Composing in the Wilderness 3: song of beginnings

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives


Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, who took these photos, 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. Read the first installment, by Christina Rusnak, and the second, by Brent Lawrence.

Composing in the Wilderness is a pressure cooker. The two-week program is a relentless mash-up of Survivor, Iron Chef, and summer band camp. It’s an incredibly odd thing to assemble a meeting of musical minds in the middle of the trackless, windswept wilderness. An unlikely mix of ages, inclinations and backgrounds, we nine composers ranged across the full spectrum of classical art music geekery: innocents, introverts, hipsters, professors, smack-talkers and church mice. The only real requirements were: be fit, and be ready to compose. And implicitly: no whining, not even when tundra mice clamber over your breakfast silverware.

Composers Jennifer Wright, Brent Lawrence and Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

The comedy of errors began as soon as I set foot on Alaskan soil. Experienced hiker though I be, on day one, I bashed my knee wide open on a rock like a rookie. I discovered that my sleeping bag somehow had been packed in a dry bag that my cat had peed in. I spent a king’s ransom on lattes in Fairbanks to self-medicate against epic work sessions fueled by blazing self-doubt.

What on earth was going to come of this? Was I going to be able to make any actual music here? This was not a holiday: we were in the wilds to do serious work. And, in truth, I didn’t know if I had it in me to write a decent piece of chamber music in only four days.

I was the wild card of the group – a professional pianist, yes, but a completely self-taught composer. I like to rip pianos apart and run amplified African mbiras through heavy guitar effects. This was not my forte.

Nor could we prepare in advance – we all picked instrumentation out of a hat when we arrived in Denali. Luckily, the never-setting Alaskan midnight sun filtering into our cabins makes pulling all-nighters at the laptop less grueling (and also encourages

Composers on the march at Composing in the Wilderness 2017. (Jennifer Wright, left.)

But in the wilderness, I felt peace. To set foot in Denali National Park – to breathe in its lonely air and mercurial spirit – is to feel the very breadth of time deep in your bones. It is one of the few places left on earth where the most ancient of songs still ring and a thoughtful hiker may find the stillness to hear them — at least, once the bandages were wrapped tightly and the painkillers kicked in.

Our scientist companions, masterfully interpreting the mysteries of the wilds for us as we trekked where no paths exist, made the backcountry experience artistically transformative. Simply abiding in the vast wilderness would have been a stunning experience in and of itself, but seeing it through the eyes of researchers and their crystalline lens of data made the critical difference. It was a perfect collision of left-brain and right-brain: sparks flew and bit deep.

Everyone involved in CitW had solid soul, from our fearless adventurer-composer-leader Steve Lias, who can connect with anyone, sensitively orchestrate ten complex tasks at once, and make everyone laugh and feel cared for, to the overqualified camp cooks, to the cheerful bush pilots who threw their tiny planes into the sky as easily as I drive to Fred Meyer.

Denali National Park.

Country of the Gods

My jam turned out to be tectonic action: Denali sang to me of massive forces of creation from above and below. Rising where a gigantic tectonic plate comprised of “young” volcanic mountains bends beneath another, more ancient, plane of earth and forces it skyward, the mighty mountains of the Alaskan Range are thrust powerfully upwards while simultaneously being carved down by ice, wind and water. I pondered how these scientific facts might bear relation to the creation myths of the native Athabaskan peoples about their wily Raven figure: the sly shape-shifter, Keeper of Secrets and Shaper of the World.

I was struck to the soul by an unexpected, heartfelt statement that bubbled forth from Denali soundscape ecologist and über-scientist Davyd Betchkal as we hiked side by side in the trackless landscape. “I don’t see any reason,” he exclaimed, “that myth and science could not overlay each other and coexist to describe the magical nature of the wilderness!” That was my spark: for Denali, I would write a magical song of beginnings.

Soundscape ecologist Davyd H. Betchkal with Cascadia Composers Jennifer Wright, Dawn Sonntag and Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

I imagined the gigantic forces of volcanism, subduction, and glaciation as three titans who combine to birth and shape the land. With the breath of the gods, they sing from the void, calling a great work of magic into existence. Their elemental power summons the forces of physics into being, brings form from the scattered particles of space, and creates the mighty landscape in their image – truly, the country of the gods.

So, now to the tricky bit: how do you make a proto-music that could tell such a story? How do you write lyrics that came before language itself? And how the heck could I do it in four days?

Feeling the Wilderness

I filled an entire journal with sketches at a furious pace: wide-open Alaska gave me the space to free-associate in a manner that doesn’t flow the same way at home in urban Portland, Oregon. I was feeling the wilderness: it seemed critical to risk something I’d never considered before, a vision I would never had encountered elsewhere.

So I decided to avoid traditional Western music sounds; I used primarily elemental breath, proto-chanting, hand drumming, and the howling of wild winds. To harness life force, I gave the bass clarinet and alto flute a host of unearthly sounds made by breathing in through the instruments rather than out.

But little did I suspect that composing in the wilds would be riddled with peculiar challenges. Ask any question about Alaska or make any proposal at all, and you’ll get a long pause and the same careful answer every time: It’s complicated.

