Tag: composer residences

Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness

Hikers in a foggy mountain range

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.

Map of Alaska


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.

“Composing in the Wilderness is not a class or a workshop, but a shared wilderness experience.” – Stephen Lias

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 feel more focused in my life. My experience with CiTW has given me a confidence and sense of determination/ direction that I haven’t had before.” – Jordan Stevenson

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.”

Listening at the river

Photo by Christina Rusnak

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.


Photo by Christina Rusnak

“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

Natural Resources

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.”


Photo by Angus Davison

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

“I haven’t traveled much, and only within Europe, so I was shocked by how different both the wildlife in Denali and the culture in Fairbanks were to what I’m used to. It really was a little like walking on another planet when all the grass was different, all the trees were different, and the Sun was a different color in the smoke.” – Luciano Williamson

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.

Composing in the Wilderness

Photo by Angus Davison

A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness

  1. Minimize your interaction with technology.
  2. Find a friend to adventure with you.
  3. 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.).
  4. If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
  5. Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
  6. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
  7. If you are tired, take a nap!
  8. Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.

Reading List

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.”

Watching TV at Copland House

Copland's desk

The Desk of Copland! The Living Room of Copland!

I don’t know why Copland House has cable. Some residencies don’t even have internet access, let alone 200 channels. But Copland House did, and so while I was there, I watched TV.

At the time, I didn’t know why I was spending my time at this coveted, greatly anticipated residency watching television. I woke up every morning delighted to be there. I read Copland’s autobiography. I spent time studying Copland’s scores in tandem with the ample CD collection at the house, pouring over his work daily. It’s hard to sit at Copland’s desk without thinking: I am sitting at Copland’s Desk! The Desk of Copland! The whole house feels that way: I am in the Living Room of Copland! The Kitchen of Copland! I am doing laundry in Aaron Copland’s Basement!

When I did sit down to compose my own music, though, I got more frustrated than I’ve ever been with my own ability to create—or not create—music. My thoughts churned rapidly into a downward spiral of “Why am I even here?” “I’m wasting Copland House’s time and money.” “I don’t deserve to be here.” “I’m a terrible composer.” “I’m probably the worst composer they’ve ever let into this residency.” More than once, I imagined the scowling ghost of Aaron Copland wondering who’d let me into the house.

I don’t know why these feelings chose this particular time and residency to emerge. It didn’t help, I suppose, that even at the beginning of April, the woods surrounding the house were completely barren; the view from the composing studio was absolutely striking, but also a monotony of brown. One morning—in April—it snowed.

I’d experienced writer’s block at my last residency, but never to this paralyzing degree, where I immediately rejected everything I wrote as trite and terrible. So I walked away from the piano, from Copland’s Desk, to Copland’s Living Room. I walked away from composing, and I watched TV.

I watched the season premiere of Game of Thrones. I watched the series premiere of Silicon Valley. One night, I re-watched Can’t Hardly Wait, which I realized has an irrationally high percentage of actor-overlap with the cast of Six Feet Under. While eating lunch, sometimes I’d watch E!’s noontime reruns of Sex and the City. There may be no greater way to make yourself feel like a bad composer—the worst composer, really—than watching the fluffiest of all fluffy shows in the house of one of the Great American Composers while being paid, essentially, to live there and compose.

I was composing, too, for long stretches of time, but I hated everything I wrote. Somehow, this particular residency and this particular piece brought up every insecurity I’d flirted with in the past. I spent my days careening between total giddiness at my surroundings (Copland’s Desk! Copland’s Porch! Copland’s Basement! Copland’s Music! Copland’s Autobiography!) and the worst composing insecurity I’d ever experienced. Halfway through the residency, something had to change: I couldn’t spend the entire residency rejecting everything I wrote before I even set it to paper. I settled into a routine, and that routine revolved around two things:

1) Compose.

2) Feel good about composing, by any means necessary.

I’d wake up; I’d study two or three Copland scores; I’d eat breakfast; I’d read Copland’s autobiography. I’d compose something, anything, and gradually, I stopped judging what I wrote. I’d go for a walk. Sometimes I’d compose more.

