When composer Angus Davison traveled to Alaska from South Wales, Australia, for the Composing in the Wilderness program, he had grand expectations.
“I imagined myself getting to Denali, huge majestic mountains, herds of caribou,” he said.
The reality was air filled with smoke from wildfires.
“The mountains were all completely blanketed in smoke,” he said. “The vague shadowy shapes were probably mountains, but there was definitely no wildlife. It was hiding from us all.”
The musical composition he prepared followed that theme. His piece is titled, “Here, Hiding.”
Davison is one of nine composers who traveled from all over the world and from around the country for the eighth year of Composing in the Wilderness. This is an annual program made possible through a collaboration between Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, Alaska Geographic and the U.S. Forest Service.
Composers spent five days in Denali National Park, hiking and learning about the park from local experts and researchers. Then, they traveled to Twin Bear Camp, north of Fairbanks, to actually compose their pieces. They are assigned three or four specific instruments for their pieces, and that isn’t revealed until they arrive.
The compositions were then presented to Corvus, the new music ensemble of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. In a short time, the musicians practiced and then performed the compositions in two concerts at both Denali Visitor Center and Davis Concert Hall in Fairbanks.
The group was led by composer Christina Rusnak, a veteran of the program. She filled in for longtime composer and adventurer Stephen Lias, who was unable to attend this year.
“We hiked in the rain, in a lot of smoky conditions,” Rusnak said. “Then we got to Eielson Visitor Center, and we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us. We were eating our lunch, and the clouds parted.”
“You’ll hear that tonight,” she told the audience at the beginning of the premiere at Denali Visitors Center. “Nine very unique people, same experiences, different compositions.”
Indeed, each composer who introduced their composition alluded to that same theme.
“At Eielson Visitor Center, we couldn’t see 20 feet in front of us,” said Luciano Williamson, of Cardiff, Wales, in the United Kingdom. “I spent quite a while standing up on top of the center, looking out at where Denali should be. If you looked real hard, you could just see a little bit that was probably Denali.”
His composition was titled “Clouds Roll Back.”
Composer Margery Smith, of Victoria, Australia, focused on patterns of braided rivers. The message she wanted to convey through her piece “The Long Now” is that “everything in the world is connected to everything else.”
Skip LaPlante, of New York, turned to tiny plants at his feet, like moss campion and lingonberry “a mat of equal stature with the smallest berries I’ve every seen.”
“Blessed are the meek,” he said. “For occasionally they will inherit our attention.”
Andrew Israelsen, of Alaska, honed in on creating “an acoustic ecosystem of bugs, birds, rocks and wind,” a concept inspired by time spent at the Teklanika River.
Each piece revealed how each composer was inspired by the wilderness of Denali National Park.
This program is so popular that a second, more immersive option is offered. This summer, a second group of composers will spend time kayaking in Prince William Sound. The compositions they create will premiere at Federal Hall National Memorial in New York City.
Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer, Arizona
Angus Davison, Australia
Jason Gibson, Utah
Andrew Israelsen, Alaska
Skip LaPlante, New York
Andrew Simpson, Washington, D.C.
Margery Smith, Australia
Jordan Stevenson, Montana
Luciano Williamson, United Kingdom
The Musicians of Corvus