Jennifer Wright in flight in Alaska at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

I struggled with how to express the deep sonic history embedded in Denali’s magnificent landscape without being too literal about it: incorporating field recordings or crafting melodies that imitated bird songs weren’t going to work for this kind of piece. After an exhaustive search of Fairbanks, I found a gorgeous traditional moose hide frame drum in the native arts area of – it is actually called this – the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which happened to be in town that weekend. Seduced by the drum’s throaty sound, I happily handed over a solid wad of cash to its gentle maker, a native Alaskan named Harold Northway, who described how he patiently bent its birch frame into shape over the open flame of his kitchen stove.

Harold explained that he came from a long line of tribal songmakers. I’m a songmaker, too, I said, of a sort, and I’m using this drum to express my deep appreciation of your remarkable environment. We shared a wonderful moment of conversation and connection and I left energized, tapping my new prize possession with its suede-covered birch beater all afternoon.

Later, it was delicately explained to me that I was teetering on the knife-edge of cultural misappropriation. In the current climate, this could be damning – worse than the time I performed Julius Eastman’s Evil Nigger with three other white pianists, or when I electronically scrambled Trump’s RNC nomination acceptance speech to create an LSD-soaked retelling of the Tristan and Isolde story. Except this time I wasn’t trying to be provocative.

Alaskan Lessons

• Alaskan Lesson #1: Be flexible, girl.

Creative staging aspects are always central to my work, and I had insisted on a specific setup to convey my magical story, which included using the floor as a percussion instrument.

But no, the stage is carpeted, I was told; it won’t work.

Well, jettison that if we must, but I needed the performers to sit on the floor to create a sense of physical connection to the earth they are creating.

Sorry, Jennifer: there’s no raised stage and the sightlines won’t work: we’ll have to sit in chairs. Like normal.

But this is not normal: this is the Creation of the World! The piece is titled From the Darkness, We Sing the Mighty Land Into Being for Pete’s sake!

Some of my favorite passages were the ones wherein I instructed the percussionist to thump reverentially on the wind players’ backs with his hands, activating their held tones a la Bobby McFerrin in his solo days. After the initial rehearsals, I received a message that the festival musicians preferred to avoid this part. Not because they were afraid of being thumped, but because in Alaska, the sinister alter-ego of the endless summer sun – the long, dark winter – can bring alcoholism and domestic violence a little too close to home. So, no hitting people in the music please. Critical parts of my vision were stripped away one by one.

So what, Jennifer? You made a thing, and now reality is going to have its way with it. Get out of your own head, composer. Art is what the audience receives, and that has little to do with you. Let them have it and stop micromanaging. So I did (or tried), and enjoyed the different creature that resulted. Which was part of learning…

• Alaskan Lesson #2: Shut up and listen.

To the beautifully complex humans breathing the same crisp oxygen right next to you. To the gentle rise and fall of the wilderness. To the heartbeat of the new friend whose shoulder you fell asleep on while piled cheek-to-jowl in a van barreling along the night roads. To the soundbath of John Luther Adams’ installation The Place Where You Go To Listen in the Museum of the North, where I swear I felt my skeleton shift within my body of its own accord. To the way people laugh, and share, and speak, or don’t speak, when they are all in it together. To new stirrings inside yourself that you have never heard before. Oh, they’re there, like tectonic activity, always at work whether you perceive them or not. Which brings me to…

• Alaskan Lesson #3: You will not walk away the same person.

I suppose I didn’t really expect this. I showed up at the Fairbanks airport a distracted mess, half expecting to slide through the experience and figure it all out later. CitW did not let me get away with this. I was struck hard by a hundred unlooked-for interactions, by the disarming openness of the Alaskan people, and by the arresting beauty of a hundred small kindnesses I suddenly couldn’t take for granted because I was vulnerable, plucked from my normal habitat. In a time of worldwide uncertainty, this helped me feel more faith in the human race than I have in a long time.

Denali looms over the participants (Jennifer Wright, second from right) in the 2017 Composers in the Wilderness program.

This is CitW’s great gift: in one way or another, it will take you w-a-y out of your comfort zone. It took me by the face with both hands and showed me some things I needed to see. It showed me what I’m capable of, and I surprised myself — after I thought maybe I couldn’t really surprise myself anymore in this life.

I also rudely was slapped in the face with the hard realization that, when you come right down to it, I do not know anything: not one damn, basic thing. At all. But later, I felt deep in my spirit – in a quiet and different way, softly welling up like groundwater seeking its way through the permafrost – that I know everything that is needed, and that the knowing and the not knowing together will create the path forward…both musically, and as a human being on this planet.

There’s no doubt that CitW is one of the best damn things I ever did. It proved to me in a big way that art, like a truly-lived life, is not for sissies; it might just wrench your soul right out of you to make it, but the hole it leaves will fill right up with wonder if you let it.

Jennifer Wright is a keyed instruments performer, composer, educator, event producer, graphic artist, destroyer of pianos, culture-maker and passionate aficionada of the creative life.  Her eclectic compositions combine elements of theatricality, movement, imagery, science, visceral bodily experiences, electronics, storytelling, and adventurous performance contexts. She thrives on vibrant interdisciplinary collaborations. Jennifer is an active member Cascadia Composers and is co-founder of the intrepid female composer/performer trio Burn After Listening.
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