In the evening, if I felt like I’d had a productive day, I’d watch TV. I told myself that Copland, who mostly composed at night and enjoyed having friends over to his house during the day, wouldn’t have minded my taking a break as a reward for getting through the day, for sitting at the piano for hours and getting the notes down. Was the music I was writing good? Maybe, maybe not. But I got something down every day, and that became all that mattered.

Near the end of the residency, I stumbled on a Patti Lupone masterclass on HBO. Patti was teaching several high school students; at one point, she tells one of them, “Failure is the only thing that teaches, success does not. Success limits you because you try to repeat your success.” I wrote it down. I felt like I’d spent the previous two weeks failing at composing.

I’ve established a few things that I do consistently at artist residencies, but not necessarily in my ordinary life: I go for long walks. I read books I’ve been meaning to read for months but have put off, or new books I’ve gotten just for the residency. And yes, if it’s there, I will watch TV. (I recently applied to a residency that doesn’t even allow cell phones, which would obviously offer a very different experience.)

I have to believe that taking breaks helps to feed the art. Everything that’s not composing, everything that offers rest—journaling, reading, a walk, even Game of Thrones—is important, maybe even necessary to the process. One feeds the other. Failure feeds success. Self-doubt makes, sometimes, for a stronger resolution, when one returns to the piano, or to Copland’s Desk, to get the notes down, without judging them in the process.

So at Copland House, I read Copland’s autobiography daily. I worked my way through almost every one of Copland’s scores. I went for long walks. For the first time, since I don’t have cable at home, I watched a Game of Thrones season premiere when it aired. I hit a double bar on the chamber piece, Footnotes to a History of the Jewelry Box—which I’d continue to edit, but only gently, for months afterward—and started three new choral pieces. Right before I left, the multitude of bright yellow tulips planted around the property came up all at once, just in time for me to return home and find my way forward to another routine.

January: Wyoming and the Open

A wise Irish gentleman once told me that when you travel across a country, what you see is not really a place but a time. I traveled through early 2014 as a composer, and in this four-essay cycle I’d like to tell you about it.
In December 2013 I gave away many of my possessions, moved out of my apartment in Chicago, and set out on the darkest day of the year—abutted in nearly every direction by sleet and snowstorms—to drive to the west.
Driving West
Jon Krakauer once wrote that mountains make poor repositories for dreams. If the same accusation has never been leveled at cities, it is perhaps only because they kill us more slowly. Chicago has for years offered healthy topsoil for my musical exploits and a proving ground for my vagrant aspirations toward domesticity, but I can’t seem to stick around too long at a stretch. I’ve spent each of my recent summers in the west, and fled portions of the winters for artist residencies. The city has a way of pulling me back, though. It’s a Scylla-and-Charybdis situation wherein the open spaces of the west are the beautiful sea goddess that pulls me from my tasks, and the city is the whirlpool of personal and artistic gravity. If there is a middle path, I haven’t found it yet.
This time I had a professional excuse to go west, in the form of a month-long artist residency at the Brush Creek Arts Foundation in southern Wyoming. Just like artists themselves, every residency program has a different way of surviving, and Brush Creek is primarily a fancy guest ranch; most of its patrons arrive by private plane. The artist program is off to the side, well apportioned but still seeming only a charming accessory to the opulence. The main lodge contains a few of the largest antler chandeliers I have ever seen and a library with a leather floor.

A corporate group of about forty from Google visited for a one-week retreat. The rest of the month it was just nine artists and the program’s intrepid director, Sara Schleicher, an accomplished printmaker and University of Wyoming graduate. When Sara accepted the position at Brush Creek she was pictured on the front page of a local newspaper, the Rawlins Daily Times, riding a mule. Her office is a hut formerly used as a smokehouse, tucked amongst the artist studios. The titular creek babbles nearby.
I arrived at the ranch on January 6, in the dark, after a long western drive listening to music. My favorite band these days is a piano trio called The Necks. They live in Sydney, Australia, where since 1987 they have steadily woven sinuous, hushed, hour-long experimental jazz fabrics. It is impossible to avoid textile metaphors with The Necks. I envision them sitting in some enchanted wood, working quietly at three magical spinning wheels all the afternoon long.

