Composers transform nature’s symphony into songs of the wild

Photo courtesy of Stephen Lias

By Sara Freund

Leafless trees stretch their branches toward the gray sky like ageless giants at the Chicago Botanic Garden .

The trees appear frozen still, but they are warriors. Some species of oak trees sense when they’re under attack – they detect the saliva of chewing insects and retaliate.  The oaks release chemicals to warn their neighbors of an impending attack.

Other trees pick up on the cues in the atmosphere and respond by increasing toxins, such as tannin, to make their leaves unappealing to clamoring insects. Forests appear quiet in winter—but if you listen, the isolation of the wilderness is deafening.

As human beings, we are innately attracted to the whispering hum of the wild. Adventurer-composer Stephen Lias turns that attraction into song.

Lias found his identity as a composer by combining his passion for nature and music.  He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, and his music has been performed at conferences and festivals in Texas, Colorado, Sydney, and Taiwan. The National Flute Association Convention, East Texas Symphony, and the Boulder Philharmonic have featured his wilderness music.

Lias keeps a journals of musical notes, feelings, ideas that fascinate him while in the wilderness, translating emotions and the experience of nature into his scores. “There is a real contrast, two very opposite things happening. The Carlsbad Caverns [in New Mexico]—they are awe-inspiring in their scope. And on the one hand I find I’m aware of my insignificance and smallness. It’s the realization that an avalanche or bear or flood could snuff me out of existence any second,” Lias said.

“But it also does the opposite. It puts me in a position where I have to test my abilities, limits and endurance. I come away from the park with a greater sense of self and personal growth. It’s a sense of self and unimportance of self that interests me.”

In Gates of the Arctic National Park, Lias ran into a pack of wolves while walking with a park ranger. He sat quietly, writing down the melody of the howling and his rush of emotions while the wolves stayed near for a half hour. The score of the music inspired by the wolves “resonated very deeply because it is tied to a natural experience,” he said.

Over the last six years Lias has served as an artist in residence at national parks such as Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Denali, Glacier Bay and Gates of the Arctic. The idea of residencies at national parks is not new for writers and painters, but Lias is the first composer in residence at many of the parks.

“I started doing this because it entertained me. I’m astonished by the kind of following this has taken on and how the audience responds to this music. They know what I’m talking about in the pieces, they hear these locations and are empathetic to what that means,” he said.

In 2012 Lias launched a class he teaches for composers in the Alaskan wilderness. This year he will work with nine other composers hiking for two weeks in Denali National Park and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Park in the northern Alaska. The group of composers workshop pieces that help reflect the region’s sound at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in Alaska.

Christina Rusnak, one of Lias’ previous students, felt an instant connection to his music. During graduate school at the University of North Texas, Lias came to speak about his work and it changed her life. She was so moved by his music it inspired her to compose music inspired by nature. Rusnak applied for her first composer in residence at Denali National Park.

She continues to work on projects that advocate for the environment, most recently premiering The Life of Ashes for the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Unlike visual artists or writers, composers develop a piece of music that needs a performance to create meaning. Notes on a page aren’t accessible to the general public like a painting or photograph would be, said Rusnak.

“As composers we get to have it performed anywhere and everywhere for a lot of people who may not know about it otherwise. When I write a piece I become an advocate and try to inform people about a place,” Rusnak said.

Writing a piece of music is a different experience for each composer. Stephen Wood, also an alumnus of Lias’ workshop and composer living in Atlanta, Georgia, said that the process is deeply personal.

“Humans are creative beings because that’s what we do. We are all creating something from the moment we get out of bed and even in our sleep. We are creating out days, its not just art,” Wood said.

Recently, Wood spent some time in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The majority of the wilderness area is a swamp, so he canoed from one floating campsite platform to the next. Trying to be mindful of his experience in nature, Wood slows down, listens, and meticulously studies the ecosystem around him.

“Going out into the wild, your day is much slower and time is a whole different perception. You have the time to sit and watch and listen. Listening is by far the most valuable part of going out into nature especially as a composer because we can relate sounds to notes and music. It is such a visual society now and we’ve forgotten how to use our ears,” Wood said.

Photo at top: (Stephen Lias/Courtesy)