage-based composer Andy Israelsen, who on our last night claimed “I came for solitude, but instead I found family.”
Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?
A: “Value of unplugged time, connection with the real—people, community, people, what lies under the superficial.” —Margery Smith
Connection to the Landscape
Regardless of the connotations “landscape” holds for you, it is a larger picture or format that has the potential to reveal multitudes if you take the time to observe. The scientists, Alaska Geographic employees, and park interpreters—who very literally led us into the wilderness and peeled back the layers—allowed us to make connections to scale, sound, and history outside of the scope of music. It was entirely up to us to make our own, very personal connections to the stream of information given to our group.
Most of us honed in on the scale of the landscape (be it cricket-sized or Denali-sized) and the visual and physical limitations the wildfire smoke had on our relationship to the wilderness. I realized that I was doing myself yet another disservice by not appreciating the bug flying past my ears and the grass tickling my wrists. Every small moving part is more essential to the whole than I ever knew. Davyd Bechtkal, a leading soundscape specialist for the National Park Service, opened our ears to the physical limitations scale and landscapes place on natural sounds and the way we experience them. Listening intently to the landscape around me gave me a better understanding of how small my role in the world is, but also how to find empowerment and joy in that role, regardless of scale.
“NYC is a place where you don’t hang out so much. You just go and do stuff, then go and do different stuff with different people, or just hang out at home waiting for the next ‘go and do stuff’ moment. CiTW was a small compact society. We were thrust onto each other but united in orientation—we’ve all had fairly deep relationships to making music. It was fun to share the personal aspects of that to see where it matched others.” – Skip LaPlante
At the end of a 24-hour Alaskan summer day, the people I met and the friendships that were forged were the most impressive resources I found. If you look back on the history of Composing in the Wilderness, you will notice a significant age range in the participants. I could have simply watched Skip LaPlante give a lecture on his repurposed musical instruments crafted in a loft in the Bowery or read an article by Christina Rusnak in an IAWM publication, but the knowledge gained would be superficial compared to having these individuals and eight other composers from separate walks of life in a space together, not distracted by technology or schedules, swapping stories.
Without this specific wilderness/composer experience, I know I would have remained very unaware of the life and career opportunities that lay bubbling in our national and state park systems. Although I’m a good 30 years younger than Skip, I fully agree with his sentiment: “I didn’t know there was such a webwork of composer residencies in wild places. … I think I’ve discovered a new society to be part of and have to work out how deeply to participate.”
Continuing the Climb
“[H]aving the experience of being out in the field as we were, with such expert guidance interpreting what we encountered, and—more importantly—contextualizing them within the larger picture of the landscape of Alaska raised my consciousness of the interdependence of natural life, from very small to very large scale, to a level which I have never before had.” —Andrew Simpson
Without a doubt, the experience transformed me personally and will have lasting impact on my personal life and career. And I can only assume that when founder Stephen Lias came to Denali for the first time and began to formulate what would become Composing in the Wilderness, he knew exactly how transformative such and experience would be.
Before leaving for Alaska, I kept insisting to my co-workers that I was not going on vacation. Again, a true statement, but one that turned false after my experience. My sentiment was “I am not going to have time to relax, I am going to be working very hard while I’m gone. I am not going on a cruise.” Yes, I worked hard, we all did. But I found the things that a vacation allegedly brings: mental relaxation, reflection, and unforgettable new experiences. I came back refreshed. I came back not bugged by small things. The world is so big and people are so different, it doesn’t make sense to get caught up in the minutiae. We are human and it will still happen, but I find it easier to pull back and see the true scale of something. I feel more satisfied with what I have and am more ready to allow events to happen in their own time.
A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness
- Minimize your interaction with technology.
- Find a friend to adventure with you.
- Select at least two new places in nature (as your available time frame and resources allow) to visit. A public park, a plant nursery, a different neighborhood, a botanical garden, etc.).
- If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
- Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
- Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
- If you are tired, take a nap!
- Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.
Andrew Simpson: Silence by John Cage
Particularly on that first full day in the field, as we were taking our meditative time, I kept coming back to his essay on silence, and how he says that you can never find true silence anywhere in the world: there is always sound of some kind. In a place which is so quiet, I found myself thinking about that boundary between sound and silence, and becoming more attuned to the sounds which were there—the wind traveling through the spruces (coming from a long way off somewhere to my left, then crossing the place where I sat, and then continuing onward and out of hearing to my right)—the occasional bird, and such. That wind moment eventually made its way into my piece, but the experience of being in such a quiet place and feeling its weight, punctuated by sound, made each sound more special and noticeable.
Christina Rusnak: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
[A book] that has to do with a way of “seeing” is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As we spoke about the indigenous Alaskans’ tie to the landscape, this one kept coming up in my mind.
Jason Gibson: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
It’s a concentration camp survival story that focuses on the psychology of those in the [Nazi] camps. It sticks out to me because I found myself searching for meaning and legitimacy during the entire experience.
Margery Smith: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer
This was one of Davyd Bechtkal’s books that I found very interesting and made me think [I can] still hear those crunchy chips from Denali lunch breaks!
Andrew Israelsen: Silence and Walking by Erlin Klagge
Silence was written after a solo walking trek to the South pole. The book is hardly about Antarctica, rather it is a winding journey on mindfulness and a wide variety of ruminations on silence. Walking has a fantastic narrative arc as Kagge explores poetry, philosophy, and personal experiences.
Skip LaPlante: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schaefer and Walden by Henry David Thoreau
The first is about the sonic environment in general, really understanding what you are hearing and the second is about observing and drinking in detail.
Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
This is a sci-fi novel that addresses how language and views of the land and gender affect culture. It focuses on a visitor to a cold, ice-filled planet who is unable to grasp the slow pace of the people and lack of technological advancement. The visitor misses the technology they do have because it does not look like the technology he is used to. This scenario echoed with me as we learned more about how Western cultures have viewed and related to the Athabaskan, the indigenous people of Alaska.
Luciano Williamson: Musicage by Joan Retallack
It’s a collection of interviews with John Cage at the very end of his life, talking about words, art, and music, after being John Cage for a lifetime.
Jordan Stevenson: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
“…to get you in the spirit of adventure.”