This is one of those bands better suited to European musical culture than American. They rarely play in the states, but their seventeenth studio album, Open, released last year, got some press here and made it to my ears in Chicago in December. It was early in the winter and we were just realizing what we might be in for. Chicago gets extremely dark toward the solstice, and for a week or so, after forcing myself out for long early evening walks in the single-digit gloaming, I would hide under a blanket and listen to Open. When it ended, I hit play again. A path began to unfold.

On the drive to Brush Creek I listened to Open again and heard the music I would write during the residency. Strictly speaking, I “heard” only the first bar, but more pressingly I caught a feeling and saw an emerging process. I wanted my music, like Open, to be as moored and methodical as it was exploratory, aspirational, and free.

Life at Brush Creek was quiet, snowy, steady. We worked in the morning, walked or went cross-country skiing or kept working in the afternoon, gathered for a drink and dinner and conversation, and then usually went back to work in the evening. Visual artists seem the most nocturnal by type. I found myself unusually a morning person at Brush Creek, rising at dawn. My only superior in matutinal discipline was Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a recent near-Oprah’s-book-club-level literary success. Heidi was close to finishing the (her words) “shitty first draft” of her second novel. Upon arrival she gave herself two days to acclimate, not working at all, and then worked with complete assiduousness for about three weeks. The last week she lifted the pedal from the floor a bit and started telling stories. Heidi is a former attorney, journalist, and actor who once made her living traveling to NBA and NFL rookie camps, performing in skits and teaching life skills to the newly minted professional athletes. She said she knew it was time to move on when her role in the barbecue scene progressed from The New Girlfriend to The Baby-Mama to, finally, just Momma.

My closest friend at Brush Creek was Amy Bonnaffons, a fiction writer, teacher, and increasingly reluctant New Yorker. We groused about our love lives and spent a number of afternoons loafing at the glorious community hot springs in nearby Saratoga. At night we sometimes sang folk songs, picking out the harmony lines of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings tunes.
There is a full Welch-Rawlings concert on YouTube that I consider mandatory. One of the YouTube commenters called it “pure minimalist music, clean, pure, like drinking from a cold spring on a hot summer’s day.” Isn’t it fascinating, the range of musics that have garnered the adjective “minimal” in recent decades? This music isn’t structurally minimalistic, but I’m willing to lob the m-word at its lack of frills, its lack of production, its lack of pretense to contemporary “relevance.” It is melody, harmony, lyric. It feels unadorned, direct, cooled close to absolute zero that it spins so slowly you can see every side of it. And there is simply something trancelike in that performance of “Elvis Presley Blues.”

A day or two before Amy left, we drove to a nearby settlement called, illustratively, Encampment, for the town’s winter carnival. We had read about the carnival in a local events bulletin, the evocatively titled Sno-Rag, and had been anticipating it for some time. When we arrived in Encampment (pop. 443), we saw no signs of a festival—in fact, we saw little that indicated any sort of human presence. In the otherwise empty post office parking lot, a tireless car sat on cinder blocks. On the ground nearby was a lone flathead screwdriver.
A few minutes later we found the festival, such as it was, up by the church. We had missed the chili cook-off, and activity had proceeded to about a dozen kids sledding with a handful of adults spectating. Encampment feels, is, on the edge of something—or better yet, on the edge of nothing at all. One downtown corner had been set aside for an ice sculpture competition, with a dozen piles of frozen snow prepared for art-making, but there was only one entrant: a ten-year-old girl, working with intense focus as her father looked on from his vehicle. “You should’ve seen what she did last year,” the carnival organizer said quietly. “It was amazing.”
We stopped at a combination coffee shop/antique store with carpet and wallpaper direct from a 1980s church basement. A few kids hung about as the proprietor made me a fine cup of coffee from beans roasted by Carmelite monks in northern Wyoming. “This summer I’m going to do horchatas,” she told us. You can see the edge of Encampment from everywhere in Encampment, so you never forget the open space that lurks just on the other side of that last line of houses.

