Composing a Twenty-First Century Wilderness


In the summer of 2012, nestled in the central Alaskan wilderness of Denali National Park, nine composers participated in the first ever “Composing in the Wilderness” seminar. Sponsored by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Alaska Geographic, and the Park Service, these nine composers, from all over the world, signed up for the most unique of musical pilgrimages into wilderness. Nothing quite like this had ever been organized before. Nine strangers in a strange land, doing what composers do best; encountering the unknown. I was one of them.

I stepped off the airplane in Fairbanks in late July at almost one o’clock in the morning, which was nearly dusk. Stephen Lias, the self-professed adventure-composer project leader met me at the airport. He held up a sign “Composing in the Wilderness,” and upon seeing my backpack, hiking boots and wild hair told me he knew right away who I was. “Wilderness composers” stand out he said, at least in airports. Twenty-four hours later we were being given our “bear talk” at the small Teklanika field camp in the middle of the park.

Stephen Lias had been spending a lot of time in Alaska. Before joining us in Denali he had been dropped off by helicopter in Wrangles-St. Elias National Park, making a descent done only by one other person: the pilot who dropped him off. After Denali he was heading up to Gates of the Artic National Park as Composer-in-Residence, where he was scheduled to follow the caribou migration. For him wilderness and inspiration were inseparable, and with the help of a few others, he organized this seminar in the hopes of making this connection contagious.

On the drive to Denali we were given our briefing: we would spend four days camping, hiking, and composing (the “old fashioned” way with pencil and manuscript paper) then head back to Fairbanks to prepare our music for two days of rehearsals with musicians of the Fairbanks Summers Arts Festival Orchestra and a concert of our (short) chamber works.  From muse to musical performance in less than a week is zealous in any circumstance let alone a National Park. “Composers boot camp” as Steve liked to call it. Ambitious or just insane, we were certainly bound for a wild ride.


Music inspired by nature is not new but one of the oldest human traditions. The first instruments, flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory found in cave sites along the hillsides of the Danube River valley are at least 42,000 years old—when the first modern humans first moved into Europe from Africa. Many indigenous musical traditions from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego frequently reference sounds and experiences in the natural world in their musical traditions. The Koyukon people of central Alaska claim to receive their songs from the birds; songbirds and the loon especially. For the Bayaka of New Guinea natural sound and a relationship with birds and the environment is an inseparable aspect of their entire culture. Emerging from the Pleistocene, our intrinsic need to hear relationships between sounds was likely stimulated by our sonic environments where we camped and hunted; the voices of the forests, plains, tundra, deserts, and coasts, seeding our imaginations. Though the origins of music may be as enigmatic as our own, what we do know is cultures grew out of direct communal experience with the natural world. As Barry Lopez writes “landscape is the culture that contains all human culture.” A wilderness experience before it existed at all; when it was simply a sonic and sensual home.

A little further down the line Western classical or “art” music has frequently taken cues from the natural world; waters, winds, seasons, and especially birds highlighting our musical relationship with nature. Re-evaluating this relationship in contemporary terms for me turned out to be just as arduous as the cross-country hikes up steep moraines, land sculpted by ice millennia before humans likely had any conceptions about “High Art.” Over the last few years I’ve made a pact with myself. If I had to live in cities, our cultural institutions of support and myriad human synergy, I would spend every free moment, afternoon, or week I had in nature—in the synergy of non-human forces. The more I found myself combining these endeavors, I couldn’t help but feel a disconnect—as if my city life by definition had barred me from really being able to know this Alaskan wilderness for such a short time, or any other wild place for the matter.

Each day in Denali we would be guided on hikes, stopping for thirty minutes or so of what Steve called “creative time.” Our sketchbooks and field recorders out of our packs we’d sit on hillsides or beside glacial streams, conjuring up some musical response to this vastly intimidating landscape—a healthy place for the ego-ridden creative. Some of us just found a spot away from the wind and listened. I wondered in the expanse of Denali what my place here really was—a creative tourist. I wondered about the first people to contact and habituate this land, Athabascan hunters and gatherers, shaman and leaders, clans and certainly music making. This history, full of unknowns, along with nascent paths of the future in this place left many questions to ponder. What meaning was there to be found in this place for the contemporary composer?

