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!
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.
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.
Have you seen Cassie To’s works in our Digital Music Store? Click here to support and perform her compositions.
Auras 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.