On the way back to Brush Creek we stopped at the Whistle Pig Saloon outside Saratoga, famous for its karaoke nights. Like all Saratoga businesses, it has interior walls lined with hunting trophies. (At the grocery store, two bears guard the produce coolers.) A sign on the Whistle Pig’s front door boasts a $5 deal for bottomless Pabst Blue Ribbon. I have related this detail in hushed tones to a number of my urban musician friends.
Whistle Pig Saloon
I didn’t work compulsively at Brush Creek. I worked patiently and steadily. Everyone responds to these experiences differently, and when I went to my first artist residencies I was terrible at it, because I pushed myself so hard and set the stakes so crushingly high. I’ve learned recently to simplify the process:

(1) Start right. Get up early. Start at the same time every day, in the same way every day. It doesn’t take years of discipline to feel the positive effects of a creative routine.
(2) Stop right. Set a reasonable goal for the day, meet it, and then quit. I don’t allow myself to write more than I set out to in a given day. I prefer to stop when I still have some juice, when there are still some ideas in the pencil. I trust that they’ll still be there in the morning, and that I’ll be back, on time, to write them down. There is power in this.

Brush Creek’s community outreach comes in the form of a monthly presentation in Saratoga, and about three weeks into the residency we drove to town to share our work. Our audience turned out to be a Boys and Girls Club after-school group, about twenty grade-school kids with a smattering of adults. I played a couple songs; Amy read a story she had to redact on the spot to avoid (her words) the weird sex and dead dogs. The visual artists showed their work. Susan Mulder had never painted animals before, but at Brush Creek she depicted majestic horses in starkly beautiful black house paint. Meanwhile, photographer Lucy Capehart was creating a series of cyanotypes of her late mother’s old dresses. They’re breathtaking and seem to be in motion, these haunted floating dresses set against bottomless fields of deep, deep blue.

The group had begun this residency quiet, as they do, but by that night after the presentation we were drinking beer and playing rollicking surrealist word games. We go to these places to start over in a sense, to introduce ourselves to people who have never met us before, to reconstitute our ideas surrounding who we are and what our work is. We can teach each other things, by sharing not just our art but the ways in which we have shaped our artistic lives. We give each other a gift by taking each other, and each other’s work, seriously.

A lot of the artists I meet at these residencies are on breaks from full-time teaching. I’m thinking of a brilliant if somewhat bilious piano teacher who once told me that teaching is a process of justifying one’s own instincts. I wonder if, by removing myself from academia and from the whole teaching racket in a period of personal growth, I’ve been able to sharpen mine—to develop my instincts more slowly and idiosyncratically, step by brooding step, having no one to justify them to, having no one in a position of artistic or professional authority regularly justifying their own instincts all over my sometimes shapeless early efforts.
I hope so. The tradeoff has been a craggy half-decade marked by bouts of intensity and periods of relative inactivity. Musical academia does provide a steady flow of activity, or “activity,” depending on one’s mood. But maybe the inactivity too has its benefits. “It’s a beautiful thing to be left alone until you’re forty,” Philip Glass once told a room full of composition students.
I wrote expansive music at Brush Creek because Brush Creek made me feel there was space enough for such music. When I walked up on the ridges in the afternoon, I saw no one for miles around. Returning at dusk, the sky would ignite purple and orange, and for a moment the snow luminesced a dark blue. I couldn’t have written a quiet, 35-minute piece called Open in Chicago.
Sunset - Brush creek, Wyoming
At the end of the month I drove up the divide to Montana. It was the last day of January and bizarrely mild and dry around Wyoming. Sunlight glowed from red rocks and distant ridges. I stopped in Thermopolis, where the Hot Springs State Park features a “state bathhouse” that looks like a highway rest stop and offers free soaking in the mineral pools… but only for twenty minutes. There is the new-age idea that different places have different vibrations, and you might notice in a given place that your personal vibration is either in phase with the local vibration, or it is not. I feel electrically, magnetically comfortable in the mountain west. Sometimes you’re in a high valley and there are mountains set against the sky, marking the distance between you and the horizon. These open spaces feed something in me—or perhaps that isn’t quite right. Perhaps they actually inflame a certain hunger. Really they don’t satisfy me, not at all. They make me want more life, and they make me want to write music.
Wyoming's open spaces
Back on the road I listened to a CD Amy made for me. Have you heard “Captain Saint Lucifer” by Laura Nyro? What a wild performance. How about Kate Wolf’s magisterial “Across the Great Divide?” It’s a perfect little song, and the only one for such a road trip.
“It’s gone away to yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide.”
I find myself on the mountainside, and I feel like I have two choices: east or west. But maybe I don’t. Maybe, like the raindrops that flow to the rivers that flow to the oceans, my destination has always been set.
Brush Creek, Wyoming


Luke Gullickson
Luke Gullickson is a nomadic composer and singer-songwriter of musical folk puzzles and maps. His projects include surrealist folk trio Grant Wallace Band, whose unique sound the New York Times described as “spidery original bluegrass”. Luke has been artist-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ucross Foundation, Joshua Tree National Park, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Banff Centre. Luke holds music degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Illinois Wesleyan University. He has also worked as a theater music director in Colorado and as a wilderness guide in New Mexico.

