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Artist in Residence Sets Gates of the Arctic to Music

Stephen Lias

Bettles, AK – America’s National Parks have served as a back drop for some of the United States’ best known artwork.  Much of that work was created long before the National Park Service established an ‘Artist in Residence’ program.  The Park Service only recently started inviting creative individuals to apply for the program.  One man has just completed his fourth residency in Alaska and his ninth in the United States.  KUAC’s Emily Schwing caught up with Stephen Lias in Bettles to find out how he turns a backpacking trip on the arctic tundra into a classical music composition.

More than 80 years ago, composer Ferde Grofe wrote the Grand Canyon Suite.  The third movement is arguably Grofe’s most famous: it’s his interpretation of a donkey, trotting through the Arizona desert.

Dalelynn Garder is the coordinator the ‘Artist in Residence Program’ at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve north of the Arctic Circle.  She says Grofe’s work is the precursor to a now vibrant and growing program.

“Early artists are some of the reason why parks were created some of the paintings done of Yellowstone and Yosemite that were brought into people’s lives who would never have visited these places and it inspired this awe in people that just telling them about a place doesn’t do,” she says.

Not every National Park in the United States has an annual Artist in Residence.  But of the twenty three National Parks in Alaska, Composer Stephen Lias has done a residency program at four, including Denali, Glacier Bay and Wrangell Saint Elias.  He just returned from a ten day patrol with a Park Ranger in Gates of the Arctic.

“Each park presents its own experience , but this one was by far the most immersive,” says Lias. “It was the longest it was the one that pushed my boundaries the furthest.”

This summer, the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival showcased a composition Lias created after his experience in Denali in 2011. The National Park Service also hosted a concert inside the Denali Park Boundary this summer.

Lias says he tries to avoid expectations prior to his residencies, but when he landed in Bettles in late July, and started planning his adventure in Gates of the Arctic, he did have one specific goal in mind.

“To migrate with the caribou,” says Lias, with a smile.  “and so they had done some reconnaissance with aircraft and we were getting reports form rangers and scientists who were in the field and saw probably over a thousand caribou in the last ten days.”

But Lias is quick to point out that what his music evokes is somewhat intangible.  You may not for example hear the musical version of a caribou…

“It’s more likely to be what did it feel like to look at the caribou, than what does a caribou sound like, although I will say as I listened to the sounds there are some very musical sounds out there: the wolves howling, the sound of a loon.” 00:19

He uses writing and photography in the field to keep track of his feelings and his senses.

“I stand on the tundra and I photograph because visual images capture so much of the experience and it’s easy to retrieve later,” he says.  “Sometimes I am journaling what my thought process is.  Sometimes it’s just something that we did today, other times it little musical melodies or just shapes on a page.  If I want a big blob of brass playing something staccato, followed by percussion going ‘bum, bum, bum, bum.’ You know I just scribble things on the page to try and capture them so I don’t lose them,” he explains.

When he returns, it’s not with sheet music.  That comes after he’s had time to sort through his photos and flip through the pages of his journals.

“Since I am a classical composer,” he says, “it’s not really something you can’t do in a tent, so I usually do the composing afterwards, but I come back from the residency with lots of solid ideas, many of which end up in the piece itself.”

Lias has completed residencies in five other national parks including Rocky Mountain in Colorado and Big Bend in Texas.  All of his music will be compiled to mark the centennial celebration of the Park Service in 2016.