Paul Shepard writes “symphonic music is indeed great in its skills, technique, and esthetics; but it is also the supreme articulation of the dissociated state of our species and our personal lives. It co-opts the melody and rhythm so essential to our health by subordinating them to execution and complexity, denying them ecological, egalitarian, and participatory function. In its amazing scoring the music disintegrates our connection to nature by making elaborate musicality an end in itself.” He continues, “We seek to preserve the genius of composers and the perception of “immortal” works as though the very meaning of civilization were the externalizing of Great Art and High Culture.” I don’t think anyone is more penetratingly aware of classical music and its discontents than contemporary composers. The twentieth century saw a plethora of musical styles and aesthetic clashes; classical music simultaneously experienced its largest following and perhaps its greatest obscurity, in endless cultural evolution. The link between classical music and the echelons of the industrial civilization that cultivated it are obvious, where corporate names adorn the walls of concert halls and the word ‘elite’ follows the music around like a curse. For Shepard and others classical music in western industrial society is the ultimate revealing of cultural assumptions: of power, progress, and objectification. Of musical material being resources to be manipulated. To a composer concerned with nature Shepard’s sentiments are deeply troubling.

Taking Paul Shepard to heart, is classical music is perhaps not the best way to reconnect with nature. But then what is?

Hiking above the visitor center at Eielson, only miles from the base of Denali (translated as ‘the high one’) we spotted several Collared Pika, also known as rock rabbits. These little rodents dart along the talus as if it was a track field stopping only to make sharp “enk” calls, a characteristic solo of the alpine boulder fields. Pikas are a strong indicator species of climate change. In their mountainous habitat, gathering food in caches to sustain them through the long sub-arctic winter is the key to survival. They don’t hibernate, but hole up in insulated dens deep beneath the snow. They are vulnerable to changing weather. Pikas die if there is not enough snow to provide insulation; a late spring growth of vegetation means not enough gathering time and starvation. High in the mountains, Pika are on the ecological edge of survival; there is nowhere else to go.

As a contemporary “classical composer” I can’t help but relate to the Pika’s story. The marginalization of living composers, especially in America, is astounding. Whether supported by the insular and competitive world of academia or a competitive commercial industry, their music and ideas have become ghosts in mainstream culture, Kudos to the average American that can think of three living American composers off the top of their head. Perhaps, composers are also an indicator species of the spiritual and ecological health of a society. Composers gather much in the form of social data, holing up in studio dens to sculpt food for the soul. Composers are vulnerable to changing cultural weather; starvation can be a real concern. In a society that seems built on its ability to take, compromising the integrity of human and non-human communities alike, composers consistently give, strengthening our resolve against destruction through elemental creativity. Like the Pika, many of us also feel pushed to the margins. Living in the most materialistic culture ever to exist, we are often lone voices in a wilderness.

Composers, like many artists, think in terms of the big picture, which gets you into trouble in a society often in complete denial of the big picture or not aware of one at all.

Whatever the reasons, the lack of visibility and relevance for today’s composers is a tragedy. However unnatural the skilled pyrotechnics of the symphony may be, as it “externalizes” civilization through the simulacrum of “immortal works,” contemporary composers have much to say to the depth and weight of the human condition. And as social and environmental collapse loom everywhere; this condition is, more than ever, profoundly associated and dependent upon our relationship with the natural world.

In many ways I believe art originated in the mythic realm of understanding our relationship with nature. Researchers have determined that the famous cave paintings of 30,000 years ago were acoustically rich places; paintings are placed carefully in reverberant chambers, and on walls that produce otherworldly vocal effects. Implying the oldest documented art and sound design was deeply connected to sentiments of the animate natural world. And I believe it is time for art, and especially music to remind of this participation and relationship again to a civilization on the brink.  Shepard’s ‘dissociated state of our species’ is precisely why I find myself, as an artist, drawn to nature to begin with. And when thinking of his concerns, I realize they make sense. For all the time I’ve spent camping and backpacking, as a composer and musician I’ve lived, worked, and studied in cities. Part of the project in Denali was to bring some ‘wilderness’ back with us; to inspire others to come to the park—to have their own transformative experience. Inspiring composers through nature in order to inspire others toward nature is a dynamic idea. Especially when it works.

At the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, Alaskan composer John Luther Adams was asked to create an installation. He designed a small room with surround speakers and walls white as snow. He systematically assigned electronic tones to real-time seismological data transmitted from several active meteorological stations in central Alaska. The temperature, time of day, season, even the seismic shifts of the Earth’s crust are translated into a richly dense texture of drones, waves, and vibrating timbres. When the sun is out one can hear what sounds like soprano and bell-like timbres chorusing at high frequency with lights in the room shifting, corresponding to the aural colors. A low mellow tone is assigned to the moon and over the course of the day one can hear its slow rise into the evening. Adams calls this The Place Where You Go to Listen. The sound world enraptures you, taking hold not just of your senses but your being—as if you were dreaming. The idea that you are hearing a translation of the Earth’s own expression is a powerful realization. It was the most convincing experience I’ve encountered of hearing the Earth as music.