David T. Little Named 4th Composer in Residence at Opera Philadelphia

David T. Little

David T. Little (Photo by Merri Cyr, courtesy DotDotDotMusic)

Opera Philadelphia, in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group in New York, has announced that composer David T. Little has been selected as its fourth composer in residence. Funded by a $1.7 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program fosters new American opera through personalized creative development and intensive, hands-on composition opportunities. The composer in residence position combines its individualized plan of study with a living stipend and health benefits. Little was chosen from among more than 100 applicants for the position and now has the opportunity to follow a personalized development track focused on the advancement of his skills as an operatic composer. Little will begin his appointment on June 1, 2014. He joins composers in residence Missy Mazzoli (who was appointed in September 2012), Andrew Norman (appointed in September 2013), and Lembit Beecher (who was the first composer appointed to the program in September 2011).

“I stumbled backwards into opera,” said Little. “I have learned almost entirely by doing, writing pieces like Dog Days, Soldier Songs, and Vinkensport by following my instincts. These projects excited me to explore the vast potentials of opera in the 21st century.  I am looking forward to working with and within these three terrific companies to explore all that opera can be.
“David T. Little is a true 21st century composer with a unique voice. We were immediately taken with his musical insight, melodic textures, and unorthodox operatic structure,” said David B. Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia.
Diane Wondisford, producing director of Music-Theatre Group, added,  “David T. Little’s writing for the music theatre already demands and ultimately commands our attention. I am very excited to accompany him on this three-year journey in the opera world.”

Little recently completed two songs from Artaud in the Black Lodge (a theatre work in progress for tenor and chamber ensemble, commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects) for the 21C Liederabend at BAM. A new production of Soldier Songs with film by Bill Morrison premieres this weekend in Washington, D.C., and will make its international debut on the Holland Festival next month. He is currently working on a new opera about the last day of John F. Kennedy’s life, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, commissioned by the Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater to premiere in 2016. He was mostly recently awarded a commission from The Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater as part of their new works program.

More about the 4 Opera Philadelphia Composers in Residence on NewMusicBox:

  • Click here to watch a April 2011 NewMusicBox feature with David T. Little.
  • Click here to watch a September 2012 Spotlight feature with Lembit Beecher.
  • Click here to watch and read a February 2014 Cover feature with Andrew Norman.
  • Click here for links to all of Missy Mazzoli‘s writings for NewMusicBox.

The other three composers in residence will also continue their creative development this season with Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera, and Music-Theatre Group. Beecher, whose work I Have No Stories to Tell You received its world premiere in February with Gotham Chamber Opera, is working on a studio recording of the opera and returns to Philadelphia in May for a final workshop with Pig Iron Theatre for an opera he is writing about characters with Alzheimer’s disease.

Norman will be back in residency in Philadelphia from May 18-June 8, during which he is observing a workshop for Daniel Schnyder’s new opera Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and rehearsals for the East Coast premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt with Opera Philadelphia and the U.S. Premiere of The Raven by Toshio Hosokawa with Gotham Chamber Opera. He is also taking voice lessons and meeting with composer Jennifer Higdon and librettist Mark Campbell.

Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek are currently writing a chamber opera based on the Lars von Trier’s Oscar-nominated 1996 film Breaking the Waves. They are working with director Stephanie Havey, soprano Ashley Milanese, baritone Sean Michael Plumb, and conductor Teddy Poll on two scenes scheduled to be performed in June during the New Works Sampler at the annual Opera America conference. Mazzoli and Vavrek will also be traveling to Scotland this summer to continue their research and writing of Breaking the Waves.

(—from the press release)