Photoblog: Composing in the Alaskan wilderness

Snapshots from Cassie To and David John Lang



In July this year, nine composers from around the world gathered in central Alaska for two weeks of hiking up mountains, squelching through moss, pointing at moose, braving mosquitoes…and finally, scribbling on manuscript paper. This was Composing in the Wilderness!

Stephen Lias, a composer-adventurer from Texas, has run this course for the past five years. Alaska is a place of incredible natural beauty, and this course offers a chance for composers to be immersed in a special place, and to discover the music that can come out of it.

This year, two of the participants were Australians: Cassie To (Sydney) and I, David John Lang (Adelaide). The others included a Cuban-Canadian, a New Zealander, and five composers from the ‘Lower 48’ United States. We’d never met before, but over the next two weeks we all got to know each other pretty well. It’s the best way to make new friends: eating together, hiking together, sleeping in remote cabins and going without a shower for five days!

The first part of the trip was spent in the wilderness of Denali National Park, home to North America’s tallest mountain, magnificent views, and lots of bears, moose and caribou. We went hiking in sunshine and rain (and even hail), accompanied by naturalists and scientists from the National Parks Service. We walked in alpine meadows full of wildflowers, through tundra thick with moss, along noisy braided rivers coming down from glaciers, and into forests of pointy spruce trees. We had manuscript paper to jot down ideas, but mostly this part of the adventure was all about soaking up as much inspiration as we could.

The second part of the trip was spent in cabins at Coal Creek in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve – a place so remote, we could only get there by bush plane. This was our composing time. In between panning for gold, chopping firewood and swatting away mosquitoes, we had three days to compose a six-minute piece for a chamber ensemble.

Finally, we rejoined civilisation in Fairbanks. Four musicians (Corvus ensemble) spent three days learning our nine new compositions, while we got to explore the shops and museums of this wonderful town. And then it was time for not one, but two premieres: one in a concert hall as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, and the other in the visitor centre at Denali National Park, right next to the wilderness that had inspired us.

We’re not the first Australians to have done this course – and we’re sure we won’t be the last!

– David

Cassie To lives in Sydney, where she has just finished her Bachelor of Music with Honours (composition) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She is composing a piece for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of their Cybec 21st Century Composer program. Check out these snaps of her Alaskan experience.

Denali! Humongous and awe inspiring. We were really lucky to be able to see the peak on our first hike! Little did we know that in a few hours it was going to hail.


Our camp in Denali was located next to the Teklenika River. The sound of water running was constant at camp.


While in Denali we were taken on guided hikes by the Parks Naturalists and Scientists. We had the incredible Davyd Betchkal, Sara Stehn and Nan Eagleson, who shared with us their in sightful knowledge. Davyd was able to share with us his amazing work as a Soundscape specialist, which was particularly interesting as a composer. Sara shared with us the fascinating micro worlds of the tundra, which become the inspiration for my piece Little Cosmos. Nan shared with us so many stories, knowledge and experience. It was really sad to say goodbye to everyone.


During the hikes we were given time just to absorb the scenery, and if we felt inclined, jot down some ideas and thoughts. It felt like we had all the time in the world looking out onto the vast mountain ranges.


We got flown from Fairbanks to the historic Coal Creek (camp located in the Yukon Charley Reserve where we were staying) via Bush Plane. That in itself was a very ‘Alaskan’ experience. Twelve seats on the plane and a pebbled runway for landing.


The group at Coal Creek. One of the highlights of this adventure was getting to meet all these different composers from all over the world. Not only were the composers great, but also all the park staff and rangers who helped make this adventure possible! We all became great friends by the end of the trip and I couldn’t have asked for a more awesome bunch of people to get to know.
David John Lang lives in Adelaide, where he is studying a PhD in Music Composition. He has recently composed several pieces for the Adelaide Wind Orchestra. David talks us through the picturesque experiences to follow.
David and Cassie looking out over the magnificent Alaska Range. Photo: Stephen Lias.


Corvus Ensemble, who premiered the nine new Alaska-inspired compositions, at the end of the concert in Fairbanks. Image supplied.


Forget-me-nots, the State Flower of Alaska. We will never forget our Alaskan adventure! (Image supplied)


Our first hike in Denali National Park started in glorious sunshine…and ended with a thunderstorm, rain and hail! Image: David John Lang.


During the summer, it never gets dark! This is the Teklanika River at 2:30am – the inspiration for David’s composition Teklanika Twilight.


Sunset over the mighty Yukon River. Image: Gemma Peacocke
Have you seen Cassie To’s works in our Digital Music Store? Click here to support and perform her compositions.
Cassie ToAuras I & II. Cassie To, 2013. Score and parts for string quartet. From the composer: “Concepts of an individual’s aura can be found in many different religions and spiritual beliefs and are generally associated with notions of a spiritual field of luminous radiation that surrounds an individual, reflecting their personality traits, thoughts and feelings. Auras, composed for string quartet, sonically explore these notions through two distinct movements”.

All images by Cassie To unless labelled otherwise.
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