Though a “classical composer” Adams creates musical experiences as a contemporary mode of ecological awareness.

Music as a mode of awareness is a characteristic of many of the world’s indigenous music traditions. Whether one is among the rainforest choruses of Mbuti pygmies or the Rain Dances of the North American plains these traditions inhabit environments of space and sound—many essentially see human and non-human cultures as one. Indigenous music traditions are symbiotically linked to the natural pathways of life—often adhering to non-human cycles of change and non-human powers. The temporal and spiritual experiences of these paths, like Adams’ The Place Where You Go to Listen, is analogous to the temporality of life itself: of birth, maturation, mating, planting, hunting, reproducing, dying, and the passage of the seasons, expressed within continual myths of regeneration and process. Adams strongly believes in recreating these myths to serve a changing cultural and physical climate.

Perhaps culture on an industrial scale is no longer truly possible in world increasingly fragmented by its very site-specific political and ecological concerns. One may consider Paul Shepard’s Pleistocene culture: small in scale, where the whole society is engaged in the activity of music, not its worship, where improvisation and genius is communal and temporary, not immortal, and where the spiritual bridge and participation in creation is present, not abstract. Included in this participation are clear boundaries of respect within a broader universe. In this way music is like myth—ubiquitous stories we shape to help us shape and continue crucial understandings of our place in the cosmos.

Yet, classical music is akin with indigenous music more than one would suspect. And instead of pinning Western “High Art” up against the world we would do well to utilize its strengths. It is in the timelessness of classical music where we find true ritual and tradition in contemporary society. Where people still take time to dress and act a certain way to communally participate in something that cannot be spoken, only felt. It was environmentalism that first brought John Luther Adams to Alaska—it was the classical tradition of composing that brought Adams to us. The awe and mystery we activate in music—so essential to our health—is analogous to our experience in nature. The ubiquity of music across all human communities suggests it is fundamental as well to human relationships with the world—something essentially spiritual and timeless.

As a culture we are starved for such relationships.

Classical music still holds sacred the ancient primacy of sound and its live (not recorded) experience, which we’ve all but lost in our contemporary consciousness. It is not, by any means, the only music capable of this, but it is consistently demanding enough to keep alive the practice of listening—both literally and figuratively essential in reaching a cultural symbiosis with our communities and environments. If understanding deep ecology presupposes this symbiosis, the act of deep listening may be one of the most easily reached and powerful of tools, providing templates for new cultural expression. As Adams posits, where do we go to listen?


Paul Shepard’s arguments are partly true only because too many musicians and audiences sympathize with him and often perpetuate stereotypes of Classical music being somehow unnatural. Classical music is not inaccessible but rather like our condition, multi-faceted, amorphous. Shepard is right to judge its abstractions, complexity and relevance, but dismissing this music’s power and reverence is to deny our society a real opportunity. Why could the ‘skills and techniques’ of classical music not be used to create meaningful and lasting bonds between communities and environments? Why could it not heal the dissociated state of our personal lives? Why not compose a new indigenous music out of traditions from sacred, ancient understandings, not on an industrial scale but a human scale?

Every evening after dinner Stephen Lias would lead a ‘Coda’ where all of us would meet in the giant yurt (which served as dining hall and composing hut) and discuss our progress, ideas and concerns. Every one of these meetings was engaging, extremely personal and revolutionary. We all said something along the lines of “we didn’t know other people like us existed!” The energy around what compelled us as composers to come all the way up to the Alaskan wilderness was electric and life changing. Of course, there were common differences of approach and opinion but we all felt a sense of purpose and deep curiosity missing from our normal academic, personal and even professional lives; this purpose was also more about others and otherness—in this case nature—than it was about personal expression or fulfillment.

Composing for us was not just the production of beautiful or expressive objects, but a process of discovery in which we explore our inner and outer environments. A process as easily tapped in a city park as in a national one.

The sense that we were affected by place and able to influence each other as a result of place was extraordinary. It really seemed that for those brief days and nights, composing late in the midnight sun of Alaska, we had created an entirely different world— shedding light on the future. I came away feeling that classical music has a real chance to revitalize and meaningfully cultivate an ecologically centered cultural identity: a new indigenous music to articulate and sustain new myths of our place in a twenty-first century wilderness.


Photos by Stephen Lias.

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